The World at War: One Hundred Years Ago This Week

One hundred years ago this week Naval recruit Palmer Bennett Coombs (1893-1959) was drilling at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Palmer enlisted in the Michigan State Naval Militia on April 6, 1917, the same day the United States formally declared war on Germany. He was sworn in that evening and received orders to report to Ann Arbor for training on April 11, 1917.

Unidentified Sailors possibly Palmer and friends

We are fortunate to know this because Palmer captured his personal thoughts and experiences in diaries from April 1917- January 1919. The diaries are held by SC&A as part of the Coombs-Learned Family Papers, 1819-1985 (MS-182) and available to view online through CORE Scholar.

Here are his transcribed diary entries for May 14-May 20, 1917, one hundred years ago this week. Coombs remained in Ann Arbor until May 23 when he and his fellow trainees boarded a train bound for the Naval Training Station Great Lakes in Chicago, Illinois.

Monday, May 14, 1917. Got up at 3:30 this morning and caught the 4 o’clock train going east. Manuel was with me as he had business in Detroit. Arrived in Ann Arbor at seven. Ate breakfast, came home and put on my old clothes. Reported for drill at 8:30 and spent the rest of the morning on Ferry Field. This afternoon we had practice in rifle sighting and then took an examination on Part one of the Blue Jacket’s Manual. After supper I fooled around the house and went to bed early.

Tuesday, May 15, 1917. Marched south of town and did some skirmish work over the hills all morning. This afternoon I took and passed both my sending and receiving tests in the wig-wag signaling. Had gym. work and more instruction in fencing. Tonight I cleaned out the room as I am the only one left in it. Harry has gone home.

Wednesday, May 16, 1917. Drilled on Ferry Field this morning. At eleven we went back to the Gym. and each man in the two divisions received $15 to cover room rent for six weeks. In the afternoon I had rifle sighting practice and wig-wag signaling. In the evening George and I did some ironing, got a “lime coc” and went to bed.

Thursday, May 17, 1917. Took a hike over south of the Boulevard and skirmished over the hills and captured the enemy, consisting of a herd of cows, which stampeded in its retreat. In the afternoon had instruction in advanced knots. In evening George and I tied knots, got a “lime coc” and went to bed.

Friday, May 18, 1917. Drilled all morning on Ferry Field. In Afternoon we went up by the boat house on the Huron River and semaphored across it. In evening I went up to hear the U. of M. Band concert and Senior Sing. Went to the Orpheum with Ralph and Jim Clarke. On the way home saw the Sophmores [sic] hazing a Freshman. Got some eats at the Busy Bee and then came home.

Saturday, May 19, 1917. Gave an exhibition drill before the Seventh Division on Ferry Field this morning, and they gave one for us. Were dismissed at seven bells as usual, but were not granted “shore leave” Sunday. Borrowed Ralph’s uniform for a parade tomorrow, and washed it after lunch. Went down to Ferry Field to see the Fresh-Soph. contest in Relay Race and Pushball6 . Fresh won first relay and the pushball. Sophs won second and third relays. Yesterday the Sophs won the light and middle weight tug of war. Fresh won heavyweight. Have a sore throat and my eyes are bothering me. Going to bed early tonight.

Sunday, May 20, 1917. Got up about 8:30 and had breakfast at the house. Fooled around awhile and then went to church with Mark Day. Shifted into uniform, went to noon mess and assembled at the gym at 1:30. Both of our divisions and Company I of the State Militia marched with the Knights Templar to the cemetery in observance of Ascension Day. Had lunch at the house and then just fooled around awhile and went to bed eary [sic].

Palmer Coombs’ Signature, 1918

Please continue to check back as we will be commemorating U.S. Involvement in World War I now through Veterans Day (formerly Armistice Day), November 11, 2018.

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