As America prepares to commemorate Memorial Day this Monday (May 29), honouring the men and women who’ve died in military service for the US over the years, a new name from WWI can be added to the roll of honour thanks to volunteer researchers. CN’s Patrick Gregory reports.
Alongside the names on headstones in American military cemeteries dotted around the world the memorial wall, the Wall of the Missing, is a familiar sight. Carved into the stone, the names of the fallen for whom there is no body and the Missing in Actions.
America’s campaign in World War I resulted in 4223 such MIAs, part of the total tally of over 115,000 war dead, the names all carefully researched and recorded over the years. Yet one name has been missing from that official Missing list until now: the name of a young Maryland sailor, Herbert Hammond Renshaw. His case has been unearthed following dogged work by a group of volunteer researchers and archivists dubbed the ‘Doughboy MIA Team’, led by historian Robert Laplander.
The group has made it its personal mission to try to account for as many of these fallen and missing serviceman as possible from the Great War; and it is indeed a personal mission because, as it happens, the remit of the US Department of Defence in this regard does not extend back that far, only dating to World War II.
So what do we know of young Seaman Renshaw – and what led to his being overlooked until now? Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1897 Renshaw enlisted in the US Navy in February 1914 a month after his 17th birthday.
He trained in Rhode Island and served on a number of vessels over the next three years. Then, in early May 1917, he was assigned to the USS Thornton, a converted minesweeper operating out of Charleston, South Carolina. It was from there that the ship sailed out on manoeuvres on 22nd May 1917.
As part of the exercises, Renshaw operated as a quartermaster on board an accompanying ‘sub chaser’, a supply vessel, performing signalling duties back to the Thornton. But the ships met with severe weather and a particularly heavy sea and in the middle of duties Renshaw lost his balance and was thrown overboard.
When the seas were deemed too rough to launch a rescue dinghy, rescue efforts focused on life belts and ropes, but they proved futile. Renshaw was lost.
According to official figures compiled at the time and highlighted by the Doughboy MIA Team now, the young seaman should have been the 140th such American naval loss of the war from early April until that date. But somehow Renshaw’s name was lost, mislaid in the weeks and months ahead.
The names of all naval casualties from World War I classified as Missing In Action or deemed Lost at Sea or Body Not Recovered are commemorated on the Walls of the Missing at the US Military Cemetery at Brookwood, England, and the US Military Cemetery at Suresnes, France. Yet Renshaw’s name was not one of them.
Renshaw’s father was notified of his son’s death by telegram the day after the accident and an inquest began 24 hours later. The latter concluded a few days later on 28 May 1917, but it was only the first of what was to prove a long-drawn out series of investigations and correspondence by judicial and federal authorities stretching out to the autumn of the following year. It concluded, in the end, that Renshaw’s death was considered ‘an accident through no negligence of his own’.
In the meantime, however, the young sailor’s official status appears to have been overlooked by the military authorities commemorating the fallen.
Poignantly, back in the day, his local newspaper had proudly proclaimed: ‘Wicomico County has the honour of being the home place of the first Marylander who lost his life in defence of his country in the present war with Germany.’ They were unaware at the time of any apparent discrepancy.
Now, finally, in time for this Centennial Memorial Day 2017, it is immaterial. The American Battle Monuments Commission has agreed with the report submitted by the Doughboy MIA Team and will formally recognise one of the country’s first fallen in the Great War.