Donald Ivan Grinnell served in the United States Army in France during the First World War. He spent Christmas overseas, but returned to his home in Bellevue, Michigan the following January. Don was assigned to the 56th Engineers of the American Expeditionary Forces, he was 23 years old and had rarely been away from the comfort of his parents home, just south of Bellevue. His older brother Harry was also stationed in France, serving in a hospital facility caring for the wounded.
This letter is especially revealing. In it he tells of the close calls and details of his deployment that a son would only share with his father or a brother. I doubt very much that he would have wanted his mother to know such details.
Almost 100 years ago this season, Don was spending his holiday's away from his family surrounded by perhaps a strange and unfamiliar landscape. So, with the coming of Christmas Day, I hope we remember all those who, past and present, sacrifice so much for us all.
Envelope states: Dad's X-Mas Letter
To Mr. James T. Grinnell
++++ Text of Letter ++++
Nov[ember] 24, 1918
Well as this is Fathers day I will write you a letter and as the sensorship is raised maby [maybe] I can say a little more than usual. I am well as usual and hope this finds you folks better than the last I heard from you. I was very sorry to hear of the sickness in Amos's family and have worried about them and mother ever since and am anxiously waiting for a letter to arrive. Well I will try and tell you some of my experiences. I left Washington July 8 for New York. There were three companies of us each 250 men. We arrived at New York Wednesday morning the ninth and imediatly went aboard but the boat did not leave the docks until noon Thursday then we sailed out past the statue of Liberty and anchored in the harbor until just before dark when we pulled anchor and put to sea and by dark, land was out of sight. After we were at sea a day or two we begin to pick up other transpoorts and finaly a battleship and one destroyer joined us making in all fourteen boats in the convoy. Ours was about the smallest boat and had only about 11 or 12 hundred men aboard. On the eighteenth there were about ten submarine chasers joined us and escorted us to the port. In all we were eleven days on the way, we had a level sea all the way but some of us were sick and dident care what happened although we did not sight a sub, we kept a watch all the way and had boat drill every day. On Sunday July 21 we anchored in the harbor at Brest France and were ferried ashore. We marched through Brest and about three miles into the country where we pitched our little tents in the mud and stayed for three days, then one morning at two oclock we marched back to Brest got on a train of little French horsecars and after a three day and three nights ride we landed at eleven oclock at night in Langres where we were hauled in trucks to a little town of Longeau. We stayed at this place about a week then marched back through Langres about seven miles to my present camp at Champigny about a mile from Langres. After nearly a week here we marched to the train at 5 o'clock one morning and left for the British Front, we had a ride of about three days and passed through Troys, Parris, Raven, and landed at Amien in the Northern part of France on August 10th. At that time the front lines were just outside of Amiens which was then under shell fire. The night we passed through Paris there was an air raid and we could hear the allarms and see the city as it was put in darkness. When we arrived at the front our company was divided up among the five British Armies our platoon was divided among the 4th Army and sent out about five men to a search light section and that was our first experience of the war. The section which I was with had about fiften men one searchlight and two motor trucks. The big advance began on August 8 and we followed it until October 22. We would have to move nearly every day. When we moved we would pack our light and all equipment on the trucks and move about three miles or sometimes as far as ten miles, pick out or location, dig an implacement for our light, set up our tents and be ready for action by dark. We stood guard all night long, each man doing about two hours and when the guard heard an plain [airplane] aproaching, which he could distinguish by the sound of its motor, he would call out the other men and when the plain was near enough which is anywhere up to five or six miles we would turn the light on and search the heavens for him. It is very hard to find a plane with a search light as one has nothing but the sound to direct the light, but when a hostile plane appears on the seen the whole heavens seem to be split by searchlight beams because there are so many lights looking for him. When once found all the lights within range are turned upon him and he can be seen very planely. Then the antiaircraft guns begin to fire and the air is full of shell bursts. Usually the enemy is so stunned or scared that he drops all of his bombs and imeadiatly begins to retreat unless he has an extra strong nerve or is hit by the shell fire. Sometimes an enemy intent upon gaining his object or at least doing some damage will continue on after being spoted by a light and will drop his bombs at a searchlight and machine gun them but he usualy does little damage to them for they are safely dug in the ground again sometimes he will drop his bombs among some troops, hhorses, on an amunition dump or an air droom in that case great damage is done. I have had them drop bombs all around our light but never hurt any of us also I have had them fire on us with their machine guns and if he was within range we did the same thing but usualy they fly too high for a machine gun. The best method of bringing them down seems for one of our scout planes to attack them when the light shows them up. Nearly always the enemy is set a fire and falls in flames when this method is used. I have seen as many as four planes brought down in one evening like this. Our lights were nearly always under shell fire from the enemys heavy guns and sometimes we had pretty warm times when one hears one of these heavy shells come screaming towards him it dosent take him long to git [get] close to the ground. About the closest I ever came to being hit by one of these was when I was sitting by the campfire after dinner one day. A big shell struck about one hundred yards from me and a piece of shrapnel about the size of an hens egg went into the dirt bank so close to me that I could have caught it in my hands and another which was much larger passed so close over head that I could see it. Some of the bombs used held a ton of explosive and I have seen them blow holes six feet deep and thirty feet in diamiter so you can imagine what damage one would do when it hit its target.
One morning just at dawn we had eight enemy come over at one time and were also being shelled by the heavy artilery but there were no antiaircraft guns close by so they all got away safely. Were all taken off the English lights on October 21 and bidding our tommy friends good by boarded a train at Perone which was then some thirty miles behind the lines, and left for Langres. Some of the most hardly contested towns have hardley a brick left standing and some of the battlefields are just one continual shell hole after another. I passed through the famous Von Hindenburg line which is a master piece of machinery with miles and miles of barbed wire entanglements and concrete dug outs which go to eighty or ninty feet deep. Also I passed over the famous DeNord Canal. When the Germans asked one of our boys how they got the tanks across it he told him we had tanks that walked on water now. Sometimes we were so close to the lines that we could see the infantry when they went over the top. Well we arrived here on Oct[ober] 25 and expected to get our own lights and be sent up to the American sector but before they arrived the Armistice was signed so we did not go and now we will have to pack our outfits and ship them home again. We are all prepared to leave now just waiting the orders to go which wont be many days. Some think we will be in the states in 15 days but I think new year or Christmas is nearer to the day we will probably leave from either Brest or Le Harve. Well I expect this letter wont reach you much before your birthday so will wish you many happy returns of the day although I hope to be with you on that day. Good By.
Your Loving Son.
Donald I. Grinnell
Co F 23 Platoon 56 Engrs.
Amer. Ex. F. A. P. O. 731A
P.S. Have mother write the Quarter Master General at Washington D. C. And tell him about my allotment and all of the sircomstances [circumstance]. The Lieutenaut said to have you do this. He has already writ[t]en him.