Letters Home from World War I

Posted by Jenny on November 7, 2018

(written by Jenny DeRocher, Archives staff)

Sergeant Roy L. Vingers, of Company B of the 128th Regiment Infantry (64th Infantry Brigade), was one of the first WWI casualties from La Crosse County. He died in August of 1918 in the Battle of Château-Thierry in France. La Crosse’s American Legion Post #52 was named in dedication to Vingers three years after his death in 1921, just before his body was shipped back to the U.S. for burial in La Crosse’s Oak Grove Cemetery.


The La Crosse Tribune reported Vinger’s funeral to be “the largest military burial ever held in this city…Practically every former service man in the city attended the last rites for the fallen warrior.”  The article goes on to point out that each of his pallbearers (pictured above, alongside the hearse) were members of Co. B who had specifically been “over the top” of the trenches with Vingers the day he died.  Photo courtesy of the American Legion Post #52.


Earlier this fall, the La Crosse Public Library Archives staff found over 60 pages of letters that Vingers sent home to his family during his time in service. They were in an old cigar box at the American Legion Post #52. His mother, Minnie Vingers, had donated letters, photographs, and other materials relating to her son to them sometime before her death in 1965.


Some of the Vingers materials being sorted at the Archives, including photos of Vingers.


Vingers was born in January of 1896. The family moved to La Crosse from Minneapolis around 1912. He was the oldest of 10 kids—all but one of which were boys. Roy’s father, John, worked a variety of blue collar jobs.


In the 1917 La Crosse City Directory, John, Roy, and his younger brother Frederick were all listed working at a candy factory together.  Roy would have been working this job just before he left for Waco, Texas that year.


In September of 1917, 18,000 troops from Wisconsin and Michigan arrived in Waco, TX by train. A few miles away was Camp MacArthur, a 10,000-acre and quickly constructed troop-training complex for the U.S. troops that were about to deploy for Europe. In his Sept. 17, 1917 letter, Roy described this camp:


About a month before leaving Waco, Roy wrote a letter to his mom on Jan. 7, where he casually informed her that he took an insurance policy for $10,000. He described to her exactly how it would work for her, as the beneficiary:



The troops trained at Camp MacArthur until January of 1918, when they began their cross-country journey to New Jersey. From there, they would ship out to Europe by boat.


Roy’s letters track this trip, each starting with, ”Somewhere in…Alabama,”  “…South Carolina,” “…Maryland,” and finally, “Camp Merritt, New Jersey.”


The first letter that was sent from France was dated March 14, 1918. Every letter from there on out is headed, “Somewhere in France.” Soldiers were told not to give their location in letters, but it was rare for them to know where they were anyways. Most of Roy’s spring and summertime letters describe how he’s doing, the weather, and some of France’s scenery. He often instructed his mother to kiss each of his siblings and get as many of them to write to him as she could. He always ended his letters with, “I am your loving son, Roy….Answer soon.”



Roy died on August 5, 1918. He was 22 years old. When his family heard a few weeks later, the La Crosse Tribune reported that Minnie Vingers had fallen ill with grief after hearing the news.


Almost half a year later, a letter that Roy had written a few days before dying was delivered to his family after being lost for months.  The La Crosse Tribune published the letter in whole.  The original is missing from the collection found in the cigar box.


Minnie worked tirelessly and successfully to have the local American Legion Post #52 renamed in her son's memory, which happened in 1921, just in time for his burial at Oak Grove. At the time, Roy was reported to be the first La Crosse casualty and is still often given that credit. 

However, in reality, there were five other soldiers who died before Vingers in action overseas and a few others who died from disease or accidents. Among them were: Alek John Berg, Domenico Cerio, John Fuchs, Arthur Anthony Hahn, George Leisgang, Leo Navrotzke, Frank Niebalski, Frank Oles, Douglas Outcault, James Daniel Parce, Bernard Schmitz, William Thompson, and William Weigert.

This November marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Veteran’s Day (November 11) was originally appointed to celebrate the end of the Great War and honor military veterans.  

On Wednesday, November 14, be sure to attend the Weber Center’s Veterans Day event. They are hosting a free-screening of Almost Sunrise: Hope is on the Horizon at 7:30 - please see the Facebook event page for more information.  This award-winning documentary follows the journey of two Iraq veterans as they walk from Wisconsin to California.

To see Roy’s letters for yourself, visit the La Crosse Public Library Archives! Many are on display in the Reading Room through mid-November.