A Special Contribution From
Jim Neely's Traveling Museum of Living History



of the


32nd Division AEF



Pvt. Percy Totten, Company F, 126th Infantry
Home, Soon After his Army Discharge

I first met Percy Totten in the early spring of 1968. His cousin, Paul Totten (another local W.W. I veteran), suggested that I talk with him as he knew that he would be happy to share some of his experiences with me.

On a warm sunny afternoon, I walked to Percy's place as he had no phone on which I could call him. He lived on a quiet Street in the village and Paul had given me the address and said that his living quarters were in a garage at the rear of a house. He said that some years previous, Percy had made arrangements with a family to look after him. They moved into his house and he in turn made half of the garage into living quarters for himself. As I walked up the driveway, I could see a man sitting in front of the garage in an old wood Andirondock style chair. He was fast asleep with his chin resting on his chest.

Not wanting to startle him, I cleared my throat which awoke him with a start. He stared right at me and at first I was a little frightened, thinking that he would be mad. Instead, he sat straight up in the chair and a wide smile broke across his face. He asked if he could help me and I introduced myself to him and told him that I would like to interview him for a school project I was involved in. I told him what it was all about and he replied, "Sure. I'd be glad to talk to you about my experiences. My memory isn't as clear as it used to be but I'll try to help you out. There are some things that I can't talk about though as they were so bad. They're best forgotten. But go ahead and ask away."

I had a list of questions already prepared and started down it. I first asked about the general things such as his outfit, where he was, etc. I soon found that as Percy started to talk, I forgot all about my list and just listened.

Percy had been born and raised in the Brooklyn area. He graduated from Brooklyn High School in the same class as my mother's mother, something that I had not known up until that day. (I believe it was a class of nine - five boys and four girls) He worked at a variety of jobs when he was out of school and joined the National Guard. When his unit was activated when the war broke out, they were assigned as Company F, 126th Infantry to the 32nd Division which eventually became known as the famous "Red Arrow Division". It was composed of Michigan and Wisconsin National Guard Units. (This division took more enemy ground than any other American division during the war. It's insignia was a red arrow with a cross bar across the shaft of the arrow signifying the breaking through of the enemy line.)

Stateside Training

Percy trained at Graying and then the unit was sent to Waco, Texas for further training before being sent overseas. After arriving in France, their division received further training and was then put into the front line trenches.

After relating this to me, Percy excused himself and went around the corner of the garage and into his room. He returned in several minutes holding a box which he placed on his lap when he sat down.

Opening the box, he pulled out a piece of gray wool material and handed it to me. Percy stated, "This is a piece of uniform that I cut off of a dead Prussian Guard. The first time we went into action, we faced a unit of these men. They were frightening. All of them were over six feet tall and they all wore helmets with spikes on the top. I remember how scared we all were and when we were ordered over the top to attack, I just shook but somehow made it over. We overtook their trench and I cut this off of one of the dead that was in the trench."

Red Arrow Division Gun Crew on Western Front

He then reached into the box and handed me a small silk parachute about eighteen inches in diameter. He said, "This is off of a flare. At night, flares would be shot into the air to light up no man's land between the trenches. These flares had small parachutes on them like this so they would float back down to the ground. If enough of these flares were put up it would seem like daylight. If you were on patrol, you froze when you saw them. Any movement would draw fire. Everyone kept there heads down in the trenches too. Any part of you showing would be a target."

Handing me a small flat piece of wood, Percy continued on, "This is a piece of Quentin Roosevelt's airplane. He was Teddy Roosevelt's son. He was flying over our trenches when he was shot down and his plane landed behind our lines. When it was discovered that it was his plane, soldiers flocked to it to get souvenirs. Within fifteen minutes the plane was gone. I was close so I went over and retrieved a piece of it for myself and have kept it all of these years."

Percy handed me his diary and told me to take it along to read. He said that he didn't think there was much in it but there might be something that I would find interesting.

The afternoon passed and I gained much from hearing him talk. He did not want to go to war but knew it was a job that had to be done and it was up to the men his age to do it. He would not talk of the frightening things he had seen in any detail but I could read between the lines that he had seen more than a person should ever have to. When the cooks could not get food up to the trenches, Percy acted as a cook in the trenches for his mess mates. He told me that a number of times he was selected for the "litter details" and would have to help with the dangerous job of retrieving the wounded and getting them back through the trenches to the aid stations in the rear. Percy at times would look into the distance and as he did so, talk of the mud that bogged down their every movement and of the filth and smells of the trenches and no man's land in between.

There has never been a doubt in my mind that he could visualize it all, right down to the smallest detail even though fifty years had passed. At one point, he very quietly and softly said, "The thing we hated most was going over the top. (Editors Note: Going "over the top" refers to climbing out of the trenches and attacking the enemy in their own trenches on the other side of "no man 's land) Usually it was preceded by an artillery barrage that was deafening. When the whistles blew, giving the signal to go over the top, you didn't have time to think. As soon as we showed our heads, the Germans would start firing. Many times a lot of the boys didn't make it out of the trench. They were shot in the face and died right there. Those that did make it had to face the machine guns and barbed wire. It was an awful, horrible thing to see."

Actual Photo of Percy's Division Going
Over the Top

At this point, I could detect a tremble in Percy's voice and he rubbed a moistness from his eyes. I knew it was time to end our talk and I thanked him for allowing me to visit with him. As I shook his hand, he asked me to wait a minute and he got up and went around into the other side of the garage. When he emerged, he was carrying a World War I helmet. He smiled at me and placed it in my hands. Then he said, "This is the helmet that I wore when I was in the army. It's been through everything I have and I would like you to have it if you would like it."

I thanked him greatly and told him that I would surely treasure it. I still have that helmet today. It is one of my most cherished possessions, as when I look at it, I have the most wonderful memories of Percy and the day that I first met him.

I returned to visit Percy many times and we developed a close friendship. He never was married and perhaps for him, I was a grandson he never had. I would like to think so. As for me, I loved him as I would my own grandfather.

Percy was a man of modest means. He lived very simply in half of a twenty by twenty foot garage that had been converted into a simple living quarters. It contained a bed, a wardrobe, a desk and chair, a rocking chair and a refrigerator. He had a small sink and a hot plate to cook on. Along one side sat a fuel oil space heater for warmth in the winter. When nature called, there was an outhouse out back. His possessions were few and he spent most of his time reading. Education was very important to him. He asked for very little out of life except to enjoy the people and the community around him.

Oftentimes, when I visited him I would bring him something that my mother had baked. Whether it be cookies or a sweet bread of some sort, his face would almost break with a big smile. He had an insatiable taste for homemade desserts.

Usually I would find him sitting in his chair in front of his desk reading. He was always attired in either green "Dickie" workclothes or workman's jeans and blue denim work shirts. He would lean back in his chair, grab on to his pipe and stoke it up with a generous dose of "Kentucky Club". Grabbing a "strike anywhere" kitchen match, he swiped it across his leg or the bottom of his desk top and touched it to the tobacco. He once told me that his one last vice was smoking but he limited himself to one pouch of tobacco a day. To this day, whenever I smell a pipe my thoughts go back to these memories. (This is probably why I ended up smoking a pipe for a few years when I was younger!)

32nd Division Sniper

Percy was a religious man who was not afraid to speak of it in our conversations. He believed in God and felt that all of His creations were special. He loved animals and there were always a number of cats, both in his room and outside. Bowls of milk were always sitting outside his door for the strays in the neighborhood.

At the back of the lot, behind the garage, was where Percy had his garden. He raised various vegetables for himself but his pride and joy were his daffodils. He had established these beds many years before and when spring arrived, the garden exploded into an array of flowers that were beautiful. Many of the old time residents on his Street were the recipients of beautiful bouquets.

In the spring of 1970, I could tell that Percy's health was slipping. I asked him if he needed help spading up his garden but he said that he didn't. I know that he didn't want to bother me with it. When the weather was nice, I arrived with my spade early one Saturday morning and snuck around the garage to the garden. I had been turning the ground over for perhaps an hour when I looked up and Percy was standing there watching me. He walked over and putting his arm around my shoulder, he thanked me. He said, "I don't feel up to doing it and I didn't know what I was going to do."

I worked the better part of the day spading the garden up. It was one good size plot! When I finished, I stopped in at his room and got a glass of cold water. We talked a few minutes and when I went to leave, he insisted that he wanted to pay me for what I had done. I refused and told him that I was happy that I could do it for him as I knew how much his garden meant to him. Tears came to his eyes and he just reached out and squeezed my arm. I stopped later that week after school and found him sitting on the ground out back, planting his vegetable seeds. He was humming a tune and was as happy as a lark. It made my day to see him so happy. Little did I know it would be the last time he would plant his garden.

In August 1970, I went to visit Percy a few weeks before I was to leave for college. I could tell that he was not feeling well but he made an attempt to cover it up and be his usual cheerful self. We had a nice visit and talked about a number of things. He asked about college and what my plans were. I told him that I had misgivings about going and he emphasized how important a good education was. He told me that he had always wanted to go to college but the only opportunity he had had was the chance to take a few classes at the American Expeditionary Forces College in France after the war. He had enjoyed them but never had the opportunity to continue when he returned home. I've never forgotten his encouragement and advice to get as much out as life as possible.

Clearing Station Where Litter Bearers Delivered the Wounded

A few days later, I received a call from his cousin Paul who told me that Percy was in the hospital. In a couple of days, I gave Paul a call and he said he thought Percy was a little bit better. I expressed my desire to go see him but Paul advised me it would be better if I didn't as Percy was not in any shape to have visitors.

I left for college and started out on that new adventure. I came home the first weekend to pick up some things that I needed and it was then that I learned that Percy had passed away. I attended his funeral that Saturday and I remember well that there were many people there to mourn his loss. What a fitting final tribute to such a fine person. He was buried in Highland Cemetery at Brooklyn with full military honors.

Many fine and fond memories of Percy exist for me. This was a man who made his way in the world with no complaints or great expectations. He served his country where he was needed and was fortunate enough to come hone When the Great Depression came, he like many of the veterans had a hard time making ends meet. And yet he faced this challenge head on, working what jobs he could. One was as ~ cook for a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the Upper Peninsula. He always spoke of this as a "great experience" for him. The Percy that I knew, accepted life as it came and could find the good things in any situation with his determination and great faith. I'm not saying that he didn't have his faults I'm sure he probably did, just like the rest of us. But the good in him far overshadowed any bad that there might have been.

A couple of weeks after Percy died, his cousin Paul left a message with my folks for me to stop by. When I was home one weekend, I went to Paul's house. After I had visited for a few minutes, Paul got up and placed a box on my lap. H told me that Percy had wanted me to have what was inside When I opened it, I found the souvenirs he had shown to m the first day that I met him. Along with it was his Victory Medal. (All veterans received one.) Paul said to me, "As you can see by the bars on his medal, Percy saw quite a few hot times."

Paul was right. I read off the bars.... Aisne-Marne, Oise-Aisne, Meuse-Argonne and Defensive Sector. had gone through hell and survived.

Many years later, I was having a cup of coffee with Paul at a local coffee shop. Paul was staring into his coffee cup and out of the clear blue sky, looked up at me and said, "You know, Percy thought a lot of you. You were good to him and he appreciated all of your visits and kindnesses. Poor old Percy didn't have much in this world but he was rich in other ways. He had good friends like you."

I consider Paul's words to be one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. I was blessed to have known Percy and have him as a friend.

Percy was the last of his family. There were no others to carry on their name. I cherish the memories of my visits with him. There is not a time I go down his street that I don't look back to the garage where he lived. Perhaps I am hoping that I will catch a glimpse of him and yet I know that this is not possible. And yet his memory still lives on in the minds of those that he knew and whose lives he touched. He was just a regular, common man, but our community is a better place today because people like him help make it that way.

It has been thirty years since Percy passed away. I still miss him. Each Memorial Day, I see to it that his grave is decorated with flowers. His memory and his stories should not be forgotten.

About our Contributor

A former teacher turned professional storyteller and writer, Jim Neely of Brooklyn, Michigan is dedicated to preserving the stories of our past for future generations. In his youth, Jim developed many friendships with former "Doughboys" whom he interviewed in order to collect their "personal" stories. As a tribute and memorial to these "old soldiers", he is currently writing a book, based on these interviews, letters and diaries about the life of the common American soldier in World War I.

Jim Neely can be contacted via email at: storytelling@jimneely.com

Or, through his website at: http://www.jimneely.com/storytelling/

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