Saturday, September 26, 2009

James Clyde Cofield

Clyde was the older brother of my grandmother, Pearl Cofield Robinson. He was born July 16, 1900 at Hackleburg, Alabama to Mary Marenda "Dollie" Loyd and her husband John Richard Cofield, and he died at the age of 18 at Muscle Shoals.

The photograph of Clyde is encased in a small lapel pin which was found in my grandmother's jewelry case. As a young girl, my grandmother was exposed to death and sadness many times. Her father died when she was three years old, then her mother died just a couple of years later, and her brother Clyde died twenty days before her twelfth birthday.

Clyde, like thousands of other young men during World War I, was required to complete a draft registration card. Three draft lotteries were held, and Clyde barely made the third and final one. He turned eighteen on July 16, 1918 and the third draft registration was held September 10, the first draft that included eighteen year-olds.

The registration card completed by Clyde showed that he was employed by the American Nitrate Company at Muscle Shoals in Colbert County, working as a waiter. His grandfather was listed as next of kin in Bexar, Alabama. A description of Clyde indicated that he was of medium height and medium build with blue eyes and brown hair and no physical disabilities.

Each county in the United States had a local draft board, and Clyde's draft registration card was stamped by boards in both Marion and Colbert counties. The registration was usually held on just one day, starting early in the morning and often ending late at night. Whistles, church bells or canons were used to signal the start of registration. Some towns held parades and patriotic speeches.

How did Clyde come to be employed at Muscle Shoals, about sixty miles away? In late 1917, ground was broken for the first of two nitrate plants in Colbert County. The following August construction started nearby on the Wilson Hydroelectric Dam. Construction on these facilities created a population boom in the area. By August 1918, over 20,000 workers were employed, and it was estimated that it took nearly 80,000 people to keep the workers working. Although wages were high, labor shortages occurred due to the poor living conditions and housing shortages. Clyde was probably drawn by the unheard-of wages of 30 cents per hour and the idea of doing his patriotic duty.

Construction proceeded at a high pace. Over 230 permanent structures were erected, 165 miles of sewer lines and 685 miles of electric cable were laid. Homes for the workers were built. Housing and feeding the 20,000 workers were a chore. Twenty-three mess halls served more than 24,000 meals per day, and it was probably at one of these mess halls that Clyde initially worked for the company. He didn't stay employed as a waiter, however, since his death certificate completed one month after the draft registration indicated that he was employed as a "seal keeper" at the nitrate plant.

In October and November of 1918, the influenza epidemic reached Muscle Shoals. The crowded living conditions at the facilities mimicked those of soldiers' camps and thus were ripe for the spreading of the influenza virus. At that time, medical science was ignorant of the existence of viruses or how diseases were actually spread. At the Muscle Shoals facilities, nearly 8,000 people fell sick and unknown numbers of construction workers were buried on the construction site. This strain of influenza was unique in that it struck healthy robust young men particularly hard as opposed to the usual victims: the young, elderly or sickly population.

Clyde died October 10, 1918. His death certificate shows the cause of death as lobar pneumonia. This was the typical end-effect of the deadly virus. The lungs of victims were usually found filled with fluid, literally drowning them to death. Clyde died exactly one month after completing his draft registration card, at the ANC Hospital, a facility erected on site at the nitrate plant. He was barely eighteen years old. The war ended a month later on November 11, 1918.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mona, based on your informative information about the draft, then I'm guessing that my dad, the late Leon Stone born in Bexar, AL on Aug. 29, 1900 would have been in the third draft also. The only information I ever heard about the timing was the school year had just started and he chose to drop out of school to make sure his dad, Morman B. Stone, got all "the crops in before he had "to go to war." I think his scheduled date to leave was about the 18th of November and that call to war was cancelled when the Armistice was signed on the 11th, leading daddy to head for Dallas, Texas where he landed a job as a doorman at the Adolphus Hotel - the outstanding home away from home address! He stayed for 3 or 4 years and realized there wasn't any future and returned home and enrolled to board in Hamilton so that he could complete his high school education - he graduated in 1924.

Thank you for this enlightening story about the draft for WWI. I do have memories of dad's having to register again (1942) for WWII, and he thought he might have to go, but with 4 children, that placed him low in the classifications, maybe just above "F"! since he was by then 41 + years old.

I urge everyone to join me in thanking our young people personally for their service whenever we see men or women in uniform - let them know they are appreciated. I remember the stigma of Vietnam and "it ain't" nice! bettye