Armistice and Peace: Victory Letters from WWI

Posted on Mon, June 25, 2018

Letters home from the front reveal the personal side of wars. On Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, marking the end of World War I, many American soliders serving abroad were instructed to write victory letters to their fathers. As we move towards the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, a pair of victory letters from France and Connecticut illustrate a different understanding between home and the front, armistice and peace.

When the United States entered the war in 1917, Harold F. Pierce was a fellow in physiology at Harvard Medical School. Pierce initially contributed to the war cause working with the Bureau of Mines on the effects of poison gas and the improvement of gas masks. He then accepted a commission as a Captain in the Sanitary Corps under the Surgeon General.

Pierce began his service as a flight surgeon at the Medical Research Laboratory at Hazelhurst Field in Mineola, New York, under the command of Col. William H. Wilmer.  Given that airplanes were still a relatively new technology, the field of aviation medicine was also brand new, as doctors rushed to understand how flight affected human physiology.

In May 1918, Pierce wrote home that he was to be a member of the first group from the Medical Research Laboratory to travel to France to establish research facilities there.  His excitement leaps off the page: “[To] be the first man on the spot in that highly important field!

Subsequent letters reveal Pierce’s frustration with the long, bureaucratic process in establishing this overseas post. He made list upon list of supplies necessary for the new facility. An August 9 telegram issuing orders to the Medical Research Laboratory regarding their upcoming transport of people and supplies to France highlights the importance of this undertaking. It was written in code!

Pierce finally set foot in France in late August 1918.  He continued his work on a rebreathing apparatus, based on his research from the Bureau of Mines and Hazelhurst. The Henderson-Pierce rebreathing apparatus (named after Pierce and Yale physiologist Yandell Henderson) tested an aviator’s ability to withstand low oxygen, particularly those conditions at high altitudes.

Pierce and his colleagues established facilities at the Second Aviation Instruction Center at Tours, France, and the Third Aviation Instruction Center at Issoudun, France.  As late as October 1918, the Air Service was working to approve and construct these research centers.