William Mead Ferris
A member of the 15th Regiment of the 2nd Division of the U.S. Army, William M. Ferris was part of the most decorated division of the Army during the first World War. Individually, he was a standout officer, performing very risky dangerous liaison duty in a number of battles.
Born on April 15, 1892 to William Mead Ferris II and Sallie Ferris (née Estill), William Ferris III grew up in Ann Arbor, MI. Ferris was the grandson of Sylvanus Ferris, one of Galesburg's founders. The Ferrises later moved to Galesburg, and William eventually graduated from Galesburg High in 1911. Arriving at Knox in the following fall with the Class of 1915, Ferris soon proved to be a skilled athlete, especially noted for his prowess in football. In the football section of the 1915 Gale, it says of Ferris, “Bill’s defensive drive is disastrous to stop.” Ferris was also a heavily involved member of Beta Theta Pi, occasionally writing letters back to his fraternity brothers years later.
Soon after, he moved from Galesburg to Grand Rapids, MI, where he lived with his sister and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Percy Peck for three years. After that time, he set out for Milwaukee, where he lived with his brother John and got a job with Jewett and Sherman Co., a spice company. His final move before the war was to Detroit, where he worked for the massively-growing Ford Motor Company. When the U.S. entered the fighting on April 6, 1917, Ferris enlisted at Fort Sheridan in Illinois, where he trained as an officer in the 16th Regiment of the Field Artillery Branch, and soon won his commission as a second lieutenant. He received additional training at Camp Sparta and Plattsburg, both in Wisconsin, and eventually transferred to the 15th Regiment.
On December 8, 1917, he sailed for France. He spent his first three months there training to be an aerial observer at a French aeronautical school and received his military pilot’s license, but due to a shortage of airplanes at the time, and his growing impatience to get into the heat of battle, he switched back to his role as an officer in the 15th Field Artillery Regiment. He transferred just in time to be part of the front lines by the 1st of April. Ferris was involved in the battles at Chateau-Thierry (July 18, 1918), Soissons (July 18-22), the Vesle River (Second Battle of the Marne, which took place from July 18-August 6), and the Battle of Saint-Mihiel (September 12-15). As a skilled officer, Ferris took an active leadership role in the fighting, performing liaison duty, meaning he would jump out of the trench he was in and sprint across the dangerous “No Man’s Land” to another one. This was called “going over the top”. In this last battle at Saint-Mihiel, the dangerous work caught up with him, and Ferris was struck with a gas bomb. Due to the severity of the gassing and the prolonged exposure in the cold, he contracted pneumonia and was sent to a hospital in Blois, France. He passed away after three days there, on September 26, 1918.
Originally buried in a French Catholic cemetery in Blois, his body was later moved to Arlington National Cemetery. Well-admired for his leadership, fellow soldiers and nurses both expressed their respect for Ferris in a number of letters to his family. It was later discovered William Ferris was an amateur photographer, and he took a number of impressive photographs during his time in France.
This letter from William to his mother was published in a local newspaper:
Paris, June 12, 1918
Dear Mother: - Just received your lovely letter of April 7, as I have returned to the regiment.
I joined the regiment during its activity in open warfare of this last drive (June 1st.)
You mentioned that I would have splendid experiences here. I have indeed. Among those of this last week, here is one:
Another lieutenant and I while out reconnoitering unconsciously walked across an open field and about a hundred yards into a wood, by way of a straight roadway, with dense brush on each side.
As we were sauntering along, two Germans came through the brush into the wood about 25 yards ahead of us. On account of their quick recognition they beat us getting into action with their pistols. (Thank the Lord, they didn't have rifles).
Their first shot went wild and we both took deliberate aim with our 45's and let them have four and five, respectively, each taking the nearest man. They both went down and we promptly made a hasty retreat back from the path because we did not know ow many more they might have with them and had no desire to be captured.
We had made about half this 100 yard pathway when one of them (or a new one) fired again. I turned about and returned the fire, stumbled and fell flat on my back. The other lieutenant was by this time well ahead of me, but I regained my feet and we covered that 300 yards of open field again in about two seconds, without a scratch. We met another American then who told us that we had crossed "No Man's Land" and gone about 100 yards into the boche lines.
Flopping into the ditch along the road on the way up had annoyed me a little, but on our return I felt as much at home flopping into that ditch as a duck does on a pond in spring.
I'm getting my ear trained so that I can even now tell whether shells will land within a hundred yards and what calibre they are. That is -- whether to 'flop' or not when I hear one coming. I was under shell fire nearly every day for about three weeks in April and this last week the boche has been dropping over many of those 'occasional now and thens' hoping to catch someone, maybe.
As long as they keep this up we do not know just where they are shooting, and neither do they know where their shells land. So one place is about as safe as another. I half expect to be shaken loose from my blankets every night.
But of course this state of affairs cannot continue long and no doubt will be greatly changed by the time you receive this,
'In case of emergency' my personal effects should be sent to you.
Don't worry. This is information, not anticipation, and I thoroughly believe the Lord will continue to carry me through.
Your loving son,