A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Discovery of WWI letters reveal unknown story of two Covington brothers

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to NKyTribune

Historian David McCullough once commented to an interviewer that history is not only about the big events that happen; it is also about the ordinary people who lived the big events. In interviews, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author frequently makes reference to the value of letters from which his many books are written. It was primarily through letters that McCullough was able to tell the extraordinary love story that threads through his 2001 biography ”John Adams.” Throughout their life together, Adams and his wife Abigail communicated almost constantly through letters – thousands of them – which they saved. “No other collection of family papers compares with it,” he said in a New York Times interview. “Nothing else even comes close.”

The recently discovered WWI letters of Pvt. William B. Mohr. Photo by Stephen Enzweiler

Few of us in Northern Kentucky are likely to ever rise to the stature of a John Adams, whose letters have become the stuff of American history and legend. Yet ordinary people make history every day as they live through, react to, and become participants in the great events of their time. In past eras, this history was recorded mainly in handwritten letters and journals, which were often saved and passed down from one generation to the next. From such primary source material, a local or family historian can not only learn the details of the larger historical events, they can also reveal how individual people lived that history. A small detail here or an offhand comment there can be enough to lead one to conduct further research in one of any number of public resources that contain records for researchers. From such research, a person can fill in details of an ancestor’s life not contained in the letter. By putting it all together, fascinating, untold stories often emerge that would have been otherwise unknowable. But one must find such family letters first.

That was the experience of Mary Lee Schaffer of Southgate who came to me one day with a binder of recently discovered letters hidden away in a basement safe. They were written by her great uncle, World War I Marine Private William B. Mohr. “We sort of knew they existed, but nobody knew where they were,” Schaffer said. “When I was 30 or 40, nobody was pursuing family history back then. My grandfather had them but never told anyone about them, and my grandma never talked about William. They were just in the basement in a safe when we found them, and it was then we all realized that this was history.” Working with her brother Paul Mohr and other family members, Schaffer worked to understand the letters they had discovered.

Private William Balthasar Mohr, author of the letters. This photo was taken upon his graduation from basic training before he shipped out for France. Courtesy of Mary Lee Schaffer.

The letters span William B. Mohr’s time in service, from his enlistment on July 12, 1917 to his death in France in January 1918. There are five letters in all – a slim collection by some measures – but to a historian, they are rife with little clues and leading details that open a window into the world of two brothers who went to war from their home on 12th Street in Covington. Two of the letters are addressed to his younger brother Raymond, one is to his mother, and the remaining two were written by an army nurse and a chaplain who cared for him in an army hospital.

At first, the letters read much like modern emails and letters home from soldiers deployed overseas. But contained in Mohr’s handwritten script are small, seemingly insignificant details that speak to a historian’s curiosity like specs of gold dust that shine up from a miner’s pan. Those details ultimately led to other documents, such as census records, military records, newspaper accounts, the National Archives and the Library of Congress, from which a larger story of the two brothers emerged. It is family history that would never have been known had Schaffer’s grandfather never saved them.

William Balthasar Mohr was born on February 24, 1894 to William H. Mohr and Rosalia Schanz in Cincinnati, Ohio. He had six brothers and three sisters. Little in the record tells of his life up to the war except for a trip he made to Lake Erie in 1911. The tone of his letters reveals a pleasant, sentimental young man who loved home, his mother and his younger brother Raymond. He was so close to Raymond that the two planned to buy land in Georgia and settle down together. Everyone called him Willie.

One of the five surviving letters written by William B. Mohr to his brother Raymond, September 30, 1917. Courtesy of Mary Lee Schaffer.

In contrast to William, Raymond was a gregarious, energetic personality, a ‘go-getter’ who seemed to always be on the move. A year before America entered the war, he enlisted in the Marines at age 18 and became a drill sergeant on Paris Island, where one of his recruits happened to be a 47-year old enlistee named Edwin Denby. Denby previously had been in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1905 to 1911 and, despite his age, had enlisted in the Marines as a private. After basic training, the two men became good friends. Denby rose quickly to the rank of major, and with his political connections, he managed to secure an officer’s commission for Raymond, who shipped out to France the following year. Denby never saw service in France and was discharged in 1919. Two years later, he was appointed the 42nd Secretary of the Navy and went on to serve in the administrations of both President Harding and Coolidge.

From his first weeks in the Marines, Raymond’s superiors quickly recognized him as a born leader. “A man never got anywhere unless he took a chance,” the Cincinnati Enquirer reported him as saying in a 1923 article. It was this singular attribute Edwin Denby likely recognized that led to Raymond’s advancement in the ranks. In France, it seemed everybody knew who Raymond Mohr was, too. “I have met lots of Marines over here,” William wrote his brother on October 10, 1917. “I showed your picture to them and they knew you right away.”

Edwin Denby with sergeant stripes. Sgt. Raymond F. Mohr was his drill sergeant at Paris Island. Denby later served as the 42nd U.S. Secretary of the Navy under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As a private in the Quartermaster’s Reserve, William deployed to France in September 1917, and while not directly exposed to combat action, his letters reveal that he certainly enjoyed his time in France. “How are all your soldier boys down there and how are all your girls,” he wrote on October 10th. Boy, we have the mademoiselles over here and this is some town!”

In early December 1917, he was on duty when he became involved in an accident that sent him to a nearby Allied hospital. The accident itself was not life-threatening, but a letter to William’s mother from his nurse, Mary E. Chayer records what happened next. “He was in my ward about Christmastime and had quite a happy time,” Chayer wrote. “After the new year he had an operation and an incurable condition was found.” What the doctors discovered was a condition they listed as “Sarcoma,” a rare form of cancer that affects the connective tissue in the body. William had had it for some time and it may have contributed to his accident. “He seemed to get a little better for a few days,” Chayer went on to write, “but soon after, he failed quite rapidly. He did not suffer – but just grew weaker and weaker until the end.” William B. Mohr died on January 23, 1918.

There is no record of Raymond’s reaction to his brother’s death. What is known is that, true to his nature, he carried on with his duty. On September 15, 1918, he led a detachment of his men – part of the 6th Marine Infantry Regiment, as it advanced in a drive against German forces at St. Mihiel. The detachment became cut off from the rest of the company and was surrounded. Standing at the edge of the crater, whistle clenched between his teeth, he prepared to give the signal to charge a German machine gun nest that had them pinned down. Amid the hail of bullets, one struck him in the left side of the head before he could give the signal. The bullet entered the left cheek under the eye, passed through his inner ear and lodged at the base of his brain. Raymond crumpled to the ground unconscious. The Germans overran the position and left him and his men for dead on the field.

An artist’s rendering of the battlefield layout at St. Mihiel, France, where Raymond F. Mohr was wounded. Library of Congress.

Sometime later, an American army recovery team moved somberly among the bodies of the fallen to recover the living and bury the dead. On their first pass, there was no movement among any of them and all were assumed dead. But as a second team came by with wagons to collect the corpses for burial, a soldier happened to notice a slight movement among one of the bodies. It was Raymond Mohr.

Mohr would survive the war. After numerous operations and a painful recovery, he returned to Cincinnati and became a salesman. But like so many who experienced the debilitating wounds of battle, he would suffer from the effects of the German bullet the rest of his life.

In 1921, Cincinnati doctors performed a history-making experimental surgery to reconnect the nerves in Raymond’s face severed by the bullet, “much as a telephone lineman would connect one telephone wire with one another.”

Photo Raymond Mohr, shortly after his basic training. Courtesy of Paul Mohr and Mary Lee Schaffer.

The operation was successful and made history as the first such medical procedure in the United States. In 1929, Raymond Mohr fell in love with and married Edythe M. Hillenbrand, the daughter of wealthy Cincinnatian, Raymond Hillenbrand. They had 2 twin sons. But by 1934, his war injury came back to haunt him, and he was in and out of hospitals for much of that year. He died from the effects of his war wounds on October 6, 1935 and is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.

All this from five handwritten letters.

“It has been humbling, both tender and profound to look at these letters and wonder about my great-uncles, aunts and grandparents,” Mary Lee Schaffer pondered.

“This kind of record has purpose and value. It gives you the realization that we’re not the first ones to pass through here, and we won’t be the last ones either. There will be others who will follow; and what will they make of the world then? What will drive them, what will be important to them, valuable to them. This kind of discovery gives us today the chance to order our lives accordingly.”

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer and author. He has been a columnist for the Kentucky Enquirer, the Oxford Citizen, and was a senior editor at Y’all Magazine. He is the author of “Oxford in the Civil War: Battle for a Vanquished Land.”

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