photo by Michael Finger
Cullen Finger, along with his tattered diary and two of the medals he earned as an Army sergeant during World War I
My grandfather, Cullen M. Finger, was a farmboy living outside the tiny railroad hamlet of Grand Junction, Tennessee (about an hour east of Memphis), when the United States entered World War I. This was the first “world war” — the one they thought would be “the war to end all wars.” Never one to shy away from a fight, he enlisted in the Army, and after basic training at various camps in the U.S., was sent overseas, where he fought in some of the worst battles of the war. Gassed and shot in the leg and shoulder by the enemy, “Pop” was later sent home, and somehow managed to return to a normal life as a farmer, raising chickens back in Grand Junction.
When he first joined the Army, he picked up a little notepad (shown here) and scribbled down his daily thoughts and hopes and dreams and fears, including the day he was seriously wounded. Against all odds, he kept this tattered diary throughout the war, and many years later, my mother, Betty Carol Finger, took the time to read his tiny notes and transcribed it for the family.
For a kid from Grand Junction, who had never traveled farther than Memphis, the journeys to New York, and then the voyage across the Atlantic on a troopship, must have seemed like a dream, but ... we’ll let Cullen tell some of his own story in the excerpts below. The photo, of course, gives it away. Cullen not only managed to survive the war, but he earned medals for his valor, and a Purple Heart for “gallantry in combat” — medals which I’m proud to say that I inherited and cherish to this day.
What follows are random entries from the diary he kept from May 25, 1918, to March 11, 1919.
June 6, 1918: In the third coach on the [troop] train. We ate most anything we could get; some places most everything was dried up. At Idalio, Missouri, a nice-looking bunch of girls in an auto brought us two watermelons — first country melons I had eaten since leaving home. We stay in our seats and pass the time away, which is not hard to do, since most of the scenery is new. We write letters and cards home to our relatives and friends — and notes to the girls we meet at the stations. We do not stop for anything except water, coal, and orders. Lots of noise made by the troops — singing and cheering. They want you to make all the noise you can when passing through a town, but do not throw out anything with your address on it. And when you are off the train or stop at any place, do not tell where you are from or where you are going. Some word might be sent back to some German sympathizer. Motto: “Safety First.” We want to eat a Thanksgiving dinner in the Kaiser’s Palace, but have a Christmas dinner back home. We are under orders to take Germany on this drive or die in the effort. GOD HELP US.
August 5, 1918: Stopped at Taylorsville, Illinois. Some girl there gave me two pears and a bunch of flowers. Arrived in F________ [Cullen censored many of his entries], staying there an hour, long enough to take a bath, then we felt like people again.
August 9, 1918: When we awoke we were in the west [train] yards of Jersey City. We were told to stay close as they were going to issue our overseas clothes. After that, went to New York City, which had plenty of places of amusements and plenty of fine eatables. We ate some fresh fish and oysters out of Long Island Sound, which were the first oysters I had ever seen. Rode on the elevated railroad — could pass right by the front doors of dwelling houses on the 8th floor. Also on the underground train cars. Did not like that much as was too dark.
August 16, 1918: Taking the liner L_____, getting our lifebelts with orders not to remove them at night or anytime for anything. Sleeping with your shoes on in case of a sub being sighted. Surrounded by battleships, sub-chasers, airships, and observation balloons.
August 17, 1918: Night very stormy and waves breaking over the side of the ship. Looking for subs with the glasses [binoculars] is some fun. We have boat drill at the sound of 6 blasts from the bugle. All the men on board go to their places on deck, to the lifeboats they are assigned to, every man in his place in 3 minutes. At the sound of 6 blasts from the whistle that means the boat has been torpedoed or wrecked and we have to get to the lifeboats. The ship rocks and rolls, bucks and pitches. Everyone on deck wears his topcoat to keep warm. The airships fly back and forth overhead, and the sub-chasers keep busy to see that no sub comes upon us from any side. Very cold.
August 19, 1918: One sub sighted and captured. Subs pop up all around us. Some of the men scared out of their wits when told what was making those white spots in the water behind the ship. About half the men are seasick, a large number cannot stand up. Nothing is allowed to be thrown off the ship, and no smoking on deck after dark, so the subs cannot find us. No cheering or hollering. Not much to eat, suppose it is to keep us from getting sick. Hard to believe as I sit here in the cabin and write that we are separated from land by so much water, but it all comes back to you when you look out the porthole. You may dream of home and friends at night, but it is all shattered so quickly when you awaken and see the vast amount of water between you and them.
August 22, 1918: Six blasts from the whistle. All on deck and to the lifeboats. Sub sighted 300 yards SW, took three shots from our boat and went down. Three months now in service. Over halfway to France. No land seen.
NOTE: Cullen Finger and his comrades arrived safely (though seasick) at Liverpool on August 22, 1918. They boarded trains for various army camps in England before crossing the English Channel and joining up with other U.S. troops in France. Most of the actual place names have been omitted from his diary.
October 25, 1918: Left the train and marched 10 kilometers to camp. Given combat pack, hot lunch, 180 rounds of ammunition, and some grenades. Leaving for the front-line trenches at 3 pm, walked until 1 am. Encamping in the forest near the Argonne Woods. Mud all around the woods, 6 to 12 inches deep. First shells we had to come over, a nice time believe me. They make an awful noise, but no harm done to any of us except a waste of ammunition to the enemy.
October 27, 1918: Big difference. Artillery and anti-aircraft guns shoot rapidly. German machines in the neighborhood, shrapnel falling close. Two Boche [German] machines [airplanes] come over; American machines come out and capture them. Hip, hip, hurrah! Just then, BING and “Oh, my foot!” Someone shot in the toe; his shoe was cut out of the way and he was carried to the First Aid station. Nothing else happened so far, but cannot tell what will happen between now and 5 am, as we are leaving tonight for the frontline trenches. Our errand is to capture _____________ in Germany, and we have orders to do that or die in the effort. I am praying to our Gracious heavenly father to watch and care over me ... but if it is God’s will for me to get killed on this big drive, it will all happen for the best.
October 28, 1918: At 4 pm a Boche machine shoots down observation balloon. It comes down in flames. At 5:20 leaving for the trenches. Put on gas masks, advance 3 kilometers to take up the fight. Oh Lord, help us. Orders to dig in to escape shell fire. Have to use the greatest precaution to protect ourselves.
October 29, 1918: Small amount of shell-fire. At 4 am, four men killed and six wounded by shells. At night, advance 5 more kilometers. No more casualties.
November 4, 1918: Several casualties in this advance on the Argonne-Muse front. The air was full of Boche machines shooting at us. From above, thousands and thousands of machinegun bullets, and tons of shells dropping around us. At 6:45, machinegun bullet went through my leg below the knee. A high-velocity shell knocked me down, and before I could get away I was gassed. Carried to First Aid station. Stayed there while they removed a piece of steel from my eye, and got a tetanus shot in the stomach to prevent lockjaw.
November 6, 1918: Carried in ambulance to hospital. Slept on rubber blankets spread on the ground. Had my shoes cut off as my feet were swelled so bad. Carried to Ward D, eating a nice supper there, the first food I had in 3 days ...
NOTE: Over the next month, Cullen was transported to different hospitals in France. At one, he wrote, “was put under ether and my leg was operated on — opened up so you could see all the way through it, then put a tube in for the purpose of irrigating it. Doctor couldn’t give me much ether because I had been gassed.” Two days later, he wrote, “Gangrene has set in. Doctor put his nippers all the way through my leg to see how it would feel. Fine doctor!” He remained at hospitals in France until mid-December, until he was finally put aboard a hospital ship and returned to the United States, where he eventually recovered from his wounds. He had a hoarseness all his life from the gas, but his leg and eye finally healed, and when I was a young boy, he once showed me the old bullet wound on his leg, without ever explaining what he had gone through. So it is with many veterans. They did their duty, and then came back home and somehow put it all behind them. Cullen M. Finger, a veteran of the dreaded trench warfare and some of the worst battles of World War I, died in 1971 and is buried next to my grandmother, Alma, in the Grand Junction Cemetery.