Copyright ©1997 Jan Dennis Philpot
Sgt. Judson W. Dennis was a resident of Tip Top, Tennessee. He was killed in France on October 17, 1918. The following article by his great-niece, details how, after seventy eight years his marker finally stands in the National Cemetery in Dover.
For seventy six years, the letters had lain in storage, waiting for someone to recognize the lessons contained in words written decades ago by a young man far from home never to return. A thousand wonders they had survived the years at all. They had lain at the bottom of a trunk through the raising of five children in a farmhouse deep in the hollows of Tennessee, they had lasted through the "selling out" of the family farm to T.V.A., found their way into the top of a storage closet in Kentucky, and at last...at my father's death, they passed into my hands. The letters were written by my great-uncle, a man my father had never known. Sgt. Judson Dennis, aged 26, was killed in action one month before the end of The Great War in 1918.
I knew the family legend, though I really knew very little about the man. Judson's picture hung on the wall of my grandfather's farmhouse throughout my childhood. I was told he was "Pa's brother, killed in France". Later, as I grew older I was puzzled that he did not seem to rest in the family's cemetery. And that too was explained, "They never found his body". That mystery piqued my curiosity, but oddly I can remember none of my aunts, nor my father elaborating further, or seeming to know much more...and so Judson was just a picture, "Pa's brother, killed in France, who never came home".
In 1984, I was a grown woman with three children of my own when Jud's legacy came to me. I found the box of "letters home" when I finalized my late father's estate. There were some twelve letters, tracing Jud's first experience as a young soldier in training in South Carolina to his last letter written some ten months later in France. I sat for hours in another time and another place as I read the words of a young man suddenly tossed from the hard but simple life he and all of his family before him had known into a world that except for some dramatic political upheaval in a faraway place would never have been of his experience. I read his wonder as he discovered the countryside he passed through on the train that carried the Tennessee battalion from Nashville. I heard his delight at the books and "picture shows" that were available at Camp Sevier. I heard the sadness and acceptance in his words as he told about the "soldier boy they killed because he would not obey orders and refused to work." I heard again and again in his words the newness in his experiences and felt the range of emotion in the letters, one after another, as they chronicled not only a journey of miles, but a journey of experience and growth. There were some ten other letters from various government officials indicating that my grandfather had gone to as great a lengths as a poor farmer with little means of influence or communication could go in trying to retrieve his brother's body. And there was the telegram. As I held it, I could almost feel the shock and grief that must have flooded my grandfather when he received it almost a month after the actual date of his brother's death, and after the ending of what would become known as the Great War. How shocked he must have been, probably believing that with the war ended his brother would soon be home, to farm with him, to raise livestock with him, perhaps to settle down with his "sweetheart" nearby. And in all of that time he had not known his brother was dead. The recent grief I had felt was all too fresh and that, coupled with the multitude of responsibilities that faced me, was the reason at last that I carefully boxed up the letters and set them upon a shelf to wait for yet another ten years.
It was my thirteen year old daughter, Heather, who next unearthed Jud's letters. She was searching for a history fair project, something she could research and make a display of , and none of my suggestions would do. In exasperation, I racked my brain for some idea that would grasp her interest, something that we could find tangible objects to display for...and I remembered a small nondescript box that had lain in storage with first one member of the family and then another for seventy six years. I unearthed it from the back of a shelf, and laid it before my daughter, little realizing that the contents of this box were in fact to set off a chain of reactions and events that would finally bring closure to a chapter of my family's past and provide a sense of pride for my "children of the 90's" to cling to as they faced their future. Her eyes grew large with wonder as I told her where these letters had come from, who the man was who had written them, and what had happened to him. For two days I saw her immersed single-mindedly in the letters that I had first read ten years before, and I understood that she too, was caught in another time and another place. Then came the questions. And I realized how very different her experience with the letters had been from my own. I had read them with a grown woman's experience and an understanding of the past. I had read them with the understanding of another generation and accepted so much of what Jud said without question. For my young daughter, there were questions. " Why did our own army kill a soldier because he did not obey orders and did not work? Why didn't they just send him home? Why was Jud so excited about all the books at the camp? And what are moving pictures? And what did Jud mean when he said "Old Glory, I will stand and die by her"? Wasn't he scared? Why did he keep telling Pa what to do about his things? Did he know he wasn't coming back? If he did, why didn't he ever talk about anybody getting killed? Why does he keep asking for mail from home? Didn't anybody ever write to him? Why does he keep saying he cannot tell his family where he has been and what is going on? Does he really mean it when he says that the 'mothers and sweethearts and friends' shouldn't grieve, they should be proud to have a soldier?"
The questions came in a flood and I struggled with some surprise to answer them, realizing that this child had not indeed grown up in a world of unquestioning patriotism, of appreciation for the means of an education, of unwavering loyalty. The world that had begun in my own childhood, the Vietnam era, a time of riots and assassinations, of protests and marches and sit-ins had somehow tapered into this world, and our children are accustomed to dispute, the fall from grace of political officials, the cynicism of a cynical age where there are no heroes and few ideals. Somehow they have no connection to the past that my generation, with our parents and grandparents of another time and way of thinking, did. And so, I think, it should not be surprising that a soldier such as Jud, such as the thousands like him, not heroes and yet heroes just the same, came as such a shock to my young daughter. I tried to paint his world for her, as best I knew it from the link of a previous generation. She tried to imagine a world without media, a world without travel, and something else, a world in which people simply "did what they felt they had to do". She held his wallet in her hands and marveled at the picture of the two little girls he carried in it and asked about frequently in his letters. The tiny girls are now her great-aunts, loving ladies in their eighties that she eagerly visits several times a year. She read and reread the tattered letter from a comrade who had been present telling my grandfather how his brother had died. We searched atlases of maps of the time frame, trying to locate the approximate vicinity this man said Jud's body had been buried, and I tried to explain to her the impossibility of doing anything about locating him now. Then, she and her younger sister wanted to know, why doesn't he at least have a marker? And that question hung in the air between us, as I wondered myself.
Her project was a winner. It took first prize at the history fair. She had traced in excerpts from his letters the simple and tragic story of a young man, like thousands of other young men, who left a simple existence to answer duty, and die for it. She displayed his pictures and his medals. But it was his paper that told me what she had learned from Jud. " I found this story of Judson Dennis (my great-great uncle) a story of heroism. Out of all his letters, he not once complained, nor told half of what he saw. He fought to his death for his country, not because he had to, but because he felt it was right. He went off to war as a man with guts, leaving his family and friends and girlfriend. Just receiving a letter seemed to probably make him grin from ear to ear for days. I feel that in this country today we take things that are important for granted. That's what Judson had shown me by just reading a few of his letters." Heather's words were not empty ones. I had watched her wonder, her emotions, listened to her questions. She truly was amazed at the bravery and loyalty of this man. And she was in awe at the idea that Jud was not unusual for the time. She titled her project "Pride Won - Patriot Lost".
The story did not end here. I could not seem to hang Jud's story up once my daughter had unearthed it, and an unanswered question still lay between us. I asked my aunt, the only one who can remember Jud at all, just what she did remember. She told me snatches of memories, of being bundled up in a wagon and trekking to Dover, Tennessee to watch Jud drill with the other soldiers, of his final visit home before he was sent overseas. She showed me postcards he had mailed her from faraway places. I typed Jud's letters and gave them to my aunts, I saw the pleasure they took in these and realized that somehow a wound existed in my family that I had not known of. Jud's body had never been returned. And my daughters wanted to know why he did not have a marker in his memory as did the rest of our family. Jud had been dead for over seventy years, and belonged to another world, but somehow in his letters he had become real to us, we felt we knew him, and somehow this did not seem fitting that he had no place among his own, no marker to prove he had ever been. It was a flash of inspiration and impulse that sent me to the phone to call the National Cemetery in Dover. Was there such a thing as a memorial section, for stones to mark the memories of soldiers never found? Yes indeed there was. And then my heart plummeted as I heard the next words, "but it is filled now." I have no idea what prompted this lady to speak her next words, perhaps she sensed my disappointment, but she added, "Let me check to be sure." And then I felt as if somehow I had been given a message that what I was doing was for some reason what was meant to be when Judy Bagsby came back to the phone and said, "There is space for one more." Then began the process that more than once threatened not to come to fruition. There was information that was needed, information I was not at all certain I could provide. I had to furnish proof of his status as a soldier, proof of his death, his birth date, his identification number. It was the latter two items I feared for. Once again those things were somehow, I felt, meant to be, because just exactly the right scraps of paper had somehow never been thrown out. His birth date I found on a tiny torn page in my grandfather's handwriting. I have no idea why it was written and would not have even known what the date meant, except that beside it he had penned, "Jud's birthday", and underlined it twice. The identification number seemed to appear on nothing, not the telegram, not certificates expressing appreciation to the family after his death, nothing at all. And then in Jud's wallet, I found a list detailing the items returned to the family. There, at the top, was a number. And upon confirmation from Judy, I learned that this was the illusive number I had been searching for.
This summer a crate arrived at the National Cemetery in Dover, Tennessee. A simple white stone like every other white stone in that cemetery assumed its place in a circle. My family and I made a pilgrimage to visit for the first time what can be considered Jud's resting place. I smiled as I saw the basket of flowers my aunts had placed there. They never miss a birthday, never a holiday or change of season with the graves of our family who has left us. It is important to them, this remembering, this reminding that we all, even in memory somehow belong to each other and are a part of each other. These ladies do not dwell in the past, they say their goodbyes to those gone, they go resolutely on with their lives. But there is a pride and an honor among them that says those who have left us are still a part of us. Finally, now seventy eight years later, they were able to do the same for Jud.
The story is finished now, I think. Closure has been brought to my family. And yet perhaps the story is not finished at all. My children learned something from Jud, something about another time and another way of thinking, and only time will tell if that impression will matter. I do not want my children to be unquestioning, I do not want them not to have open informed minds. But I do want them to understand unwavering dedication, and loyalty, yes..and patriotism too. And I hope they learned something from me, something intangible that has to do with family and honor and responsibility.
Jan Dennis Philpot
But the story did not end at this time. Shortly after the above article and Jud's letters appeared in the American section of a Canadian W.W. I site on internet, a New York researcher and veteran discovered them. Something about Jud's story caught his attention. Kermit Mercer went to great lengths to begin a pilgrimage of discovery about Jud's war experiences and story that would take him all the way to the area of France where Jud was killed. Kermit's experiences and discoveries are detailed in this site.
Return to "Jud's Legacy" Index.