My Extraordinary Grandfather…James Widne
My Grandfather, James Widner, was a man’s man, and as a young girl, I admired his demeanor and no-nonsense manner without question! He was also an enigma because he had an impenetrable exterior to the world but a warmth and kindness to his grandchildren that included story-telling, harmonica playing, wrestling, and a tone of unconditional acceptance.
Even in 2017, my cousin, Marlyn and I love to reminisce about our grandfather and share stories of his tough-talking escapades in Delphi, Indiana. By occupation after the return from World War I, James leased the Perlman Brothers Junk Yard in Delphi; he traded hides, furs, and mussel shells in addition to junk. With several employees, James was a wheeler-dealer who did a great deal of the heavy lifting of his trade. In the early 20th century, it was what it was, simply authentic like my grandfather. My cousin reminded me recently of his charity. Each year he had a list of needy families in the community that he delivered Christmas presents to. She recalled, “If he saw a child who needed shoes, they suddenly appeared on the doorstep the next morning.”
When I was 12 years old, my grandfather came to visit me and brought a pair of beautiful geese and the most exquisite pearl I had ever seen, which I have been wearing decades since. He had retrieved the pearl from a mussel shell in the Wabash River, and he decided his youngest granddaughter should possess it. He always chuckled at my menagerie of animals and he loved to annoy his daughter (my mother) by bringing me a new animal for my collection. My grandfather had previously toiled as a Blacksmith and served as one in World War I for a short time, so the two of us shared an affinity for horses that was almost our own language. My grandfather also adored dogs and his coon-hunting dogs were cared for with meticulous pride. His grandchildren loved him with intense passion. The flawless, blue pearl is my most prized possession, and along with my wedding ring, is something you will always find on my right hand.
Shortly before James died on July 12, 1980, I accompanied my mother to the Home Hospital in Lafayette. I was 28 years old. I stayed with him several hours that night. He was delirious and he was shouting commands and reacting to an intense situation. He did answer a few questions, and I soon discovered he was reliving a battle. I regret to say that was the first time I really began to comprehend the extent of what he had endured and given for the United States. After the dust of the funeral settled, I was on a mission to find out more about my grandfather’s military service in World War I.
He was a hero! One only should take the time to read about the bravery of the “Rainbow Division” to see the level of service they performed for our country.
On July 18, 1918, the Delphi Journal published his letter home to his mother. It read: “Dear Mother and All: Received your kind and loving letter of June 12 and was sure glad to hear from you and that you are all well. I am in the best of health and never felt better in my life. How is little Jessie? (his baby brother) Bet he is a big boy by this time? We are on a more active front than we was a while back and you can bet it keeps us busy getting around but I have heard them shells bursting around me and shrapnel flying in so many directions that it don’t bother me much. There is only one thing that gets me a little excited and that is the gas but as soon as we hear them gas horns we are up and bringing our gas masks to gas alert, which is bringing the mask around in front of you and tying it on our breast where we can get it in hand. I saw in the paper where old Company C had started over here and you bet I was glad I was over here and got the training we got. Some of the boys back home might think we are having a picnic over here but they are fooled. I have taken part in one of the biggest offensives that has come off over here.
Don’t think I am down-hearted because I am not and after a fellow gets used to it why it is just like going to some big show, or going to a big wreck of some kind.
Well mother, I am glad you got them insurance papers. I received my allotment the third of July and hope you will hear from it soon. I am sending you some of my pictures while I was at wash and you can bet I had a hard time getting even those. Well dear mother and all, I cannot think of much but will write every day or so. I will say good bye,
From your soldier boy, James Widner, Bat F 150FA, APO, 715 France, Somewhere in France
On November 14, 1918, his photo appeared on the page 13 with an article, “James Widner, son of Mr. and Mrs. William Widner of this city, who is a member of Battery F of the famous Rainbow Division, is doing his bit for his Uncle Samuel. He has been on the firing line for the past six months and in active service the past three months. He has been ‘over there’ since October 1917 and now weighs 169 pounds, a gain of 37 pounds since he left. Fighting agrees with him and he has taken so much interest in the game that his hair stands straight up while in pursuit of the enemy. The photo was taken while he was in the chase for the Huns.
The Delphi Journal reported on him. The May 15th issue announced, “James Widner of the Rainbow Division, arrived home Sunday, after receiving his honorable discharge; the Logansport Pharos-Reporter had reported the news a day earlier.
Over the history of the 42ID, it came to be known as the "Rainbow Division." Multiple explanations for this nickname have been provided. Douglas MacArthur, once Chief of Staff of the 42ID, is often credited with the name. When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, it needed to federalize the state National Guard units to quickly build up an Army. Political concerns soon complicated recruiting, and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker authorized a division to be organized with the best regiments from 26 different states. Major MacArthur, standing nearby, replied "Fine…that will stretch over the whole country like a rainbow."
The 42nd Division adopted a shoulder patch and unit crests acknowledging the nickname. The original version of the patch symbolized a half arc rainbow and contained thin bands in multiple colors. During the latter part of World War I and post war occupation duty in Germany, Rainbow Division soldiers modified the patch to a quarter arc, removing half the symbol to memorialize the half of the division's soldiers who became casualties (killed or wounded) during the war. They also reduced the number of colors to just red, gold and blue bordered in green, in order to standardize the design and make the patch easier to reproduce.
(Please note that my extraordinary grandfather fudged his birthday. His actual birthday was January 10, 1899; in order to enlist which was his great passion, he wrote that his birthday was January 10, 1898)