Wed, May 2 1917


The Northwestern University hospital unit No. 12, which was organized under the direction of the Red Cross several months ago, yesterday received orders from Surgeon General Gorgas of the United States army to prepare to leave Chicago for the east at a moment’s notice. Twenty-three doctors, two dentists and fifty graduate nurses have already been sworn into service of the United States army. The remainder of the 196 which make up a complete unit will take the oath immediately, according to Dr. Frederic A. Besley, who is the director of the unit. The nurses’ aides, orderlies, sergeants, and privates have been notified and are making ready for duty. Dr. Besley’s personal staff consists of Dr. Kellogg Speed, surgeon; Dr. Milton Mandel, chief medical officer, and Miss Daisy Urch, chief nurse . . .


It is expected that the unit will be ordered to leave for France within a very short time to take charge of a base hospital containing 500 beds.


One purpose in sending the unit abroad is to enable the doctors to study the newest methods of treating wounds and diseases for the benefit of the prospective American expeditionary force.




The Chicago Herald, Thursday, May 17, 1917


Base Hospital No. 12 Leaves for Eastern Port,

Bound for the Front

Bound for “somewhere in France,” its exact destination unknown even to its commanding officer, Chicago’s first army unit--base hospital No. 12--left last night for an eastern port.  It will embark for Europe within ten days.

Tears, laughter and a shouted chorus of good-bys marked the departure of the special train.  There was no music and no public demonstration of any kind.  The train’s route, time of departure and expected arrival are withheld by the Herald at the request of Dr. Frederic A. Besley, director of the unit.

The personnel of the unit comprise 247 persons, of whom twenty-four are physicians, sixty-five trained nurses, two dentists and 153 enlisted men*.  Seventy-five per cent of the enlisted men are college students, about one-third being from Northwestern University.

Just before the train departed Dr. Besley secured long-distance telephonic communication with his mother, Mrs. W. B. Besley, at San Diego, Cal.  Her answer to her son’s announcement that he was leaving for Europe was:

“I’m awfully sorry, Fred, that you’re going, but I’d be sorrier still if you weren’t.”

Major C. C. Collins and Captain A. E. Magee of the U. S. Army are in military charge of the unit.  Captain John A. Porter, U.S.A., will act as quartermaster.


*There are discrepancies from one source to another, even in “official” rosters, as to the number and distribution of BH 12 personnel.  Beginning and ending rosters are included in the appendix.  In addition to Regular Army Major Collins and Captains Magee and Porter, there was a cadre of five regular Army sergeants whose task it would be to provide basic training in military matters for the unit, especially the 150 or so privates.  Within a few months, several of the doctors had been promoted from their original commissions, 9 of the privates had been promoted to sergeant first class, 16 to sergeant, 9 to corporal and 45 to private first class.  By the time they returned to Chicago in 1919, many more had been promoted in both officer and enlisted ranks.

The Nurses

Excerpt from Memoir of Reserve Nurse Elizabeth Lyon, prepared in 1975 for alumnae of the Illinois Training School for Nurses:

In the Spring of 1916 there was much discussion about the proposed plan of organizing Base Hospitals under the Red Cross to be called into active service in case of war of other great need: the plan being to select doctors, nurses and orderlies from one hospital--people who were accustomed to working together, knew each other’s ways and thus could do good team work.

It seemed that the great number of doctors and nurses who had training at Cook County Hospital should certainly furnish enough for at least one or two such units. About this time Dr. Frederick Besley, attending surgeon at Cook County Hospital asked Miss Daisy D. Urch if she would be willing to undertake the interesting task of organizing the nursing service for such a unit.

She began at once to stimulate enrollment in the Red Cross as a preliminary measure so that by February 1917 when authority to organize Base Hospital 12 was finally given, a large number of nurses were enrolled and some had even taken the required prophylactic smallpox and typhoid vaccine. However, people were loathe to believe that America would declare war and even if she did that soldiers would be sent overseas and that there would be many nurses needed. So it required considerable stimulation to arouse any enthusiasm. Still we kept steadily adding to our numbers . . . according to the plan outlined by the Red Cross. The nurses selected were either graduates of the Illinois Training School for Nurses or affiliated schools with about a dozen from Evanston Hospital. The officers were ex-interns from Cook County Hospital.

America’s declaration of war was a salutary stimulant to get our unit in order but even then very few believed we would ever be called into service. However, on Monday morning May 1st, 1917, out of a clear sky came a telegram from Miss Noyes at Washington to mobilize at once for service in France followed by another with instructions to take sixty-five nurses instead of the original number, fifty. Some readjustments had to be made for we had nurses fitted for home duty but not for “overseas” duty.

On Wednesday evening, May 16th, 1917 the entire unit--officers 27, nurses 64, and men 147--assembled at Polk St. Station, took the oath of office and boarded a special train for New York.

The University Men

Memoir of Private George Baker:

At the time America entered the war with Germany, I was attending the Young Men’s Christian Association College in Chicago.

When President Wilson declared war, I investigated the various branches of services carefully before enlisting. I wanted to get into an outfit that would go overseas at once because we all thought that the war would last but two or three months.

About May 1, 1917, three weeks after the U.S.A. declared war, I heard of the hospital outfit at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, which was ready to leave for France to join the British Army. I decided right then to try to get in.

I called up Chaplain Dancey, who was Pastor of the First Methodist Church in Englewood, Illinois--"my own church"-- about enlisting in this special outfit. He gave me the recommendation and I went out to Evanston on May 8 and talked to doctors and some of the officers and they told me to come back next day, May 9. This I did and was examined and signed up for immediate service.

I then went home to Rock Island for a day or two and on Monday, May 14, 1917, the whole outfit took the oath of enlistment in the regular U. S. Army for three years, and four years in the Reserve. My unit was Base Hospital #12, Red Unit.

It all seemed so strange-- one day in school and the next day in the Army ready for a 4,500 mile journey to get to a war that had gone on for two years and nine months already. We thought we would have a nice long trip and the war would be over, but we found out later we were mistaken.

Troop Train to New York

Pvt. Baker’s memoir:

At 8:00 p.m., Wednesday, May 16,1917, the 147 enlisted men in our unit marched away from Patten Gym at Northwestern University with our baggage, suitcases and all kinds of bundles, amid great shouting, singing, Rah! Rah's! and good-byes from the students. We all piled on the Evanston "L" and got off at Union Station.

We left Chicago at 11:00 p.m. on the Wabash Railroad on a special train that had regular sleepers and meals. In Canada, at St. Thomas and Hamilton, the people greeted us. We had written in chalk on the side of the cars, "BERLIN OR BUST". The Canadian people were doubtful about our getting to Berlin.

We arrived in New York at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, May 18, 1917 after thirty-one hours of steady riding. After being told not to tell anyone where we were going and not to send any information through the mails, we were given the whole day in New York.

The “University Men” in fact reported in civilian clothes with suitcases, musical instruments and sports equipment. Totally untrained in Army ways, they were not issued uniforms or equipment until they were on shipboard. Such was the poor state of American preparedness when it entered the First World War--as in other foreign wars over into the next century.

May 17, 1917

Thu, May 17 1917

Laura’s first of 155 letters saved by her sweetheart over the next 23 months was dispatched even before the troop train reached New York City. The envelope was marked in Laura’s handwriting Special Delivery, postmarked Buffalo, NY, May 17 11 PM, and addressed to:

Mr. Jerle Davis

210 S. Desplaines St.

Western Newspaper Union

Chicago, Ill.


Letter #1, Reserve Nurse Laura Huckleberry

to John Erle Davis:

On the train

Somewhere in Canada

Thursday 1:30 PM


Dear Buddy: --

I want to call you that, too--All right?? I dreamed and dreamed and dreamed about you last night--always walking along just touching your hand. I wonder if you dreamed also.

We were assigned our berths and I drew Upper 9. Frances is in upper 7 but Bess & Mac were fortunate enough to be together in upper & lower 6. The other girls are in the other cars but none alone.

- - - - - - -

Just at that moment we pulled into St. Thomas & such an ovation!! There was almost the whole populace down to greet us. They passed us Canadian & British flags*, ice cream cones, oranges, bananas and addresses galore. Sons, brothers & husbands to look up or look out for. One old gentleman told us they have sent 2000 soldiers & their population being only 19,000 you may see how much it meant to them. It was all quite wonderful but made swallowing a bit difficult for a while.

We don't know when we'll get to N.Y. nor when we leave there. If any one knows they keep it to themselves. But anything addressed to the Red Cross Headquarters at N.Y. will reach me. (Hint ??? Oh no, my dear!)

It's almost time for lunch so I'll stop now and see what is on the menu. Please excuse the scribble--it's partly due to the train's wriggling.

Try not to be lonely and write often and come soon.

Yours as ever


* A tiny red Canadian flag on a hatpin was fastened to the page.

May 18, 1917

Fri, May 18 1917
Fri, May 18 1917

Letter from Erle to Laura’s sister, Bertha Huckleberry, a schoolteacher in North Vernon, Indiana:

Editorial Rooms

Western Newspaper Union

Newspaper Service

210 So. Desplaines St.

Chicago, May 18, 1917

My dear Miss Huckleberry, --

Laura and her hospital unit left Chicago for France at 11 o'clock Wednesday night. She thought you might be interested in the newspaper accounts of the departure, so I am sending those which appeared yesterday morning.

As departures go, this event was an unintentional comedy of high quality. The unit was composed of about 350 persons, and think each had a separate following of, say, 500 friends, relatives and enemies on hand to perform the ceremonies of farewell. When all were assembled it made quite a considerable foregathering, and it sounded like the bird house at the zoo.

Too, there were among those present a number of kind old ladies who went thither and yon distributing to the brave Red Cross lassies little bunches of wilted flowers, small flags and books. Laura received her volume just as she squeezed through the gate to the train shed. It was really handsomely bound and led to great expectations. After she had reached the coach and found her berth, she turned eagerly to an examination of the tome. All was revealed in the title page; it said: “Rob Roy.” Ever hear of the story? Neither did we. But you never can tell what kind old ladies will do.

One of my kinswomen sent me a clipping about myself which she had lifted from the North Vernon Plaindealer. It was certainly a monument of misinformation and a vast libel on my patriotism. I am not going any where as a special correspondent; but I hope to start for France soon with my hospital unit and I trust I shall be given an opportunity to perform as a private. I believe I'd do any thing to get into this fight. It is unlikely, though, that unit eleven, of which I am a member, will leave Chicago before the latter part of June.

Surely you will forgive the commercial aspect of this letter when I tell you I was unable to find a single sheet of polite stationery in the whole works.

Sincerely –

J Erle Davis