A name on the memorial: the story of William Aubrey

By John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

William E. Aubrey and other Kentucky Guardsmen’s names adorn the Kentucky National Guard Memorial in Frankfort, Ky. The 269 names on the monument represent Kentuckians killed in the line of duty since 1912. (Photo by John Trowbridge)

The Kentucky National Guard Memorial, dedicated in 2015, located at the entrance to Boone National Guard Center in Frankfort. The monument contains the names of 269 Kentucky National Guard Soldiers and Airmen who have made the ultimate sacrifice, in times of war, peace, civil and natural disaster to preserve the freedoms we enjoy today as citizens of the Commonwealth.

This year, 2018, marks the final year in which we, as a nation commemorate the Centennial of WWI, what would be more fitting than to recognize the service of one of our World War I heroes?

One of the names listed on the memorial’s wall during the 1912-1940, time period is William E. Aubrey, a name which means nothing to most who visit the memorial, other than the fact he served in the Kentucky National Guard and died in the line of duty.

So who was Private Billy Aubrey?

Aubrey was born in Daviess County, Kentucky, Aug. 29, 1898, to William and Alice Aubrey. In 1900, his parents separated, his father moved to Missouri, young Billy would be raised by his mother in Owensboro. Not much is known of his early years until January 1916, when he was charged with housebreaking. In March 1916, 17-year-old Aubrey was sentenced to spend one year in the Greendale House of Reform in Lexington, Kentucky.

Just months following his incarceration, events along the Mexican-U.S. border threatened to bring the two countries to war, and would forever change the direction of William Aubrey’s life.

Troubles between the U. S. and Mexico starting in 1910 with the Mexican Revolution, in the United States there was fear that the revolution would spill-over into the states along the border. On March 9, 1916, a raid conducted by Pancho Villa’s Division of the North on the U.S. border town of Columbus, New Mexico, would escalate into a battle between the Villistas and the U.S. Army. The attack angered the American public and President Woodrow Wilson ordered a Punitive Expedition led by General John “Black Jack” Pershing, to invade Mexico in an effort to capture Villa, the expedition would eventually fail in its mission to find Villa.

Also in response to the Columbus raid, on June 18, President Wilson called the National Guard into Federal service, their mission, to protect the American border from further incursions into the U.S. from Mexico. Guard units were to patrol and protect the border, but were not allowed to cross over into Mexico.

A Kentucky National Guard Mess Team poses for a photo in Fort Thomas, Ky., circa 1916. Pvt. William Aubrey was reported to work with a mess team in Fort Thomas prior to the Guardsmen being deployed to the Mexican border in 1916. (Kentucky National Guard eMuseum photo)

The Kentucky Brigade was called-up and mobilized at Fort Thomas, Kentucky. From the very beginning of the call-up, mobilization and deployment the Regular Army held the National Guard to standards that they themselves could not attain. While at Fort Thomas, nearly 75 to 80 percent of the Kentucky Guardsmen were medically rejected by Army physicians, mostly due to being underweight. This dramatic loss of personnel in the organization led to a major recruiting effort across the Commonwealth to bring the brigade up to war strength prior to acceptance into the service and deployment to the border.

Chaplain Redd, of the House of Reform, hearing of the effort to fill the depleted ranks of the Kentucky National Guard, contacted Governor A. O. Stanley, at Frankfort, stating that 175 inmates of that institution desired to volunteer for field service. Following conferences between Governor Stanley, the Board of Prison Commissioners and Major Thompson B. Short, of the First Regiment, Kentucky National Guard, thirty-five of these young men were selected for parole to enlist in the Guard for Mexican Border Service.

The news of Major Short’s “new” recruits was not welcomed by the Regular Army mustering officers, and on July 18, 1916, Captain Easton R. Gibson, mustering officer at Fort Thomas, refused to muster the young men into the service of the United States, stating that “only men of good moral character were wanted by the Government.”

Following the refusal of accepting them into the service, having been released from the House of Reform, most of these young men returned to their homes, with the exception of at least one. An article in the August 6, 1916, edition of the Lexington Herald, told of the sad fate of a “friendless waif” at Fort Thomas:

With The Kentucky Militia in Camp At Fort Thomas

All kinds of occurrences are to be witnessed and all types of people to be seen about Fort Thomas, but the most pathetic is William Aubrey, a Greendale Reform School boy, whose acceptance as a Kentucky National Guardsman was refused by United States Army officers. A friendless waif, “Billy” thought opportunity had knocked at his door when the President called out the militia. He came to Fort Thomas and when the Reform School boys were rejected he refused to return to Owensboro, his home.

“I have no friends there, they sent me to jail. I like this life, these fellows are really pals to me,” he cried. Explanations that there was no place to keep him, no way to feed him were useless; he refused to go. Not one of the officers had the heart to put him out of the reservation.

He began to help the mess sergeant of Company I, the command in which he enlisted, and in return was given his meals. He began to help other persons in the Third Battalion of the First. He was a reliable and efficient aid. His work spread and now officers in the battalion declare they cannot get along without him. He sleeps just outside the quartermaster’s tent and guards the supplies. Just two things bother the boy. First, his uniform. It never was new for him and never did fit. Now it looks worse than ever. He wants a new one but there is no way to get it. The second is not so pressing. He wonders what he will do when the Kentucky Guard is ordered to the border. But these worries don’t interfere with his work, and he forgets them to smile when an officer wants some little task performed.

In late August and early September 1916, the Kentucky Brigade moved from Fort Thomas to Fort Bliss, Texas. The Kentuckians established their “tent-city” camp on a mesa about two miles east of the fort. The First Brigade would be used to patrol along a nearly 100-mile stretch of the border from Las Cruses, New Mexico to Fort Hancock, Texas. The Kentuckians served on the border for six months before returning to the Bluegrass and a new mission.

Research was unable to verify that William Aubrey served in any official capacity with the Kentucky National Guard during their Mexican Border Service. It is probably a safe bet that the Guardsmen “smuggled” young Aubrey with them down to the border.

An article appearing in the April 8, 1917 edition of the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, stated that Mrs. Aubrey had recently received a box of clothing from her son who had been serving with the army on the Mexican border for the past nine months. Evidence perhaps that he had finally received that new uniform.

While the Kentucky Brigade was serving on the border, a World War had been raging in Europe for over two and a half years. On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany.

Kentucky National Guardsmen train in Fort Thomas, Ky., circa 1916. The Guardsmen gathered in Fort Thomas prior to being deployed to the Mexican border in 1916 following the Punitive Expedition of Pancho Villa. (Kentucky National Guard eMuseum photo)

On April 25, 1917 in Louisville, Kentucky, 19-year-old, William Aubrey was finally officially accepted and enlisted into Company I, 1st Kentucky Infantry as a private and was sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi for additional training. On October 15, 1917, his company was re-designated as Headquarters Detachment, Horsed Section, 113th Ammunition Train, part of the 38th Infantry Division. While stationed at Camp Shelby Aubrey was promoted to cook.

Aubrey and his command left Camp Shelby Sept. 18 for overseas deployment to France. The young Kentucky Guardsman sailed from New York Oct. 6, arriving at Liverpool, England and finally at Cherbourg, France, Oct. 22.

Within days of their arrival in France the Kentucky units were being sent to the Field Artillery Training camp at Meucon, France. On October 26, near Gael, France, the train he was riding in collided with another troop train. The story of the events surrounding the collision would not make the state-side newspapers until after the war.

According to correspondence by Captain J. C. Hobson, Jr. of the 138th – At 8:50 P.M., Oct. 26, 1918, while enroute from Cherbourg, France, to a training camp at Meucon, France, a train carrying the 113th Ammunition Train collided with the 138th Field Artillery, which had just stopped at the station of Gael. The 138th train reportedly had had mechanical difficulties in the trip up to that point. Headquarters Company of the 138th occupied the last six cars of the train. All six cars were completely demolished. Other accounts report that 14 train cars were “telescoped” in the event. There are many conflicting accounts of the incident published in newspapers at various times with variation in the numbers of injured and dead and even the location of the wreck.

The other members of the Kentucky National Guard who perished in the train wreck were: Buford G. Craig, Norbert V. Henry, Frank James, Charles Lucas, Watkins A. Moss, Walter C. Nagle, Roy V. Ogle, Ralph Rose, James N. Tucker, Garland W. Wells and Walther H. Yeager.

Initially these men were buried in the U.S. Government Cemetery No. 18 at Camp Coetquidan, France.

Upon the return of the Kentucky Guardsmen in mid-1919, Major Thompson B. Short of Lexington was recognized for heroism at the site of the train wreck. The following is taken from the August 9th, Lexington Leader newspaper article detailing events at the crash site:

A citation for meritorious service has been bestowed on Major Thompson B. Short for braving personal danger and for conspicuous service in the rescue of William Aubrey, of Owensboro, who enlisted in the Army here. The rescue followed a railroad wreck at Gael, France, last October. . .

William Aubrey was one of thirty-five youths who made up a platoon from the Kentucky School of Reform, at Greendale. The youthful mistakes which had caused them to be sheltered there were absolved by the action of Governor Stanley. . . . The citation, by command of General Connor, in general order No. 42, July 8, 1919 gives the following account of the rescue of Aubrey and the meritorious service of Major Short:

“After a rear end collision of two troop trains occurred between the 113th Ammunition Train and the 138th Field Artillery and after the rescuing parties had worked for an hour, under the difficulties of darkness and rain, a soldier found pinned underneath an upturned truck wheel, upon which rested the greater part of three telescoped cars. In order to free the imprisoned soldier, it was necessary to raise the wreckage to a very dangerous angle. Major Short, Capt. Freehan, Capt. Cavanaugh and Private Sheehan, without regard to the personal danger involved, crawled thru the wreckage and in a lying and sitting position, worked against odds for three hours and succeeded in rescuing the soldier alive.”

The newspaper accounts failed to mention that Aubrey died the following day. According to his official WWI index card William Edward Aubrey died in a hospital at Camp Coetquidan of wounds he had received in the railroad accident.

A total of 7,518 National Guardsmen from Kentucky served in the war, William Aubrey is counted among the 2,418 Kentuckians who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war.

A letter of condolence written to Aubrey’s mother by his commanding officer, Captain Leo Medley, was published in The Owensboro Messenger, of Dec. 15, 1918:

“Until now, it has not been my privilege to write you the circumstances surrounding the death of your son. I was absent from my organization when the railroad wreck in which the accident causing his death occurred. He was caught with four others, company companions, and many others of other organizations. I can not express to you my sorrow at learning of their death and I have made careful inquiries to ascertain the exact cause. Your son suffered an injury that necessitated the amputation of his right foot and other injuries internal. He was hurried to the base hospital where he was given every attention and his death came to him at a time when he was in full possession of consciousness and without suffering. He was buried in an American cemetery at Coetquidan, France, with those others who had come to death in the same accident. The record of your son as a soldier expresses better than any words I might write, his splendid conduct at all times and his conduct, on the night of the accident, was an inspiration to all who had known and loved him. There was in him a greatness to please and help and he was slow to ask a favor of any one. He is mourned by us as one of the best loved men in the regiment and I assure you that I join you with my whole heart, in grief.”

In 1920 Aubrey’s remains were returned to Owensboro Aug. 24, 1920, five days prior to what would have been his twenty-second birthday. His earthly remains were returned to his hometown and re-buried in the city’s Rosehill-Elmwood Cemetery.

At the bottom of his headstone is this simple statement of his faith, “Died overseas Trusting in God.”

Young Billy Aubrey’s life epitomizes the story and service of many young Kentuckians with little direction in life throughout the years. With a few bad choices and mistakes and headed down the wrong path, they realized their mistakes, and find in the Kentucky National Guard and U.S. military a means to and end and a path to honor. Most of these individuals with the help and guidance they received through the Guard eventually went on to live a fruitful life. However, in the case of Billy Aubrey, life was cut short, but not after he so desperately wanted to serve his state and country and found his way in the world.

As in the motto of the Kentucky National Guard Memorial, “Remembered Now and Forever,” hopefully, Now, the name and story of young Billy Aubrey will be remembered forever.

About sraymond