War was hell for this Baltimore soldier

May 06, 1993|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Contributing Writer

It was in the evening of Dec. 7, 1941, while returning home from a reunion of his World War I unit, that William Schellberg, a Baltimore-born bookbinder, heard the news over his car radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

A draftee in the Great War, he had kept his thoughts and memories of that conflict to himself for nearly a quarter of a century. But on that night, he was moved by the news on the radio to speak to family members of the horrors of the last war on the eve of the next.

Born of immigrant parents in 1894, he was raised in West Baltimore. His father operated Schellberg Hall, a tavern that included a beer garden in the rear of the building.

Drafted into the Army in 1917, Will Schellberg received his basic training at Camp Meade and was shipped to France aboard the Leviathan in the late summer of 1918. His outfit: Machine Gun Company, 313th Infantry, known as "Baltimore's Own" because so many of its members were from the city. He participated in the Meuse Argonne offensive and returned to Baltimore in the spring of 1919.

Schellberg stayed in touch with his family with letters to his sister, Gertrude, in Baltimore. In them, he thanked her for the news from home and the little gifts of chocolate. But it was in his diary that he confided his thoughts on events and people that would probably have upset his family.

On Nov. 18, 1918, he wrote to his sister: "Well, Sis, I think the war is over and I'm not a bit sorry. I am proud to say that our outfit was right up front when the firing stopped."

His diary entry for Armistice Day, Nov. 11, describes how what it was like when peace finally came to the battlefield.

"For the first time, that night cigarettes glowed in the dark without a growl from the top and camp fires shed a cheerful warmth over shellhole and shelter half."

He was a witness to the killing of Pvt. Harry Gunther, the last soldier from his unit to be killed -- just moments before the cease-fire went into effect at 11 a.m. Nov. 11.

"So Gunther crawled out ahead of his platoon towards a German machine gun nest. By the time he started to crawl out," Schellberg wrote, "he had five minutes until 11. The rest of the men in the platoon shouted to him to come back. The Germans saw him; they shouted to him to keep away.

"But Gunther kept on and the war was not over yet by about two minutes, so they killed him."

When he returned home, Will Schellberg resumed the quiet life in Baltimore. He married in 1927 and took a job with the Government Printing Office. finally moving to Silver Spring after commuting to Washington for years from his home on Belair Road. He died in 1979 at the age of 85.

Editor Jerry Harlowe, a resident of the Baltimore area, found the letters and some family photographs in 1986 at a yard sale and bought them for $25.

Fascinated, he located Schellberg's only child, Virginia Harding, who lived in Coral Gables, Fla. She gave him her father's diary, which he included in this book as a companion piece with the letters.

In order to preserve the flavor and character of the letters, Mr. Harlowe made no attempt to correct grammar and spellings. He has illustrated the book with period pictures of Schellberg, maps and World War I-era posters.

The shared experience of the horrors of the battlefield and trench make this a touching book. In the end, it comes down to the numbing and shocking fear that war bestows on its participants.

"It is not the story of greatness, but it is the story of the everyday American citizen, the individual who made the Army work and win," writes Mr. Harlowe. "Although his story is not singular in heroic deeds or glory, his is perhaps the real story of most men."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Your Brother Will: The Great War Letters & Diary of William Schellberg."

Author: Edited by Jerry Harlowe.

Publisher: Patapsco Falls Press.

Length, price: 193 pages, $10 (paperback).

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