written by Todd DePastino

Western Union Telegram informing William “Bill” Patton's family of his death

VBC member Scott Patton recently passed along this piece of family lore about his great-uncle, Army Private William “Bill” Patton, who was reported killed in action in the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne on November 7, 1918.

As the family mourned in their hometown of Venetia, PA, indications that Bill was still alive began trickling in from overseas.

Friends had spotted him alive and well in France on occupation duty. Then, a letter from Bill dated December 29 arrived in late January. Over two months later, the government confirmed the mistake with a telegram stating that Bill was still alive. Bill finally returned and home was discharged from the Army in August.

Above is the telegram the family received in December 1918 reporting Bill’s death. Below is the second telegram received in April 1919, retracting the first.

Western Union Telegram informing William “Bill” Patton's family he is not dead - confusion caused by the fog of war

Some newspapers also reported on Bill’s death and, with great exaggeration, on his miraculous return home to the shock of his family.

Newspaper article of WWI soldier William Patton's death "Venetia Soldier Dies of Wounds"

Newspaper article about William Patton's death notice mix up thanks to the fog of war

Newspaper article about WWI soldier William Patton's death notice mix up thanks to the fog of war

Finally, Scott sent a transcription of a letter Bill’s brother Walter sent when he heard Bill was still alive. “We all mourned you dead,” he said flatly. “They had everything planned for a memorial service . . .  but this will spoil it.”

Walter also states that a buddy of Bill’s named Gaucher was also falsely reported killed in action. Such mixups must have been tragically common.

Note that evidence points to two sources of the confusion. First, Bill had apparently lost his “identification disk”—dog tag. The disk was picked up by another man who was then killed in the Argonne Forest. Graves Registration found Bill’s ID on the dead soldier and misidentified the KIA.

Second, another William R. Patten—spelled with an “e” instead of “o”—had died and been confused with Bill.

Either way, the episode illustrates how the fog of war often reaches back to the homefront where families can only hope and pray for the best.

Dear Brother Bill-

We certainly got fine news from you yesterday. We had all mourned you dead. We got an official telegram from the government December 21 stating that you were severely wounded on November 7. Then on Christmas Eve we got another telegram telling us that you had died on November 9.

Then last night Ethel, Bob, Earl and myself all got letters from you, written on your birthday December 29th stating that you was safe on the Rhine in Germany. It was quite a relief! Well Bill, we thought all kinds of things about you- we could hardly give you up but we had not had a letter from you since October so you see that made us worry.  How that did change last night! Earl and I went over home and I tell you it was quite a change from Christmas. We did get a little consolation though last week when Anna Messner got a letter from one of your friends, Lewis Lucas and in it he said you was alright.

Pap was down at Pittsburgh yesterday at Park View Hospital and seen one of your old pals that was wounded over there. He was also reported to his mother as being killed. His name was Gaucher. He said he was wounded October 4 but is alright now.

They had everything planned for a memorial service at the high school for you but this will spoil it.

Well Bill- McMurray’s telephone line was kept busy spreading the good news last night.

Our area has been hit hard. Very few boys who left here have not been either killed or wounded or gassed. Bobby Jones, Arthur Hansen and Ziggy have been killed.

Well Bill we are all well. I just got started to work this month. I was off two months with a broken wrist cranking my machine. None of us here have had the flu but Earl’s family all had, Mary the worst. She was awful bad. They thought she wouldn’t get over it. Earl and I are working down back of McKeesport now at a country mine cutting and loading so we are not doing so bad but since the war stopped a lot of the mines shut down already. Earl and I are batching down at the mine so when you come home you can come down and get a good square meal for you know we are both some cooks. We come home every Saturday.

Well Bill, I can’t get my mind on this writing for thinking of you. You can imagine what we had to go through. I am sending a piece we had put in all the papers. Try to save it for me as I would like to keep it.

I will write again in a few days. Try and take care of yourself for we are expecting you home soon.

Your Brother, Walter