TRINITY — Unlucky in love, unlucky in war — that’s the sad truth of poor Sgt. William L. Underwood, a good man who surely deserved better.
More than a century after his death, though, we honor the memory of Willie — as most everybody knew him — for his supreme sacrifice, untimely as it may have been. You see, Underwood had the great misfortune of being killed on a World War I battlefield on Nov. 10, 1918 — only hours before the signing of the armistice that ended the war.
Underwood lived in High Point before going off to war, but he was a native of Trinity.
Underwood’s sad story actually began in March 1917, when his young wife, Neta, was hospitalized with appendicitis. Following surgery, she appeared to be recovering nicely, but she experienced a sudden turn for the worse and died. She was only 21, and her death must’ve come as quite a shock to her husband. They’d been married just over three years, and they had no children.
Only a week and a half later, the United States entered the “Great War” — World War I — and by early June, all men between the ages of 21 and 31 were required to register for the draft. Underwood, a few months shy of his 31st birthday, dutifully complied, meanwhile continuing his job at Tomlinson Chair until he was drafted.
In September — only six months after his wife’s death — Underwood found himself bidding his family farewell as he and 18 other young men boarded a train bound for basic training at Camp Jackson, South Carolina. Underwood, likely among the oldest — if not the oldest — man in the contingent, was designated the squad’s leader.
Underwood served with the 322nd Infantry, 81st Division, aka the Wildcat Division. In the fall of 1918, the division was deployed to the battlefields of France, where the soldiers would participate in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a particularly bloody battle near the end of the war.
Historical accounts indicate that on Nov. 9, 1918, the Wildcat Division, facing heavy machine gun and artillery fire, captured the ruined village of Moranville. By the next day, Nov. 10, rumors had begun to swirl that an armistice was about to be signed, but with no official confirmation from their superiors, the Wildcat Division continued fighting.
That afternoon, around 4:30 p.m., Underwood was killed when a bomb exploded directly over his head. He was 32.
The next day, Nov. 11 — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — the armistice was indeed signed, as had been rumored. Countless High Point and Trinity residents — probably even Underwood’s own family — rejoiced that peace was at hand, unaware that one of their own had been killed less than 24 hours earlier.
A week or so later, still unaware of his death, the family received a letter from Underwood stating that his unit was headed for the front, and that the family likely would not hear from him for several weeks. Soon after that, his parents finally received notice from the Adjutant General that their son had been killed in action.
Underwood had written two final letters home before he was killed — one on Nov. 7 to his sister, and another on Nov. 8 to his parents. In both letters, he sounded upbeat, even telling his sister he thought he would be home soon.
Unfortunately, Underwood’s letters were apparently forwarded by the army after they were found in the dead soldier’s pocket. The letter to his sister included a short note from Underwood’s lieutenant, telling of his death.
“Your brother was a most excellent man in every respect,” the lieutenant wrote. “We regret his loss very much. He, with many others, was buried in a beautiful valley in France, close to where he was killed, with full military honors.”
Though heartbroken, the fallen soldier’s family took pride in the sacrifice he’d made for his country. A letter to Underwood’s parents from his younger brother, T.J. Underwood stated, “We must try to look at this as he would wish for us to. … Willie has done his bit and died a true man’s death. He could never have died any nobler than he did.”
Finally, on Sept. 17, 1921 — nearly three years after his death — Sgt. William L. “Willie” Underwood came home, his remains having been shipped from France. Funeral services for the fallen soldier were held the following afternoon with full military honors. More than a thousand mourners paid their respects, and Underwood was laid to rest at High Point’s Oakwood Cemetery beside his beloved wife, Neta.
Even today, more than a century after his death, it’s hard not to feel heartbroken for Willie Underwood, a man who seemingly couldn’t catch a break. His wife died young, and so did he, only hours before the war ended.
What rotten luck.
And yet this month, the month we celebrated Veterans Day — on the very anniversary of that 1918 armistice that Underwood never got to celebrate — we salute the fallen serviceman for the sacrifice he made.