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West Virginia Veterans Memorial

West Virginia Veterans Memorial


Robert A. Hanna

"The [year] 1918 has gone: a year momentous as the termination of the most cruel war in the annals of the human race; a year which marked, the end at least for a time, of man's destruction of man; unfortunately a year in which developed a most fatal infectious disease causing the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Medical science for four and one-half years devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there. Now it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all-infectious disease."

Journal of the American Medical Association, 28 December 1918

Robert A. Hanna of Richwood, West Virginia, is listed in Soldiers of the Great War, Vol. III, as a private during World War I who died of disease.

The movement of Robert A. Hanna during his military service is best tracked through transport passenger manifests. Their entries also give us some clues about Robert Hanna�s military service. On February 27, 1918, he was listed aboard an army transport leaving Hoboken, New Jersey, as a replacement draftee out of Fort Lee. His father, James R. Hanna, is listed as his emergency contact, with a location in Richwood, West Virginia. Robert was listed as a private in the army Coast Artillery Corps.

In December 1918, Robert A. Hanna is listed aboard the USS George Washington, on his way to the United States. The ship, which was leaving France, had delivered President Wilson to Brest. (Various sources. See William A. McGill, "USS George Washington Service, WWI and WWII," The American Legion, accessed 3 June 2019, The President was on his way to meetings to negotiate the peace and to promote the League of Nations concept. The curious thing about the manifest is that Robert A. Hanna is listed there. Robert A. Hanna of Richwood was listed among those West Virginia soldiers who had died of disease according to the November 27, 1918, edition of The West Virginian, a Fairmont newspaper. On the manifest, he's listed as a private with the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS), on the USS George Washington, embarked from Camp Fortanezan, France, bound for Camp Merritt, New Jersey. His father, James R. Hanna of Richwood, is still listed as his emergency contact. All the others in the cohort were also from the CWS.
USS <i>George Washington</i> unloading at Brest, France, 1918. National Archives and Records Administration photo # NH43281

USS George Washington unloading at Brest, France, 1918. National Archives and Records Administration photo # NH43281

Certainly, the end of World War I, continuing deaths due the influenza pandemic, injuries, and reasons related to gas exposure, sometimes gave rise to confused statuses of soldiers. These and other factors made absolute accounting challenging. (Antoine Prost, "War Losses," International Encyclopedia of the First World War, 8 October 2014, accessed 7 June 2019, On the USS George Washington manifest, handwritten notes are seen indicating that some of the soldiers that were listed did not sail, and an accounting of numbers thought to have sailed vs. numbers that arrived were not the same. There is a list of those who died on board, but this list didn't include Robert Hanna.

During WWI, the first documented large-scale, successful use of chemicals against enemies was in 1915, when the Germans deployed 170 metric tons of chlorine gas at Ypres, Belgium. This occurred after months of escalation of its use, mostly failures, in 1914-1917, and despite a series of treaties in the years 1874-1907, which banned the use of poison and poisonous weapons in war. In 1917, the Germans begin using mustard gas. According to Sarah Everts, "During the first three weeks of mustard-gas use, Allied casualties equal the previous year's chemical-weapons casualties." It would be nearly a full year before Allies would be able to use mustard gas against Germans. ("A Brief History of Chemical War," Distillations, 11 May 2015, accessed 7 June 2019,

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the foray into chemical weapon development also included chemical weapons defense. The development sputtered, split among several agencies and organizations. President Wilson, in June 1918, approved a measure to unify them all under the War Department, and thus the Chemical Warfare Service was established. This included the research arm of the Bureau of Mines, which had been developing gas masks as well as evaluating the chemicals used by armies in Europe. The CWS was made a part of the Army, the Chemical Service Section (Army) along with portions of the Ordnance Department, Corps of Engineers, Signal Corps, and Medical Department, as well as the research arm of the Bureau of Mines. (Leo P. Brophy, Wyndham D. Miles, and Rexmond C. Cochrane, The Chemical Warfare Service: From Laboratory to Field [Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1988]: 13). The American Expeditionary Forces prepared to encounter poisonous gases as well as use chemical artillery shells.

No record was found of the specific role that Robert A. Hanna had in the CWS.

Repeated efforts to reconcile his listing of "died of disease" in November, only to be found on the passenger manifest in December, did not reach satisfactory conclusions. Any person with knowledge of the Robert A. Hanna family who can validate that the report of "died of disease" was mistaken or the manifest is mistaken is invited to contact West Virginia Archives and History with an explanation. Research points to a family in Greenbrier County, but no proof of a stay in Richwood in 1918 was found. No census information, enlistment records, and gravesite listings were found specific to a Hanna family in Richwood that matches the information of a soldier having died of disease in November (or earlier) of 1918.

Article prepared by Cynthia Mullens
June 2019


Robert A. Hanna

West Virginia Archives and History welcomes any additional information that can be provided about these veterans, including photographs, family names, letters and other relevant personal history.

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