Curtis Seaman Read
O, happy boy, you have not lost your years!
You lived them through and through in those brief days
When you stood facing death. They are not lost:
They rushed together as the waters rush
From many sources; you had all in one.
You filled your little cup with all experience,
And drank the golden foam, and left the dregs,
And tossed the cup away. Why should we mourn
Your happiness? You burned clear flame, while he
Who treads the endless march of dusty years
Grows blind and choked with dust before he dies,
And dying goes back to the primal dust,
And has not lived so long in those long years
As you in your few, vibrant golden months
When like a spendthrift you gave all you were.
Curtis Read was tremendously pleased at the prospect of joining 'Di' Gates at the Dunkirk Station. He had to be secretive about it in his letters to his mother and dropped her this artful hint shortly before he packed up at Moutchic, 'If things go well I ought to be leaving some time this month for the station I wrote you about. If you say the names of your second and third sons quite fast you will get the name, starting the third son's name first.1 You might think from all this camouflage that the Kaiser gave a where we were. But it is more a matter of principle than of importance where we are.'
His fragmentary diary during these last days on the French coast reveals a certain restless impatience with what seemed to him to be muddle and delay.
Nothing very different from day to day. Talk with Mr. DeHaven about the best method of attacking submarines. The p191dance at the Hotel Manan and bombing practice and Bill Atwater held the center of the stage for the week. Hear we are going to Dunkirk. General nervous tension. Wish I were off, even if I am not thoroughly trained. Can learn at the front. Petty jealousies in camp amusing and pathetic, not to mention out of place. I feel very restless indeed, particularly about Bart. I wish I knew what was best for him to do. He has fine ability. Wonderful moon. Am I changing a lot?
One flight. Beautiful weather. Conditions at Moutchic too bad. Delay, impatience, disappointment. Human touches brought out in censoring mail. We are all children, after all.
Officer of the day. No flying. Terribly stupid. Feeling of loneliness.
As usual got all dressed, but no flying for me. Censored mail. How much kindness and real human nature there is hidden under an artificial toughness. What really is the reason for this forced attitude which men assume? 'A man among men' seems to have this failing. The art of gentleness is a great virtue. Gentle but there, so to speak. No wonder that men rise to heights of unknown bravery when life is so monotonous, when routine seems to engulf all personality. The suppression of personality in an educated and especially an ambitious man often brings out a mood which is really hostile and unnatural to him.
Rather a philosophical week. Expect orders for the front any day. Guess that is the reason. Feeling of fatalism about April. Odd! Feel it would really be a climax now if I should have the privilege of giving the greatest sacrifice. Feeling that there is absolutely no other way out.
My philosophy of life. (1) Sincerity. (2) Be one man. (3) Do what you are afraid to do. Practice getting into the habit of having something to do. Either that or relaxation. None of this wasting time.
No orders yet. Sounds so excited over nothing. Possibility of going south makes me sick. Bombing the damndest patience-and‑will game I ever saw. Much prefer individual action to coöperative action. Which attitude is the right one? Chip's vrille. Was sure he was killed. Very lucky, thank God.
Orders for enlisted pilots and observers to proceed to Dunkirk. Ours ought to be there soon. Poor Fid in hard luck. Going to Le Croisic. Fate, perhaps.
Orders have come!! Am going to leave to‑morrow. Evening p192with the DeHavens. Very touching. All very excited, indeed. Promise to say good‑bye to them in the morning in their beds.
Mrs. DeHaven wakes us early. They say, 'Au revoir, matelot.' Cook us breakfast and we are off. Say good‑bye to Fid. Hate to. Queer feeling that I won't ever see him again, or rather that he won't ever see me.
Curt's last letter to his mother from Moutchic was written on February 18th, the day before he left for Dunkirk via Paris. He told her:
Your nice long letter came yesterday. Please don't ever worry about your letters being too long, they never are.
Our orders came to‑day and Bart and I are to be separated. He is going to a station where Henry Landon, Sam Walker and Reggie Coombe are, so it won't be so bad. I am very sorry, though, that we are to be separated. It was very hard luck that he didn't come with me.
I really felt very badly indeed saying au revoir to the DeHavens, as they are a fine family and have been awfully good to me. Mr. DeHaven gave me to‑night a charm which he wore at the front for three years and which he says is wonderful luck. The chef of his escadrille gave it to him after he had brought down his first Boche. It is supposed to represent the heart of Saint-Michel, who is the patron Saint of all aviators. The Pope originally gave it to the chef of Mr. DeHaven's escadrille. It is sort of an order and about 200 aviators are wearing it at the front now. Out of the 200 that have worn it only one has been killed, so you see how much luck I am going to have. It was very nice of him, wasn't it? Mrs. DeHaven also gave me a picture of herself, signed de votre mère française. Très gentil, n'est‑ce pas?
I am giving Mr. DeHaven a letter to you and to Dunc because he expects to come over very soon to America. He really is a corker, and I hope you will do everything you can for him when he arrives. He has promised me he will look you up right away. I will send you a picture of him.
Must make this short, Bub, as I am leaving at 6.00 A.M. Just wanted this to get in the mail here before I left. Am going to Paris and will be there three days, then to ?
Lots of love to you all, will have lots to write about from now p193on of interest. Am so glad to be going. Fid and I are both very well. Take good care of yourself.
He was vastly interested in what he found at the new Dunkirk station and eager to be in readiness to join the patrol. This was to be the culmination of the tedious training to which he had devotedly applied himself. Flying had not been as easy for him to master as for some of his comrades. He confessed that he lacked the genius of the born aviator who found in every flight an intoxicating joy. It had been a duty gladly undertaken, and in this spirit he counted his life as a very little thing. Those brief phrases in his diary illuminate the character of Curtis Read — 'The art of gentleness is a great virtue . . . gentle, but there . . . sincerity . . . do what you are afraid to do.' This epitomizes the character of a gentleman and the courage of a Sir Galahad.
At Dunkirk he looked forward to meeting and working with several other members of the Unit who were moving heaven and earth to get assignments to this area. For active service it was the most desirable of all the stations operated by the U. S. Naval Aviation because of the proximity to the enemy's lines and the incessant warfare in the air. To be bombed every night was better than the monotonous security of some assembling or instruction base far removed from the front.
Curtis found time to write one letter to his mother from Dunkirk. It was dated the 25th, the day before his death. He was cheery and gossipy, as usual, and everything was fine. His troubles he confided to his diary, but never to the dear ones at home. He was blessedly unaware that this was to be his farewell message. Writing it during that last evening, he had no chance to mail it before he went out for a flight next morning. The letter was found in his pocket and forwarded by his friends, from one 'who being dead, yet speaketh.'
p194 Dearest Mother:
Well, Bart and I are separated now. I left the school down south and went up to Paris en route here and spent four days there. Saw Bob Lovett, Anna Carrere, and Marguerite Kennelly arrived while I was there. She is driving a car which distributes hospital supplies to the different bases and hospitals in Paris.
This is very interesting and a very active place as we are •about twelve or so miles from the front lines of the Boche. Di is up here. Am living in a house with Mose and several other officers. It is rather a queer situation. The French family who own the house only use the cellar so we sleep upstairs and have quite decent rooms. There is so much bombing and shrapnel fire that they prefer to sleep in the cellar, so as we use the rooms at night it is very convenient to have them prefer the cellar, which they have fixed up quite comfortably. The Germans have a fifteen-inch gun they let go every now and then which raises more havoc than anything else, but they confine that to a different sector from where we are living. In fact the French are right next to us and English not far away. All townhouses have sand bags piled around the bases and wherever there is any glass exposed there is also some metal protection to cover it. Our base consists of hangars, shops for repair work, barracks, etc. and dugouts. The dugouts have iron sheeting V‑topped roofs, and layers of iron sheeting and sand bags underneath. They are •about thirty feet deep and are electrically lighted, as they are of course permanently built.
Mose bought a beautiful police dog in Paris, and he is great fun and reminds me very much of 'Ella.' Mose is so funny with the dog, he is so serious and takes such wonderful care of him. In Paris we went to tea at the Ritz and Mose took the dog and, coming out, the leash got mixed up with the leg of the table and he broke ten francs' worth of cups before he escaped. I must say the dog behaved wonderfully, though, all the time, especially travelling.
Everything is going finely here and Bart was very well when I left him and I never felt better in my life. Don't for goodness sake worry about us, for we are both as safe as can be. I should hate to come all the way over here and keep a desk chair in Paris warm or some job like that, and what's more you would hate to have me. Got a nice letter from Dunc and am glad to know p195things are going so well down there. That's fine. Are you being good and not reading at night? Will have lots more that is interesting to tell you later on. Do write often. Lots of love to you all and an especial lot for you, Bub. Have everything I need.
Curtis had been only two days at Dunkirk when, on February 26th, he went up for his first practice flight, in a French seaplane which appeared to be in good condition. It was a Donnet-Denhaut, with a 200 h.p. motor. His observer was a lad named Eichelberg who had been with him at Moutchic where they had become accustomed to flying together. Curtis felt a high regard for him. You will find him mentioned in the letters previously quoted. His name occurs more than once in the diary — 'Bombing with "Eich." Certainly he is an extraordinarily nice man,' and he is evidently referred to in the remark, 'How much kindness and real human nature there is hidden under an artificial toughness.'
It was a difficult, dangerous bit of water to take off from, as has been said — this basin among the Dunkirk docks and quays. However, the seaplane escaped the hazards and rose in the air to fly over the wider spaces where the North Sea makes in to the harbor. 'Di' Gates watched it turn and circle while Curtis Read, the pilot, was familiarizing himself with the controls and the tricks of handling it to the best advantage. Apparently he was having no trouble.
Twenty minutes after the seaplane went up, it crashed into the water, a vertical nose-dive like a falling projectile. This was at 10.20 o'clock in the forenoon. It was impossible to ascertain how it happened and why. The disaster was seen from the station. A launch reached the spot in a few minutes. Curtis was found, still breathing, in the wreckage of the seaplane. Eichelberg had been killed or drowned. His body had vanished and was never recovered.
p196 They carried Curtis to the French military hospital. The surgeons discovered that he had suffered a compound fracture of the skull. He died at 11.10, less than an hour after the accident.
His sacrifice was as complete as though he had perished in combat. He had given his all. This was the feeling among the Allied naval and military forces in Dunkirk. Ensign Curtis Seaman Read was the first aviator of the U. S. Naval Forces to be killed in France. It was a symbol which inspired distinguished tributes of pride, affection, and esteem. These took the form of a military funeral which a newspaper dispatch described as imposing.
The civil authorities sent a wreath bearing the inscription, 'To the first American officer who died for France in Dunkirk.' The coffin which was placed on a gun carriage drawn by six horses, was covered with American and French flags. A number of American officers and delegations from Allied troops attended the funeral. The French Government sent two representatives, General Nollet and Vice-Admiral Ronarc'h.
This brief dispatch inadequately conveys the dignity and pathos of that procession which filed through the silent, shell-torn streets of Dunkirk with its indomitable citizens grouped along the pavements to pay homage. Well they knew what it was for a brave man to die for his country. In front marched an armed escort of American bluejackets and the bugler to blow 'Taps.' Next came the color guard with the Stars and Stripes. An English chaplain preceded the draped and burdened gun carriage. The pall-bearers were Lieutenants Haviland and Gates, Ensigns Loomis, Bassett, Taylor, and de Cernea. It seemed particularly fitting that the Second Yale Unit should have had such a representative as gallant 'Eddie' de Cernea. Behind the gun carriage tramped a hundred men and the officers of the American station as mourners, commanded by Lieutenant Chevalier.
p197 Then came the foreign officials and officers. There were notable figures in this group. General commanded the 36th French Army Corps. Vice Admiral Ronarc'h directed the operations of the French destroyers, trawlers, mine-sweepers, and other craft which helped to guard the Straits of Dover. A gray-haired Breton sailor, seamed and stubborn and brown, he it was who had commanded the six thousand French sailors and marines at Antwerp, at Dixmude, on other fields of Belgium, during those early weeks of 1914 when the German tide of invasion was but barely stemmed. France honored them greatly, these fusiliers marins of Admiral Ronarc'h. Six thousand of them went in and two thousand came back, but they had said, 'They shall not pass' — and the pledge was kept.
And here was Monsieur Terquem, the Mayor of Dunkirk, and the life and soul of its magnificent endurance! An officer of the Alpine Chasseurs, the 'Blue Devils,' the breast of his blue tunic was adorned with the Legion of Honor and the Cross with a palm. When the city received its decoration, he was also cited in the orders of the Army and of the Nation. A signal honor that had been conferred upon no other mayor of France! Commodore Hubert Lynes of the British Navy, commanding from Dunkirk the squadron of huge monitors that bombarded Ostend and a fleet of destroyers, a man who was cheery and undismayed by the nightly bombardments; Colonel Marescaux, from the British base, Capitaine de Fregate de Laborde, Squadron Commander Welsh, R. N., Lieutenant Delsalle of French Aviation, and many other officers of the British and French Navies and Air Forces.
The services at the grave were in charge of the Reverend P. Sextey, Chapel to the Forces, Dunkirk. There were many offerings of flowers, including those from the French Aerial Patrol and the Municipality of Dunkirk.
p198 Flowers more lasting and fragrant than these bloomed in the hearts of those who had known Curtis Read — the flowers of memories precious and happy. The qualities which had made him beloved on the campus had made themselves felt in the service. Lieutenant Chevalier expressed this in writing to Mrs. Read:
I and all the officers of the station wish to express our most sincere sympathy to you and yours. It came as a great blow to us all as he had just arrived in our midst and was starting his work here. Your son came to Dunkirk with the finest reports from other stations where he has served and I was very glad to have him with us because boys of his type and calibre are needed here. I cannot properly express my regret at his death.
'Di' Gates wrote at once to Curtis's mother. Better than any one else at the station he could tell her what it meant to lose a comrade of Yale and the Unit.
February 26, 1918
Dear Mrs. Read:
The report of Curt's terrible accident will have preceded this note considerably. While making a flight this morning he fell into the sea. A motor boat picked him up almost immediately and rushed him back to the station but he died almost at once and never regained consciousness after his fall.
To his friends who were on the scene it was a terrible shock. To you we all extend our deepest sympathies and want you to know that we are all of one accord with you in your great sorrow.
Curt's wonderful disposition and admirable character gave him very many warm friends. I know of no one who will be as much mourned and missed as will he. Throughout his college life and period in the Navy he had gathered a most devoted crowd of friends. His loss will leave an awful hole everywhere he was known. I have never known a boy with a sweeter or pleasanter disposition. I for one am minus a very wonderful friend and I know there are a good many others in the same boat.
I know that it is impossible to relieve you any in your great sorrow, but only wish that I could do something to help you. There are so many to pick from it certainly seems most cruel that p199a man like Curt had to be the one. His belongings, letters and personal articles will be sent on as soon as possible.
Ensign Charles C. Bassett, Jr., contributed moving details to the story of the funeral in a letter to Mrs. Read.
February 28, 1918
I fail absolutely to find words to express the extent of my sorrow because of the loss of dear old 'Curt,' but I know that when he departed from us last Tuesday, we lost one of the best lads in the world, — the kind of man one loves. He had learned his work for the war well and was a fine flier and to be taken off because of an unwieldy machine and unusually tricky air is too unfortunate.
Tuesday, Tuesday night, Wednesday and Wednesday night the officers of this station, 'Art' Gates, Edward de Cernea, Moselyº, Taylor, William B. Haviland, Ralph Loomis, A. M. Stevens, and I stood watch in turn over 'Curt,' and this morning he was buried with full military honors. Besides the officers and men of our squadron, the French Governor, a French General and Admiral, British Admiral and Colonel, Cord Meyer (Yale '17) 1st Lieut. U. S. A., and many other officers were there. I waited until after the ceremony to write you, because I wanted to tell you all that was done. The cemetery is a rather small one that this terrible war has largely filled, just on the outskirts of Dunkirk, near the Ferncroft Gate.a
We did not know your wishes of course as to what you wanted done, so we buried 'Curt' in one of his Naval Flying Corps uniforms, with his Yale sweater underneath and a picture of you in the left hand coat pocket.
Eddie de Cernea (Yale '19) and 'Art' Gates and I made an inventory of all his effects and a copy of this will be sent you with the other effects which are to be shipped to you immediately. We sincerely trust that everything arrives safely and that they are arranged as you would want them. I enclose in this letter a little flower which I thought you might want. I do send you my deepest sympathy, Mrs. Read.
Bartow Read obtained leave to visit Dunkirk from his own station at Le Croisic and 'to do what he could in behalf of the family.' He found that 'Di' Gates and Lieutenant p200Chevalier had 'done everything that could be thought of' and had sent all the information in their letters to Mrs. Read. On his way back to Le Croisic, Bartow wrote from Paris:
So, Mother, remember that you are one of a great class of mothers who have lost their dearest possessions on behalf of our great cause and remember also that having done so you must try to bear your loss as bravely as those other heroic mothers of soldiers and sailors. This is a great task for any one and I know you will be able to bear it in the same courageous way that you have already borne great losses. Your part in the war is infinitely harder than ours, but you must bear in mind that your sons must do their share, and that one of them is on the ever increasing list of those entitled to the admiration of all. I am sending you a duplicate of Curt's identification photo in France lately. Be brave and remember that you are a hero among Americans.
The wonderfully fine story of Guynemer by Henry Bordeaux was published by the Yale University Press in 1918 in a memorial edition inscribed to Ensign Curtis Seaman Read. The cost was provided from the fund raised among his fellow members of Scroll and Key. In reading Bartow's letters one finds displayed a spirit akin to that in the following paragraph from the book:
Friendship among airmen is manly and seemingly careless, not caring for formulas or appearances, but proving itself by deeds. To these men the games of war are astonishingly like school games, and are spoken of as nothing else. When a comrade has not come back, and dinner has to begin without him, no show of sorrow is tolerated; only these young men's hearts feel the absence of a friend, and the casual visitor, not knowing, might take them for sportsmen, lively and jolly.
Thus it was that Bartow wrote from Le Croisic:
All of Curt's effects have already been sent to you by the Navy people. An inventory has to be made in such cases and 'Di' p201Gates did all that. I am not and was not assigned to the same station as Curt. I spent two days there and did everything I could. I am going to have a stone placed there to permanently mark the spot. 'Di' has already ordered the stone. I am now several hundred miles south of Dunkirk at a very quiet patrol station. We have plenty of flying and lots of ships to convoy, but no submarines even reported in the vicinity.
The other day, April Fool's Day, I was out on patrol and had to land on account of motor trouble. My observer and I had a bet about seasickness and I won. He was sick and I wasn't. The sea was very rough and we made very slow progress getting on in a tow line. We were just about getting hungry enough to eat our emergency ration when a crate of oranges came peacefully drifting past on the ocean. We ate about a dozen apiece, I sitting on the top plane catching the oranges thrown back to me by the crew of the motor boat on the other end of the tow‑line. It was a great game. April Fool's Day I spent the morning from daylight till lunch time flying, landing and being towed in. Sort of fooled me that time. We have a great system now — a machine can't get lost the way 'Ken' Smith did.
Well, Bub, this station is absolutely safe and very pleasant, so don't worry about me, I am not within range of any Boche that isn't a prisoner, and those are very carefully guarded. Incidentally I have a hunch and my hunches are usually pretty good, that I will live to come home with the rest when business of stepping on the Boche is finished, and I think that will be about one year from to‑day at the most.
We have an officers' baseball team here and tennis and soon we will be all swimming. Well, Bub, I'll have to stop. Be brave and proud of Curt who was brave, and don't worry about me.
One way to know a man is to know him through the friends he made. In the intimate association of the Unit, there was no room for idle praise or soothing flattery. There was merit in all the 'razzing' that went on. It was like a wholesome breeze to blow away any bluff and pretences. And the crowd knew each other just about as each man really was. They learned Curtis Read's philosophy of life as he noted it in his diary, 'Sincerity.' 'Be one man' and not an imitation of others.
p202 And so there is truth and candor in what the living had to say about the one who swiftly passed beyond horizons unseen while on duty at Dunkirk. It seems strange and yet somehow appropriate that the first news should have come to Mrs. Read in a telegraph from Trubee Davison. The message from the Navy Department was delayed in transmission. Trubee said, in part:
Your consolation is that there never lived a nobler, finer or better beloved man. It seems too much to bear, but we all pray for you in your sorrow and we glory in our love and admiration for Curt. He died as noble a death as even he could have desired.
From Le Croisic Reginald Coombe wrote:
My dear Mrs. Read:
The sad news of Curt's death reached us here yesterday, and was a terrible shock to us all, who knew, loved and admired him. How much greater a shock it is to you and how much harder to bear, I can only imagine, and I want to offer you my very deepest sympathy.
Though I had not seen him since Christmas, when I spent two very wonderful days with him, it is hard to realize that he has gone. His memory will always remain, however, and I will think of him as the sincerest, most loved and admired of all my friends. I was fortunate enough to come to know him intimately, especially during our last year at college and while at Palm Beach and at Huntington; from his friendship I gained much which I will never forget. His loss will be a great blow to the college society of which he became a member last spring and in which he took so great an interest.
A word about Bart, which will be of interest to you, I know. Bart was with us here when the news of Curt's accident came in. The way in which he bore up under the shock and continued with his work has gained for him the admiration of all the officers and men of this station and have shown him to have the qualities which made his brother what he was. Bart is now on leave for a few days; when he returns, we will take the best possible care of him.
With sincerest sympathy to you all in your great loss and with kindest regards.
p203 Sam Walker was in this same group on the French coast to which Bartow belonged. In simple words he was able to accentuate the salient points of Curtis's character.
Dear Mrs. Read:
Yesterday we were all jarred by the sad news that brought the reality of war into our very midst. I know how you must feel at the loss of Curt, and your feelings are shared by the vast number of Curt's friends, for everywhere he went he left behind him an impression of sincerity and he won the confidence of many by his interests and sympathy in their affairs. I have heard him talk at New Haven and hold the attention of a large gathering of men by his quiet manner.
The way in which he died makes us all go about our work with a soberer and more determined way fighting for the same cause.
All of his friends sympathize in your great loss.
John Vorys had gone home from Felixstowe, grieving over the death of 'Al' Sturtevant. He knew what it was to be bereft of a dear companion by the pitiless fatalities of war. He wrote from Hampton Roads where Curtis had tarried before going overseas.
Dear Mrs. Read:
I returned to this country two weeks ago, and although I had heard rumors, I did not hear the news definitely about Curt until I saw the Davisons in New York. You can't realize how I felt, because I don't believe you knew how I cared for Curt. The rumors I heard in London about an accident to Curt were so conflicting that I still hoped the whole thing was untrue, and it made me feel pretty badly to hear that another of our wonderful Huntington Unit had gone out. I had heard through letters from Moutchic that Curt was one of the specially picked pilots sent to Dunkirk, and knew that with a start like that, for the privilege of going there was one that every Naval pilot was fighting for, he would do things to make us all proud. Of course we can't all get out of this safely, but what depresses me about this is that it had to be Curt and that he had to go so soon. Still, we mustn't feel that his sacrifice was futile, because he did a splendid job, in this flying especially, while he lived, and his death is just one more thing to make us Americans set our backs to it and make sure we won't quit until it's finished the right way.
p204 I'm stationed at Hampton Roads now, training pilots for war flight duty. Harry Davison told me that, some time before hearing of Curt's death, one of the boys here said: 'You know, Curt was, after all, the best loved pilot ever on the station.' I'd give a lot to have that said of me, especially as it was said before his death. They all here seem to have loved Curt and felt his loss deeply. His picture is in the ward-room, — the only picture in the room.
'Lotta' Lawrence was at Fort Worth, Texas, when the news reached him.
Dear Mrs. Read:
Just a line to try and tell you how dreadfully I feel about the death of Curt. I consider it one of the greatest privileges of my life to have known him and to have been counted among his friends. He was a leader among us and a boy we all looked up to and loved dearly, and his death is a hard one to bear. New Haven will never be the same without Curt, if it is ever our fortune to gather there again. We will miss him everywhere. It certainly is up to the rest of us to try and carry out his influence, which was one of the finest I have ever known.
My plans are rather indefinite in matter of time. Some time in April I hope to sail for France. Just at present Allan Ames and I are taking the R. F. C. Aerial Gunnery Course here. Frank Lynch finished the course just ahead of us, but will go over with us. We finish here next week and will go North and I hope on leave until we sail. But they may hold us in Washington on temporary duty. I do hope I will see you before I go. My best to Dunc.
This is a pretty feeble attempt to give my feelings on the loss of Curt, but they are more than I can write down.
Allan Ames was also at Fort Worth. He wrote:
Dear Mrs. Read:
Nothing I can write will express my heartfelt sympathy for you. I always counted Curt as one of my dearest and closest friends. The impression that his strong, beautiful character made on me and the nearness of his personality makes me think that it cannot be.
The wonderful spirit you have shown has given us all increased faith and strength.
p205 Harry Davison wrote from Norfolk:
Dear Mrs. Read:
Just a line of sympathy to let you know how I and all the other men of this station feel for you in your great sorrow. Inasmuch as I lived with Curtis for eight months, I felt that I knew him pretty well, and I can truthfully say from the bottom of my heart that I have never learned to love and respect another fellow as I have Curt.
All the time that he was here at this station, he was the life and spirit of the entire camp. Not over a week ago I heard one of the men say that of all the officers who had ever been at this station, Curt Read was the most beloved and worshipped.
There is some consolation that he died for ship country, and I think Curt's great regret would be that he did not get a chance at the enemy first. If we could only do a fraction of what Curt has done, we would be satisfied.
Of the letters of condolence written by the members of the Unit, the foregoing will suffice to express what all of them thought of Curtis Read. Colonel Thompson held the same opinions. His heart was wrung. Two of those splendid 'young ducks' of his gone in the same month! If it were unsigned I think you would recognize this message as coming from him.
Dear Mrs. Read:
When we came home today there were some telegrams telling us of the awful news about Curtis. I have never been so stunned and shocked. I loved that little fellow as if he were my own and never have I seen as noble and gallant a person as he. Only the other day, Mr. Davison asked Trubee and me who it was that we thought was the finest character in our organization, and with no hesitation we both said Curt Read. It is so dreadful. I am sick at heart and mad clean through. My deepest and most affectionate sympathy.
L. S. Thompson
Curtis was fondly remembered wherever he went in France. 'Eddie' de Cernea reminds us of the sojourn at Moutchic in one of his letters.
p206 Dear Mrs. Read:
I was very happy to have your letter and the picture of Curtis just as we knew him — true and fine and splendid in everything. You are so tremendously brave about it all — just as he would want most. Mothers are such very wonderful people. I have been saving some little pictures to send to you, and I am sure you will like to have them, even if they aren't very good. Most of them were taken at Moutchic, where we are at the house of Lieutenant DeHaven. They were such delightful people and they thought of Curt as one of their own children.
John Farwell had more of this to say in writing a letter with all the news that he thought might interest Trubee.
I have just come back from a trip to Moutchic. While I was there I had dinner with a French family. The husband is an old French flier and attached to the station to be of what assistance he can. He spoke of instructing Stuffy Spencer, George Moseley, and others of the Lafayette Escadrille. After dinner we went into the living room and on the walls were pictures of Curt, Steve Potter, and several others of the First and Second Units. Around Curt's picture was a wreath of fresh flowers. When the mother saw that I noticed the picture, she asked me if I knew him, and then brought another photograph that Curt had given her, on which was written 'To my French mother.' She wept as she spoke of him, and of how fond of him she had become. You might tell this to Mrs. Read, for I think she would like to know, for his French friends are mourning him just as sincerely as his American friends.
In Paris I saw Prof. Clarence Mendell who had seen Curt on the way to Dunkirk. He said that he had told him he never would be a flier, that he could not 'get the hang of it.' At Moutchic they said the same thing, and that he himself had expected to be killed. However, the smash itself must have been entirely accidental.
Clarence Mendell recalled this meeting with Curtis and told Mrs. Read:
George Nettleton, I know, has written you to tell you how much we have been sympathizing with you these last days. It is very little that a letter, and especially a letter from a stranger, p207can do at such a time, but I want just to tell you how splendidly Curtis faced the possibility of just what came to him. He was here with us on his way to the front, and while he had the same cheerfulness that all the men, particularly the aviators had, it seemed to me that he had a more serious realization of the possibilities. I think he absolutely knew how great the chances of accident were and I know that he faced them with that knowledge absolutely without faltering. He had a magnificent spirit and his example will surely be a very great inspiration to the other men for a long while to come. That is perfectly clear from the way that they have already spoken of him. He was always a splendid fellow and especially in this last undertaking and you have much to be proud of in the midst of the terrible sorrow.
Ensign Charley Fuller had been with Curtis at Hampton Roads. He added the following tribute, a most admirable portrayal of his lost friend's character and personality:
Dear Mrs. Read:
I wanted to wait until the whole thing had finished, and we had finally won, before writing to you about Curt. I wanted to do this because I thought you would like to know that his friends are thinking of him to‑day, with the war a memory, just as much as we thought of him when we were still fighting. I believe Curt was the best friend and the most intimate that I have ever had, though I did not know him very long.
Curt came down to Hampton Roads during the last days of August, 1917, and from that time on I got to know him and love him just as every other man he ever came in contact with did. I followed him over to France, coming about a month later, and very nearly joined him at Moutchic. I wish I had. Instead, I was sent to England, was there when the news came, and have been there ever since. A short time ago Allan Ames came over, and he showed me Curt's letters, and the letters written to you after his death. They all showed how he was loved — you didn't like Curt, you loved him. I don't feel there is much I can add, but perhaps you would like to hear a little more fully of Curt's life in Norfolk.
When he came, at the end of August, he found ten of us students, pretty well disgusted with life. We didn't have decent p208machines or enough men — and we had poor food and bad living-quarters. The result was that we were not the best lot to take in hand — but Curt of course went at it in the simplest and most human way — his own way. That is, he took off his coat and started to work. With all his working though there wasn't the least bit of telling us to get to work too — it was all done by force of example. Of course he started us going too, and kept us going with his wonderful sunny humour and kindness. Things weren't running anything like right for nearly two months, but during all that time Curt was just working and being so kind that it brought a lump in your throat. Curt was a poor disciplinarian, for he trusted everybody, but there were very few of the enlisted men even who tried to take advantage of him. Curt's trust in others was well expressed by one of the boys there:
'Curt is the one friend I have, who I know would welcome me if I went to hell and back.'
That's the sort of reputation he had at the end of a couple of months. I saw a great deal of him personally, and I can never forget the many long talks we had together. He used to sleep at the barracks one night a week, and on those nights we used to walk out in the reservation. I can't say exactly what we talked about — the usual things perhaps. Books, girls, love, religion, ambition. Curt met me half way. I remember his saying that he did not understand a man who didn't meet you half way. I learned Curt's point of view then, his very deep religious feeling, and his deep sense of responsibility. We used to argue a good deal about love, and I shall never forget Curt's beautiful, quixotic point of view — it has been a help to me many times since. It was absurd of course — he sincerely felt that a girl whom he loved he would never ask to marry him because he wasn't fit for her — but it is only from great purity and self-forgetfulness that a man can speak like that. We had many long talks and they all showed those great qualities of love and unselfishness that Curt had more than any other boy I have ever known.
Presently I got my commission, and from then on I saw a little less of Curt privately. We used to dine at the Monticello, or at the Country Club, and Curt with Doc McAlpin used to be leading spirits there, — they both had a good sense of humour. Curt was generous, as you know, to the point of folly. He used to lend his car or his room or his money — he would have lent the shirt off his back if anybody had asked him for it.
p209 We all had a happy time down there together, and Curt was loved by every single man, — even by the pariah, a most unattractive boy from Maine, because Curt went out of his way to be kind to him. We played together as a crowd, and worked together — and I remember those days as very happy ones, when we used to go racing out to Norfolk on a cold morning in the Marmon — and the dances at the Country Club — and Curt is the person I remember with more happiness and reverence than anyone else down there. He never failed in kindness or good spirits, and he never failed to go out of his way to be kind — that was almost the greatest thing about him.
I only saw him once after, in New York when he dined with us. He left a few days afterward.
You don't need any summary of Curt's qualities — but remember that his fineness and unselfishness were not lost. He had an almost perfect life I think — he lived it almost perfectly anyway. I believe that the truest immortality, is the immortality of memory. Through all my life, as through the past eight months, Curt's memory will always be with me. He is the greatest inspiration I have. His memory cannot die among his friends, and their lives will be so much the cleaner and sweeter for having known Curt, — don't forget that.
(From the New York World, March 4, 1918)
Miami, Fla., March 3. — Mrs. W. A. Read of Purchase, N. Y., whose son Curtis was killed recently in action, today gave out this letter she had received from Major Gen. Bell:
'You will doubtless recall our chance encounter at a military equipment store where your son was securing apparel for use in the Aviation Corps of the navy, your casual mention of another son in the same service and my expression of surprise that you had given two sons to such hazardous duty. Thereupon you quietly remarked that you had given four, all you had. The calm resignation and satisfaction of duty done so pathetically manifest in your face and manner, moved me profoundly and I went straightway to secure a four-starred service flag to lay at your feet.
'I found that more than three-starred flags were not kept, ready made, and I had to order one especially made, which I am sending you herewith. Won't you accept this small tribute to the spirit of self-sacrifice and patriotic devotion with which a noble mother has thus answered the call of her country?
p210 'Were every mother equal to meeting such calls with the same spirit there could never be the slightest doubt about the safety of democracy. In thus tendering this token of obeisance, I feel I am but signalizing the universal sentiment of all my fellow men and women acquainted with your exceptional act of abnegation. I trust you will place it in a portion of your home you occupy most, that it may be a constant reminder that your sacrifices are not without appreciation.
'I also trust that every one of your sons may at the end of this world-wide calamity return safe to your fireside, ennobled by honor and glory of having unselfishly served their fellow men and each with a record of many deeds which can never cease to be a source of pride and gratification to his parents. May God grant you this recompense for the sacrificing spirit you have so nobly shown, for the poignant anxiety by which your mother's heart must long be afflicted!
'With much pride in the fact that you are my countrywoman, it is a great honor to ascribe myself,
'Very truly and sincerely yours.
F. J. Bell, Major General, U. S. A..
In giving to The World at this time Gen. Bell's letter, Mrs. Read said, 'It is with the feeling that when the time has arrived, as it now has, for America to share the anguish and glory of the Allies, such an utterance from one of our war‑trained leaders belongs to all mothers of the men who superbly and gladly gave their lives to the great cause in which our beloved country is enlisted.
'To the men, as well, it must mean much to know that one so burdened with the grim responsibility of hardening them for war service should pause to express such appreciation of the cost of their families of living up to their soldiers' heroic example.'
It was Mrs. Read's desire that the body of her son should rest undisturbed in the French cemetery at Dunkirk. She made her pilgrimage to the spot as soon as possible after the war and found that the people of the city regarded the grave as hallowed by the sacrifice of the young American officer who had died in the cause of France. It was cared for with sentimental affection and reverence. It enriched the heroic traditions of Dunkirk and was a tie p211to bind her memories to those of the republic beyond the sea.
It disturbed Mrs. Read to learn that the American Government had other plans for its patriot dead in France and she therefore addressed a letter to a staunch friend of the Unit, Commander J. H. Towers in the Navy Department.
My son Wm. A. Read, Ens. U. S. N. R. F. of Naval Aviation, writes me from Washington that the Navy Department is planning to bring home the bodies of our men fallen in performance of their war duty abroad — in consideration of their families here.
It is my present feeling in which my sons Wm. A., Jr., and Duncan concur, that it seems a more fitting and honored resting-place for the body of my beloved son Curtis S. Read, Ensign, U. S. N. R. F., killed at Dunkirk on February 26th, 1918, to remain in the cemetery at Dunkirk where it was laid with every military and civil honor and reverent ceremony, than to be transferred from the fellowship of the war's heroic dead.
Will you be kind enough to inform me whether my request that no change should be made by the Navy Department, would make it impossible to obtain permission some years later to remove my son's body, should my family wish to do so, and whether you desire a more formal expression of our wishes than this letter.
Appreciating the courtesy and consideration accorded my family by the Navy Department, during my four sons' service during the war,
Caroline S. Read
Commander Towers, quick to sympathize with the spirit of this petition, forwarded it to the proper bureau with the following endorsement:
It is recommended that the request contained in the within letter be given favorable consideration, provided it does not seriously conflict with the definitely established policy of the p212Bureau. In view of the fact that the writer of this letter, Mrs. Wm. A. Read, has furnished four sons, all of whom have qualified as officers in the Naval Reserve Flying Corps, it is believed that her request is entitled to special consideration.
It was decided by the American Government that all of its heroic dead should be removed from scattered resting-places and gathered together in cemeteries of their own, there to remain in the consecrated soil of France unless their kinsfolk should desire to have them brought home. Curtis Read sleeps in the American cemetery at , near Saint-Quentin, in the Department of the Aisne.
1 Dunc-Curt (Dunkirk).
a His grave is now in the Somme American Cemetery at Bony, 130 km SE of Dunkirk: see the page at Find-a‑Grave. Strangely, the date of his death is given incorrectly on the marker. As will be seen later on in this chapter, Curtis Read's mother objected to the removal — or at least to any removal outside France — but to no avail.
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