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John Earl Kraft
Soldiers of the Great War

West Virginia Veterans Memorial


John Earl Kraft (Craft)

"Mute in that golden silence hung with green,
Come down from heaven and bring me in your eyes
Remembrance of all beauty that has been,
And stillness from the pools of Paradise."

Siegfried Sassoon

Army Corporal John Earl Kraft (Craft) was born at Dekalb, Braxton County, West Virginia, on September 27, 1888, to George J. and Mary E. Craft. Throughout this biography we will use the Craft spelling, for that is the name as it appears in the 1900 and 1910 Federal Census and the name under which John Earl registered for the draft on June 5, 1917. Interestingly, though, the name is spelled Kraft in a Braxton Democrat article dated March 20, 1919, and on his cross in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France, where he is buried. Thus, it is engraved as Kraft on the West Virginia Veterans Memorial.

John Earl Craft was the third child born to George J. and Mary E. Craft. According to the 1900 and 1910 Census, his siblings included Ernest, Mabel G., Ida B., David C., Daisy B., Georgia G., Wilbur S., and Fanny.

Cpl. Craft registered for the draft on June 5, 1917. At the time of his registration, he indicated he was single; however, an article in the Braxton County Democrat on March 29, 1919, included a letter to his wife, indicating he had married sometime between his draft registration and his untimely death on October 3, 1918, although no record of this marriage can be found in Braxton County or the state of West Virginia. His draft registration card states that he was a barber in the community of Bower prior to his military service. It notes also that he was tall and of medium build, with blue eyes and black hair. Overseas, John Earl was assigned to Battery E, 313th Field Artillery Regiment, 80th Infantry Division.

draft registration

Draft Registration Card for John Earl Craft (note spelling). National Archives and Records Administration

Headquartered at Camp Lee, Virginia, the U.S. Army organized the 80th Division in August 1917. Recruits for the 80th Division were generally from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, and it was commonly referred to as the "Blue Ridge Division," giving rise to its unique insignia of three blue mountain peaks and its motto, "Vis Montium" ("Strength of the Mountains"). In World War I, 23,000 Division soldiers arrived in France on June 8, 1918. They trained with the British Third Army and saw heavy action in the Somme and the Meuse-Argonne Offensives. Returning to the States in May 1919, the Division was inactivated by the Army in June of that year. The Division's history states that it never failed to gain its objective and thus the War Department ranked it first of all Army Divisions. Among its accomplishments: It was the only Allied Expeditionary Force Division called on three times in the Meuse-Argonne campaign; it captured two Germans for every Division member wounded; and it had a smaller percentage of casualties than any other division. (Source: 80th Infantry Division, "History of the 80th," accessed 7 Nov. 2014,

Cpl. Craft, unfortunately, was one of those casualties. Wounded in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, he died of his wounds on October 3, 1918, or shortly thereafter.

A letter to Mrs. John E. Kraft of Rosedale, W. Va., from L.M. McLaughlin of the Supply Depot, Navy Yard, Norfolk, Virginia, and reprinted in the Braxton Democrat, March 20, 1919, provides a graphic description of Cpl. Craft's demise:

Your letter dated February 16th to my home address (and forwarded to me) received, and in which you ask if I could give you more information concerning the way in which your husband met his death on the battlefield of France.

First, let me tell you why I am back in America. I was gassed on October 26, 1918, and was sent back to the hospital, and after spending several months in France, and the war being over, was sent back to America. I was discharged from the army and am now in the Navy Department.

On October 3, 1918, our regiment was located in some woods about two and one-half miles off hill 281, with the exception of Battery "E," and on this day "E" battery was coming up to take position with the other batteries. I had been forward with the rest of the regiment, and with two of my men was returning to the rear to get some telephone wire. This was about five o'clock in the afternoon, French time. I saw the gun crew which your husband was in, with the gun, coming up over hill 281. At that time I was about one mile away. The enemy was shelling that particular place, and I saw a shell hit just where your husband with the rest of the men were. I remarked to my men that that was the last of those poor fellows; but after the smoke died away I saw them take up the trot, and from where I was then it did not look like any one had been killed or wounded. Together we walked on in that direction until half the distance had been covered and I saw something lying there, and I said to the boys, "Some one has been killed, or possibly only wounded, and I am going to see and lend a hand if possible." I must say it was taking a chance, for the shells were falling thick and fast around there. When I got to him two other men with stretchers were there to take him to the first aid field hospital; but he looked like he was dead, and as we had no time to attend to the dead, or bury them, we left him. I had not gone far when I was tempted to look back, and I saw him move, and I turned and went back to your husband. He opened his eyes and I asked him if I could do any thing for him, and he said yes, to write to his dear little wife and tell her just how he met death; also to tell you that all was well with his soul, and for you not to worry; also to tell his mother and father good-bye, and that his last thoughts were of you. The little diary dedicated to his wife and mother he said for me to be sure to send it to you if possible. It was full of sweet thoughts and memories of you, and from that book I knew that his thoughts were always with you. This book I could not send you at that time, as it would not pass the censor, owing to the fact that it gave the name and date of every battle he had been in. I talked it over with my censor and we together were going to send it to you, or try; but I was wounded by gas and sent back to the base, and the book was left in my pack with my company. After I got to the hospital I wrote to one of my boy friends and asked if he would not send the diary to you, and I am sure that later you will get the book. I will make every effort to get it for you. I will write to my boy friend again, also to my censor, in regard to it, and if possible you will get it.

Your husband had both legs blown off at the knee, and one was just hanging where it joins the body. He also had other wounds in the body. You husband was dying when I left him. It was hard to leave him, but I could do nothing else, and wene [sic] to see if I could get some one to help me take him to the hospital. Before I left him he asked me for water. I was sorry, but I had none. I had been without for two days myself. He then asked me to turn him over, which I gladly did, and made a pillow for his head of his pack. You do not know how hard it was for me to leave him, but I thought I could find help, and when I returned he was not there. He had been picked up by an ambulance and taken back to the hospital, and he died a few days later. [It should be noted here that if this account is correct, the action is taking place on October 3 and his death would be a few days later, but other documents list his actual date of death as October 3.] You said that possibly he was in some hospital over there now. I really do not think so, for if this had been the case the war department would not have reported him dead, and then I am sure that a loving husband like yours would have written to you just as soon as he knew that he was taken care of. True enough, hundreds of boys live with both legs shot off, but with the other wounds your husband had I don't think it was possible for him to live. I asked your husband if he knew how badly he was wounded and he said, "Yes." I think he knew he was dying then, and the look on his face told me he was. I did not know your husband personally, but he was in the same regiment that I was in:the 313th F. A. I was in headquarters company and your husband was in "E" battery. He was a good soldier and was liked by his company.

Assuring you that I will do everything I can in regard to your securing the diary, and asking that you write me some time if you receive the book.

My deepest sympathy is with you in this your great sorrow.

As of this writing (2014), Mrs. Kraft (Craft) has not been identified. Could she have remarried and had children? John E. Craft did, however, have nieces and nephews who do remember him from family histories, and thus his legacy lives on.

It is not often that history provides such an account of a soldier's death, but sadly it now seems we have greater detail of Cpl. Craft's death than of his life. The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery sits east of the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon (Meuse), some 26 miles northwest of Verdun. Most of the soldiers there interred (14,246 total) are casualties of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, including Cpl. John Earl Kraft (Craft), who lies in Plot E, Row 4, Grave 35.
Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission

Family information provided by niece Mary Sue Craft McKnight. Article prepared by Patricia Richards McClure
November 2014

John Earl Kraft

John Earl Kraft (Craft): Part II

"If I fall it will be facing the enemy."

John Earl Kraft (Craft)

Patriotic photos such as this
were often taken of World War I soldiers
as they readied to leave for service
in World War I. Courtesy of niece Jean Woodfell

As noted in the 2014 version of this article, John Earl Kraft was married, but the identity of his wife was not known at the time. Then in the fall of 2018, Donna Priest contacted West Virginia Archives and History, noting that she had accessed John Earl's biography and was able to provide additional information. Donna is married to John Priest, son of Gertrude Priest; Gertrude Priest was born Gertrude Shock and was first married to John Earl Kraft. Gertrude did remarry after the death of John Earl, to John Mason Priest. They had a son named John Edward Priest. Gertrude Shock Kraft Priest and John Mason Priest ultimately divorced. Donna is a meticulous researcher and was eager to learn more details about John Earl Kraft.

One artifact Donna is privileged to have in her possession is John Earl Kraft's World War I diary. This little 5" by 3"-inch booklet is titled on the inside page "Army and Navy Diary." John Earl dedicated it to his wife Gertrude Kraft and "Mother Kraft." [It's interesting to note that, while he signed his draft registration card as "Craft," he refers to the family as "Kraft" in the diary. The Find A Grave pages for the family patriarch use the "Craft" spelling.] Now more than a century old, the booklet is understandably disintegrating, but it is preserved for history because Donna Priest has transcribed it so that both a hard copy and an electronic copy are now extant.

On the second page of the diary, John writes: "To whom it may concern: Should I be mortally wounded or killed and someone find this little book on my person will you carry out the last wish of a friend and forward this book to my wife with as full account of how I fell as possible. Very truly yours, J. E. Kraft."

The first part of the book is filled with necessary detail regarding his enlistment, training, and departure for France. Then the diary has a section entitled "English-French Vocabulary." The essence of the story begins at camp on Thursday, May 23, 1918. The following Saturday finds his unit "in harbor" awaiting sailing the following day. The journey took approximately two weeks, although the dates are not specified in his entries, for reasons he explains.

The diary begins "At Camp"-Thursday, May 23, 1918:

Dear Gertrude: This begins on Thurs. after you left on Mon. morning. So you can follow date from that time and know just when the following data occurred. I am not allowed to give any dates that will give any information as to time of leaving or where we are, etc. Today we shipped part of our equipment and are awaiting orders to move to embarkation point.

On May 31, John Earl's unit has been at sea for a week; he writes in his diary to Gertrude and his mother:

Dear ~ God is on the Ocean the same as on the land and I am not afraid, it is still stormy. I've been in the bed three days and have eaten but little during that time; one meal, I think. Dears ~ Last night I dreamed of home and was so glad about the way every one thought about our marriage, Gertrude, and the way every one loves you. I've been very sick but in mind I've roamed over both our homes with you.

At several points in the diary John Earl writes about his reading material; the Sunday, June 9, entry notes:

Little Wife ~ I've just finished a book, "Mary Neville." The story of a girl who married a drunkard who was a peculiar man. I've learned much that will help me avoid making some mistakes at least and to be a better man.

June 16, Sunday, finds the unit "Over Sea Somewhere":

Dearest ~ we landed this morning and it has been an exciting day for us. We are now in a rest camp for three or four days. I am at the Y. M. C. A. Services are now over and a show is on or about on. A great country [France] here!

Friday, June 21, finds John Earl and his comrades-in-arms at Rest Camp #2:

Dears~ Lieut. took nine of us to town today for a holiday, and some time we had too! We visited some famous buildings several hundred years old. Saw some mummies and famous paintings. They serve wine at dinner here so we had some wine but not enough to hurt us.

From the landing in June through the early part of July, the mood is light and pleasant, as though the men are on holiday. As time goes on, however, there is more training on guns, the atmosphere becomes heavier, and the mood becomes darker. On Sunday, July 7, the diarist writes:

Dears~ we were gassed this morning just for practice. It did not hurt us for it was tear gas, just hurt the eyes. We got part of our horses today too. They are very nice looking. [Note that this statement is from a farm boy.] I am just ready to begin my daily Bible reading.

A month later, Saturday, August 8, the unit is on the move, and the situation has become more dire:

Dear ~ We are 13 miles from where we were this morning. We had breakfast before daylight and dinner at 3:30 and supper at six. We are beginning to know what war means. Oh these awful marches.

The darker mood continues Tuesday, August 11:

Dears ~ Today has been the most interesting one I have spent in France. We arrived at our first regular camp and ended our 4 day march. I saw my first prisoners and saw my first French shell burst same day, same camp. Things will follow.

By late September, entries are begun with either "At the Front" or "In a Dug Out." On Tuesday, September 23, he writes:

Dears ~ We passed the night alright. The shells went high but today at 3:30 shells are hitting our position and we have no ammunition. Our combat train turned back.

On October 2, John Earl Kraft made the last entry in his World War I diary:

Dears ~ There has been some excitement in our Batt. since I wrote yesterday. Two or three have been wounded and others narrowly escaped. The enemy have been shelling us and we them. (To access a transcription of the complete WWI diary of John E. Kraft, click on this link.)

As an epilogue, Donna Priest writes: "This is the last entry in John E. Kraft's journal as he died on October 3, 1918, in battle at the Front. Somehow his little diary found its way home to his dear loved ones he wrote to every day. My mother-in-law Gertrude Kraft-Priest had possession of this diary until her death and it was then passed on to her son (my husband) John E. Priest. I did not know John Kraft (I wish I could have had the opportunity), but I wanted his story (as he wrote it) to be remembered, so I have made this hard copy of his diary to be kept with our family records. We are proud of him."

The diary of Corporal John Earl Kraft is an incredible window on the day-to-day life of a soldier. Every piece of the puzzle contributes to the knowledge of that era, now so quickly fading from the national memory.

Article revised by Patricia Richards McClure based on information provided by Donna Priest
November 2019


John Kraft

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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