Ralph Walker: Polk County’s last WWI casualty died in Spartanburg

Published 10:00 pm Friday, May 26, 2017

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth installment of a series of articles about Polk County veterans of WWI whose names are listed on the Doughboy Monument in Columbus.

Sunny View resident Ralph Walker was Polk County’s last casualty of World War I. He died at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, which was located just east of the present Westgate Mall in Spartanburg, between the Blackstock Road and Fairforest Creek.

Spartanburg officials lobbied for their “City of Success” to become the site of one of 32 U.S. Army training facilities constructed after the declaration of war in April 1917. Camp Wadsworth sprang up overnight, a National Guard Mobilization and Training Camp consisting of 1,000 buildings and a sea of canvas tents on 2,000 acres of land three miles west of town. There were 100,000 soldiers who trained there, as did women who attended the Army’s first training school for nurses.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Camp Wadsworth brought the world to Spartanburg. The New York National Guard trained there, organized as the 27th Division, and gained fame in combat in France. The city was ill-prepared for the 35,000 new arrivals so close by, and one writer called Spartanburg “the most upset city in America.” Military policemen dealt with everything from directing traffic to raiding houses of ill repute.

Twenty-six miles north of Camp Wadsworth, at the foot of Hogback and Glassy mountains in the “Dark Corner” section of northeastern Greenville County, the army established its primary artillery and rifle range in a 21 square mile area. Families were relocated for safety reasons, among them, Emerys, Centers, Lindseys, McClures, Gosnells, Lockharts, Fishers, Howards and Plumleys. However, Morris and Ollie Plumley refused to move out and stayed with their six children adjacent to artillery firing positions.

The Pruitts lived just off the range and benefited from the economic “boom” by opening a small store. In Landrum and Campobello the train depots became busy staging areas for troops and materiel coming up from Spartanburg by rail. Mule-drawn wagons and trucks then moved men and cargo to the Glassy Mountain range over what became Highway 11, while infantry trainees made the 26-mile march from Camp Wadsworth for rifle instruction and combat maneuvers.

The New York soldiers had an interesting time meeting the inhabitants of the area, mountaineer-farmers, Civil War veterans, and moonshiners, who warmed to the new arrivals when it was seen that the color of their uniforms was not blue, but khaki.

The Northerners were surprised when the winter of 1917-1918 became the most bitterly cold in memory, leading to jokes about the “Sunny South,” which came to look more like New England. But the winter holidays were elaborately celebrated, with 33,000 pounds of turkey consumed on Thanksgiving 1917.

Ralph Walker had registered for the draft on June 5, 1917. The 21-year-old farm laborer was noted as being stout, of medium height, with brown eyes and black hair. He was from a family of eight children headed by his father, Reverend Charles G. Walker of “Route 2, Mill Springs.”

Ralph Walker was drafted and inducted into the Army on August 5, 1918, and served at Camp Wadsworth where he was a member of the 5th Pioneer Infantry, known in today’s army as “Civil Engineers,” assigned to the medical department at the base hospital.

At 5:30 on the morning of October 28, 1918, two weeks before the end of the war, Private Walker died in the hospital of bronchial pneumonia in both lower lobes of the lungs, after 18 days of sickness. His death, brought on by the “influenza,” was reported in the Polk County News on November 1.

The 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic has been called “one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history,” killing an estimated 20 to 50 million people worldwide, most of them young and healthy adults, more than were killed in the Great War. The American military experience in World War I was closely intertwined with the influenza. Thirty-six percent of the U.S. Army was sickened, and training and combat effectiveness were affected. Ralph Walker was one of an estimated 43,000 servicemen mobilized for the war who died of influenza and pneumonia, more than fell victim to enemy weapons.

Private Ralph Walker was buried in the Silver Creek Baptist Church cemetery. On his grave marker are the words, “To the memory of a brave man who died that his country might live.”

– article submitted by Alan C. Leonard