Private Joseph Ezra Drury
1st Platoon, E Company, 178th Brigade, 356th Infantry Regiment, 89th Infantry Division
Joseph Ezra Drury was born into the Drury family on 8 May 1889 in the rural Kentucky farming community of Big Clifty, Grayson County, Kentucky. The Drury family had plowed the fields of Grayson County for three generations dating back to the first arrival of his great-grandfather in 1801. Ezra was a middle of ten siblings and spent the first many years of his life in school and helping to run his family farm, one of many Drury farms in the area. While news was always somewhat slower in Grayson County circles, the rumors of war nonetheless swirled amongst them and its potential impact on the farmers was widely debated. On 6 April 1917, Ezra was doing his typical farm work when the news of a declaration of war hit the town. As the farms were now highly needed to maintain food supplies for soldiers overseas and the citizens left at home, he first decided to stay home, granted a draft exemption, and focused on helping the family in these new circumstances. The time for work, however, was not permanent and after receiving his draft notice, enlisted into the United State Army on 24 June 1918.
29 years old upon enlistment, Ezra trained at Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, one of the largest military camps in the nation. He was assigned as a rifleman in D Company of the 156th Infantry Regiment, 39th Infantry Division, and eventually hopped aboard the S.S. President Grant in August to join the unit “over there.” By the time Ezra reached France in September the 39th had been designated as a depot and replacement division, meaning the soldiers in her ranks would be separated and divvied out to frontline units depleted in the American offensives. Following the order, Ezra was quickly reassigned to his combat unit, 1st Platoon, E Company, 356th Infantry Regiment, 89th Infantry Division. The 89th suffered heavy casualties in the September St. Mihiel offensive and Ezra joined a wave of replacements sent to help them replenish their companies. Ezra arrived on the 25th along with 93 other replacements from the 39th ID to help secure the E Company frontline positions in Benney Wood (notice how many had to be sent to understand the damage done to just a single company during the St. Mihiel offensive). Artillery was frequent and accurate and many nights were spent huddled together in their shallow trenches hoping to avoid the shrapnel. On 3 October they relieved the 78th ID near Thiaucourt and took up the line of resistance along with F and G company.
On the evening of 5 October E company was given orders to move back towards regimental reserve about 1-2 kilometers behind the main line. Movement commenced in the dark as the men searched for a place to rest and spend the night, arriving around 2300 at a field depot where they were greeted by hot meals. Afterward the men continued moving towards their position, the small woods of Bois du Fey, when they began to smell mustard gas. An NCO sent forward to investigate discovered a strong presence of gas in the area and thus decided the company should camp on the southern hillside until they could move again in daylight. At 0430 that morning the German artillery began a large shelling of the 89th Division line firing several thousand artillery rounds, about ⅓ of them gas, in creeping barrages leading from the frontline to the rear echelon areas. The doughboys of E company were aroused by the blasts but remained foggy in the early morning hours. Shells began landing closer and closer to the company, traveling up a ravine between the two hills as the soldiers watched in vain. In the span of a blink, the world of the company was turned into one of death and destruction as a 155mm German mustard gas shell landed directly in the middle of the 1st Platoon area, sending Ezra and other GIs flying and rolling away as several of his platoon-mates were torn to pieces by the explosion.
The impact was brutal. The creeping barrage meant that along with the mustard gas shell, Arsene rounds landed within their vicinity. A less lethal gas, Arsene was primarily used as a skin irritant to cause scratching and itching in anticipation of mustard gas shells which then killed the doughboys who could not stand to put on a gas mask due to the irritation. In the situation of Ezra and his company this was compounded by the fact of how many replacements made up the unit. Large quantities of mustard gas enveloped the area in seconds and the wood was painted with a thick yellow mist. Ezra, like many of the other newbies, jumped up in a panic, running around attempting to find cover from the sudden attack. Eventually, he was able to find a small hole in which he jumped and buried his face in the ground. The desperate attempt was not enough, however, and the thick acidic mustard gas wrapped around him and began entering his lungs. In shock from the blast, many of the replacements failed to effectively or entirely put on their gas masks and unit discipline dissolved into a frugal scramble for survival. Several officers began to take charge of the situation attempting to drag out the wounded and give aid to the gassed, but they too fell victim to the gas within a matter of minutes.
When the gas dissipated company medics were finally able to stabilize the surviving soldiers. Ezra suffered burns to his skin and face and severe inhalation of the mustard gas caused large amounts of damage to his lungs and throat. In total the company suffered 13 dead, 22 wounded, and almost 60 gassed, Ezra amongst the most severe due to his proximity to the shell landing directly in his platoon’s part of the line. He had only been with the unit for ten days. E Company was not the only hit that night, however, and several of her sister companies still on the front line suffered even greater casualties from the bombing. Trucks arrived and brought all the gassed to a field hospital and Ezra proceeded to more intensive care at a French hospital in St. Aignan, spending the next six months recovering from his wounds until his lungs had healed enough for him to confidently move under his own power. On 4 March 1919, he joined several hundred other survivors from the hospital and boarded the battleship U.S.S South Carolina to begin the trek home.
Ezra returned to his farm about a month later and put up his uniform and equipment for a final time. His homecoming was not celebratory as both his parents had caught the Spanish Flu and passed away within two weeks of his return home. As the oldest son who could inherit the property (his two older brothers joined the Xavien catholic brotherhood in Louisville), Ezra took over the work for the farm and remained unmarried for several years, running it with his younger siblings until he found a wife in 1930. As WWII appeared on the horizon, Ezra, the signature family veteran, warned all his siblings and family members about the horrors they may face. Only his younger brother Edward ended up serving, but took his advice and enlisted early enough to get a nice comfortable job teaching cooking the entire war at Camp Lee, Virginia. Ezra was able to retire, letting his own son take over the farm, and lived to the ripe age of 100 where he passed away in peace amongst the rolling hills and forests of Grayson County, untainted by the yellow mist of the French hillside he once rested upon.