Steve Cottrell: The movie ‘1917’ and remembering 3 local men
Special to The Union
Last year, to commemorate the centennial of the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice that ended World War I, the Nevada County Historical Society hosted several events aimed at reminding people about Nevada County citizens who contributed to the war effort — both overseas and stateside.
With the gripping war epic “1917” due to open soon locally (Jan. 10), the legacies of three Nevada County men bear repeating. They were among several hundred from here who served –– many of them miners who traded picks and shovels for rifles and bayonets. Sadly, all three men died in what became known as the Great War.
Shortly after the United States declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, William Hegarty from Nevada City and William Hague from Grass Valley enlisted. Hegarty, 19, worked at the Champion Mine and Hague, 35, was managing director of the North Star Mine.
Clarence Crase Thomas was already in uniform. A graduate of Grass Valley High School, class of 1900, and the Naval Academy, class of 1908, Thomas rose from plebe to lieutenant and in early 1917 was placed in charge of a protective naval gun crew on the SS Vacuum — a merchant ship transporting oil and supplies from the United States to England.
On April 28, 1917, as Vacuum was returning to the U.S., a German U-boat spotted the ship 160 miles west of northern Scotland. When a torpedo pierced its hull, Vacuum exploded and Thomas was thrown into the North Atlantic. Although lifted into a lifeboat, the Grass Valley man soon died and his body consigned to the sea.
With his death, Lt. Thomas became the first naval officer killed in World War I, and a bronze plaque at the Naval Academy memorializes his place in history.
On July 4, 1918, a Navy destroyer named in Thomas’ honor was launched at Newport News, Virginia –– dedicated by his widow, Evelyn. USS Thomas was later sold to the Royal Navy, but a second ship, a destroyer escort, was named for Thomas in 1943 and received three battle stars for service in the Pacific during WWII.
Three days before Thomas’ death, Bill Hegarty had enlisted in the California National Guard. He was sent to Camp Lewis, WA. (now Fort Lewis) for basic training, but was not deployed until the following summer. On Aug. 11, 1918, Hegarty wrote to his mother, Rose, telling her that he was relaxing in a French village enjoying a four-day leave. On Aug. 18, he was killed –– Nevada City’s first WWI fatality.
Three years later, when Pvt. Hegarty’s body was exhumed from a French churchyard and returned to Nevada City for burial at St. Canice Cemetery, the Jan. 3, 1922 Morning Union explained what would happen the next day: “School children from both the high school and Washington (elementary) school will march from their schools to the business district, where they will line the street at the time of the passing of the cortege on its way from the church to the grave,” adding that children were instructed to stand at attention as the cortege passed by.
The newspaper also announced that following the funeral procession, teachers and students would meet in their respective classrooms, “to study the lessons taught to us by this last public event in this city directly connected with the late world war.”
Unlike young Hegarty, William Hague did not have to go to war; he was 35, not subject to the draft. But in May 1917, he stepped down from his management duties at the North Star Mine, enlisted in the Army Reserve, and undertook a five-week training course at the Presidio of San Francisco before being commissioned a first lieutenant in the Army Engineering Corps.
In mid-December 1917, Lt. Hague’s unit arrived in France during a brutally cold winter. Weakened from the freezing, unbearable conditions, Hague contracted pneumonia and died Jan. 3 at the Red Cross Hospital in Paris. He is buried in Berkeley.
On May 12, 1917, Evelyn Thomas became the nation’s first WWI widow to apply for benefits guaranteed to war widows since 1862, and in August was awarded a pension of $38 a month. When her pension request was made, however, Congress had not yet assigned a name to the war, so the Federal Bureau of Pensions decided to simply call it the War of 1917 –– the year featured in the new movie.
Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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