One hundred years ago this month, a University of Pennsylvania professor enlisted in the American Expeditionary Forces to serve during the First World War. He would not return. As we mark this year’s Memorial Day, consider the story of Ward Wright Pierson.
Born in central Iowa, Pierson put himself through Northwestern University working as a carpenter. A fellowship brought him to Penn, where he earned his doctorate in philosophy.
Pierson worked as Wharton’s full professor of business law when President Woodrow Wilson declared war in April 1917. He became one of 80 professors to volunteer for service in the Army or Navy — fully one-tenth of the university’s professoriate.
After earning his commission as a captain, Pierson was stationed at Fort Meade, Md. Here he led Company L of the 315th Infantry, known also as “Philadelphia’s Own” because so many of its members called the city home.
“Give them good food, plenty of work, a square deal, and a baseball outfit,” ran his mantra for keeping up morale during training.
On June 30, 1918, Pierson departed from New York for “over there.”
“Here I am leaving all that is dear to me as an individual and facing forth to some awful end far from all that is dear,” Pierson wrote aboard a troop transport as he sailed past the Statue of Liberty. “Yet I do so willingly and gladly without the slightest regret buoyed up by the knowledge that what I am doing is right.
“My dear wife has the harder part to fulfill,” he continued. “Her courage far exceeds mine.”
On July 15, he arrived in France. “Well” was the single word Pierson sent via cablegram to his wife, Harriet, in Somerton.
Pierson was in command of the First Battalion, which saw fighting along the Meuse River northwest of Verdun. He received a battlefield promotion to major in recognition of conspicuous leadership and gallantry in battles near Montfacoun.
In an entry from Oct. 7, Pierson painted a dismal picture of the situation at the front: “This job is no cinch. Men are cold and sick. Officers are not on the job at all. And it takes some big effort to make men come through. I do my best. Angels can do no more.”
A month later, on Nov. 9, Pierson was slain by a German shell — two days prior to the signing of the Armistice.
“Ward was standing in the door of a dugout going over some instructions with a sergeant as to the location of a machine gun nest which had troubled the advance of our troops,” wrote Capt. D.E. Williams to Pierson’s widow. “A high explosive shell burst almost in the door itself and blew the sergeant to pieces and killed Ward more by shock than anything as he was not disfigured.”
He was the sixth and last infantry battalion commander of the division to be killed in the war. Pierson was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre. He is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon.
“The major took every care of his boys and went as far as to personally examine their shoes to see that none of them would catch cold or suffer unnecessary hardships,” Williams wrote, “Major Pierson was the most loved of officers in the division and his death was a shock to his men.”
Harriet maintained a scrapbook collection of newspaper clippings, letters, photographs, maps, condolences, and memorabilia relating to her husband’s military career and death.
“Henceforth I travel alone, yet shall I not be solitary, since thy sweet memory goeth beside me even unto my journey’s end,” ran her inscription on the scrapbook’s first page.
Along with the scrapbook, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania owns Pierson’s diary, chronicling his military training and campaigns in the Meuse-Argonne region.
In 1932, the Citizens’ Military Training Camp at Fort Meade was renamed Camp Ward W. Pierson in his honor.
Vincent Fraley is communications manager for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.