by Paul R. Spitzzeri
While the First World War ravaged Europe from summer 1914 onward, President Woodrow Wilson insisted that the United States would maintain strict neutrality, even as he campaigned for reelection in 1916. German attacks on American ships, however, forced Wilson to change his position and, in April 1917, America declared war on Germany and its associated nations.
For a country which kept a relatively small peacetime military, however, the U.S. had an enormous task to complete quickly in the mobilizing of an American Expeditionary Force (AEF) that would garner the numbers of troops necessary to turn the tide of the war in favor of England, France and the other nations battling Germany and its compatriots. With General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing at the helm, the work of developing the AEF into a battle-ready national army was a remarkable achievement.
The was also the institution of a compulsory draft with two registration periods, 5 June 1917 and 20 September 1918. The first, which produced registration cards that prove to be of great use for today’s researchers, led to the drawing of numbers in Washington, D.C. by Secretary of War (this later became the Secretary of Defense) Newton D. Baker. The featured artifact for this post from the Homestead’s holdings is the 20 July 1917 edition of the Los Angeles Herald, which had a massive headline of “DRAW DRAFT NUMBERS” and a subheading of “Conscript Thousands in L.A.”
In fact, there were 45,000 young men in the city who were waiting since that 5 June registration date to find out if they were to be among the first to be called up for military service. When Secretary Baker was ready to draw the first number, he told those assembled that
This is an occasion of very great dignity and some solemnity. It represents a principle which we believe to be democratic and fair in selecting soldiers to uphold the national honor.
When the first number was selected, the paper proclaimed that “the first number in the greatest lottery on earth was called in Los Angeles as son as it came over the [telegraph] wires from Washington” and it added that “the men who were to respond to the draft were being designated in the order in which they were to appear before the exemption boards.”
The sprawling and rapidly growing Angel City had eighteen draft districts and it was reported that it “will furnish about 4500 men for the first army . . . but every man who registered will be given a place on the list which will show the order in which he must appear before the exemption board.”
The Herald then stated that “the first man in Los Angeles city, for he is No. 258 in District No. 1, was Frank Forbes of Van Nuys” and it added that, while there were others who had that number, Forbes had the distinction of being the inaugural draftee. The first district was comprised of “the San Fernando valley annexation district” of the city, but only Forbes and Clayton D. Dodd of the Sunshine Ranch in what is now Granada Hills were called up of the 756 men enrolled in the district. It turns out that a little searching found out a fair amount of information about him, his service and his postwar life and this will be the focus of this post.
Fred Cecil Forbes, who went commonly by his middle name, was born in Bloomington, Illinois, southeast of Peoria, in 1894 and was raised on a farm, with much of his childhood spent in West Fork, Iowa north of Des Moines. By 1904, the Forbes family was in the San Fernando Valley and, while the census six years later specified the Burbank Township, they were living in what soon after became the town of Van Nuys.
Forbes attended Hollywood High School, which was the nearest secondary school to him, but required quite a commute to get there through Cahuenga Pass. He was known in Los Angeles high school athletic for his prowess in track and baseball. By 1917, Forbes’ parents and younger sister were in Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley of central California, while he and his younger brother, Herschel (who also was in the service during the war), remained in Van Nuys.
When he registered for the draft in late June, Cecil stated his occupation as farmer and added “Now with Union Oil Co.” in Burbank, while his home address was West Sherman Way in Van Nuys. Also living on that thoroughfare was Catherine Lennox and she, too, had her distinction as a talented pianist and soprano vocalist, who graduated from the University of Southern California and then was a member of the faculty of its music school.
On 20 July, as soon as he learned of his distinction of being the first draftee, Forbes enlisted in Battery F of the 1st Field Artillery Company of the California National Guard. He was then sent to Camp Kearny in what was then called Linda Vista in northern San Diego County for his basic training and, on 31 August, was promoted to a corporal.
In mid-November, Cecil and Catherine were engaged and the Van Nuys News of the 16th reported that a lunch was held for them at the home of her brother with the paper recording that “the decorations were soldiers and cupids, signifying the military part in the romance of the popular young couple.” The paper, in detailing some of the couple’s background, also referred to Cecil’s “great prominence when he attained the distinction and honor of being the first man selected in the draft from Los Angeles city.”
Likely knowing that Cecil would soon be transferred from California for further training before being deployed in France, the couple were married on Christmas Eve at her house with just immediate relatives present. The newlyweds went to San Diego after that for a short honeymoon with a few days of leave granted to him.
At the end of February 1918, Forbes was transferred to Camp Hancock at Augusta, Georgia, on the border with South Carolina. There, he was part of Company D in the 103rd Ammunition Train, which was to supply ordinance for troops engaged in battle in France, and the encampment for the 103rd was across the street from the local airport.
In mid-May, the News reported that Catherine traveled to New York City to see Cecil before he and his fellow soldiers in the 103rd embarked on a ship to take them to Europe. Once he arrived, he wound up serving in the offensives at Oise-Aisne in August and September and then the Meuse-Argonne from late September until the end of the war—one of the many Americans who died in the Argonne Forest was Sgt. Joseph L. Kauffman, brother of Walter Temple’s business manager, Milton. Forbes, who was promoted to sergeant in July, was also involved in defensive actions at Clermont, Thiaucourt and Fismes during the final days of the war.
At home, Catherine continued to teach music, perform at concerts as a singer, pianist and organist, and then, as so many women did in seeking to serve their country, joined the Van Nuys branch of the American Red Cross. In late September, when the fourth Liberty Loan drive, to raise funds from the war effort, was held, she was a sub-chair for the local precinct, and then served as chair for a salvage department, collecting material of all kinds including clothing, furniture, metal, paper, glass, tin and much else, for the Red Cross.
With the Meuse-Argonne offensive the deciding factor in the final Allied push, the Germans surrendered on 11 November 1918. The News, in its edition of 6 December, published several letters from local soldiers to their family and friends at home, including one from Cecil to Catherine and dated on what became known as Armistice Day and then Veterans Day. In his missive, he told his wife:
My what wonderful news we are getting. The boys in khaki seem to be giving the Huns their overdose of iron rations while the time is ripe . . . The 11th hour, 11th day and 11th month will go down in history as the time when the last shot was fired in the Great World War. That time is up as I write this sentence. The guns have ceased their thundering and the whole front is quiet. Not a sound from a cannon or rifle can be heard. Isn’t it wonderful?
Forbes continued that, while there might be a war on paper for some time, “thank God it is over in the trenches” and he added “I hope I never have to haul another load of ammunition to the front” or that “another German barrack [would] claim me for an inmate again.” He wrote of the “regular bedlam” of cheering soldiers, blaring car horns and that “I am so nervous myself that I can hardly write or sit still.” After telling Catherine, “I wager the cities of the States are in a perfect fury with shrieking whistles,” he apologized that “this isn’t much of a letter, but enough to let you know I am well and one of the happiest.”
As was to be expected, it took about a half a year for Forbes to return to the United States and he was sent to the Presidio in San Francisco for mustering out, with the News of 23 May 1919 noting that Catherine made the trip north to welcome Cecil home, after which they would spend a few weeks with his family and friends before returning to Van Nuys.
The 13 June edition of the paper contained a lengthy article that returning soldiers from the area were honored by the local Parent-Teacher Association at the grammar school, with the News stating, “one of the largest audiences ever assembled in Van Nuys was present to greet the boys who so honorably and valiantly represented this community on the fighting front.” Students provided entertainment, including the kindergarten orchestra, a “Japanese exercise,” a flag drill and other components before the soldiers “gave some highly interesting accounts of their personal experiences and observations.”
Ellis Lehman, for example, told of battlefield incidents during the Meuse-Argonne offensive as he and another soldier were runners conveying the difficulty of their company’s position to field headquarters in the dead of night when they ran into a German patrol and held it off until morning when they managed to reach their destination. He also discussed the scene of the battlefield and the “harrowing sight” of the dead and wounded.
Other soldiers spoke of delivering supplies of the front lines and of French hospitality with one sharing a letter from a family he got to know while billeting with them. A couple did not talk during the event and Forbes briefly “described the methods in rushing shells to the front, and his experiences in charge of one of the trucks.”
In that same issue of the News, it was announced that Cecil and Catherine were leaving Van Nuys “to engage in farming on an extensive scale in North Dakota.” The reason was not explained, but the paper noted that “Van Nuys is certainly sorry to lose this young couple, who have a deep place in the hearts of our people. Notably, nothing was said about Cecil and his war service; instead, the focus was on Catherine and her musical contributions and service with the Red Cross during the conflict and the piece ended with, “the best wishes of Van Nuys people go with them.”
The couple lived at Amenia, now a town of just 85 people, near the Minnesota border northwest of Fargo, for most of the 1920s, and they had two of their three children there, with the second born in California, but likely while the family remained in North Dakota. By the end of the decade, though, the family relocated to the Muscoy area of southwest San Bernardino, where Cecil continued farming.
Later, however, he came a manager of the Muscoy Land and Water Company and worked for the firm for close to twenty years. He then became an auditor for the county tax department, working in that capacity until he retired. Cecil and Catherine moved to Laguna Hills in Orange County, where he died in 1976, not long before his 82nd birthday. His simple obituary in a San Bernardino newspaper mentioned his World War One service, but did not note his distinctive status as the first draftee from the City of Los Angeles in that conflict.
The issue of the Herald has some other interesting content, including Herbert Hoover’s potential role in handling food supplies during the war as the country had to deal with the effects of mobilization but with some opposition to his being named as a “dictator” in this effort and calls being made for a three-person commission to handle the responsibility. Another interesting article concerned the importation of “soya” beans from Manchuria, in northeastern China, for feeding livestock—we were, naturally, decades away from considering soy as a food source for people!
But, the story of F. Cecil Forbes, his status as first Los Angeles draftee, and his war service, not to mention the work his wife did on the home front, definitely is the highlight derived from that main article.