William Sterling Estes’ Court Martial and Escape; 3 Wives and 4 Aliases – 52 Ancestors #217

Oh yea, this cliff-hanger installment in the mystery series better known as “Dad’s Better-Than-Any-Soap-Opera Life” is a doosey!

I’ve been trying for years to piece my father’s life together, and slowly, the puzzle pieces fall into the place. However, it doesn’t feel like one puzzle, but a schizophrenic mixture of several puzzles that all have the same shaped pieces but different pictures on the front.

I’m chronically confused by his life, events and choices. Nonetheless, I persevere, because I really want to unearth the truth which, I hope, can serve to unlock some understanding of this man who passed from this earth when I was but a child.

I knew that my father had served in the military. Initially I thought it was once, then twice – once during WWI and WWII. Then, I discovered that it was twice during WWI, then a third enlistment was added. Tidbits about my father’s life tended to creep up on me like that – a slow drip of truth confounded by lots of obfuscation and drama.

I was confused – very confused, and to complicate matters even further, his service records burned in the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire in St. Louis Missouri. Then, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1991, his medical records from the veterans facility in Fort Wayne, Indiana were forwarded to the Dayton, Ohio Record Center for storage in 1960 and that all records prior to 1964 had been destroyed – and that they were sorry.

Not nearly as sorry as I was.

I guess high drama even followed him around AFTER his death in 1963. I remember hearing about the St. Louis fire, vaguely, but I had absolutely no inkling at the time how adversely it would affect my ability to unravel the life of my father years later.

When I did find out, I wrote letter after letter and tried to obtain what scraps I could. When I was mostly unsuccessful, I figured that was it. Finished. Done. That chapter forever closed. At least that’s what I had been told by all the government agencies and had accepted as truth.

I was wrong.

Twisted Twigs on Gnarled Branches

When Twisted Twigs on Gnarled Branches Genealogy ran a special for record retrieval and reconstruction, I figured that it couldn’t hurt and might be fruitful. They knew where to look, and how, and I didn’t.

A few weeks later, I received at least a few of my father’s records and while I was saddened by the contents, I wasn’t surprised. What I’d hoped for was some additional detail. There wasn’t nearly as much detail as I wanted, but at least there was something. Genealogists NEVER find “enough” details😊

Some tidbits solved long-standing puzzles. Some begged new questions – but all of it was interesting, including the fact that they had archived the original letter I’d written back in 1991, adding it to his file, when they clearly HAD this information and DIDN’T send it to me then. How startling to see my own handwriting in his file.

First, I sent Twisted Twigs all of the information that I had compiled. No use replowing the same field.

I’ll spare you the details of the paperwork flow, but the information Twisted Twigs received was that court martial records should be in the archives in College Park, MD and that the case number was 138991. Court martial records had not been stored in St. Louis!

Hurray!!!!

Queasy

Then, I felt queasy. My father had a court martial number.

A court martial number.

me and dad crop

This man, the father who held me in my childhood and left me far too soon.

The man I adored, and grieved, had been court martialed.

That was tough. Sickeningly tough. Nauseatingly tough.

The Army

My father also had two service numbers: 0900796 and 21585201, but he enlisted three times.

  • Service from August 24, 1917 to May 19, 1919
  • Service from May 20, 1919 – Nov. 26, 1921
  • Service at Fort Sheridan, Illinois

His third enlistment at Fort Sheridan began on January 8, 1927. He deserted on May 23rd of that same year, but he wasn’t discharged until October 31, 1938 – 11 years later?

That’s bizarre.

Why? What was going on?

What new origami puzzle is waiting to unfold?

First Enlistment

The first document in the Twisted Twigs document packet was the May 1919 discharge from my father’s initial enlistment.

Two items are of note.

First, he was in some kind of trouble, because he forfeited 2/3rds of his pay for one month.

Keep reading however, because under remarks, we see why:

  • AWOL Nov 11, 1918 (Thursday) to Nov. 20, 1918 (Saturday)
  • AWOL from Feb. 10, 1919 (Monday) to Feb. 12, 1919 (Wednesday)
  • AWOL from April 4 (Friday) or 11 (Friday,) 1919 (I can’s make out which date is correct) to April 13, 1919 (Sunday)

Hmmm, apparently, my father had a bit of an AWOL (absent without leave) problem.

Also of note, we discover the location of his original enlistment at Lafayette, Indiana. I already knew that he initially trained at Fort Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis after enlistment, but I was never positive where he had actually enlisted.

I do have signatures of my father, but I have another one here.

The great irony is that he immediately re-enlisted at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan the day after he was discharged.

LPC-015-029-002A[1]

Camp Custer still stands, although it was deserted and hollow a few years ago when I visited.

Camp Custer Battle Creek - Copy (2)

Perhaps that $60 re-enlistment bonus, especially after forfeiting 2/3rds of his pay might have had something to do with it. His actual monthly pay was a whopping $49, according to this document, of which he sacrificed $30?

Where the heck was he when he was AWOL? I expected those AWOL dates to be weekends, but there is no consistent pattern. I thought perhaps a relative had died back in Claiborne County, but I don’t see any evidence of that either.

Maybe he had met Virgie and was going back and forth to Indiana? Nope, not until the summer of 1919.

Perhaps my father’s drinking problem was escalating. That’s more likely.

Second Enlistment

My father’s second enlistment ended a bit differently. He was Honorably Discharged from Fort Leavenworth on November 26, 1921 when his term of service expired.

Aren’t the words “honorably discharged” and “Fort Leavenworth” oxymorons? Polar opposites?

This time, he requested travel pay back to Tazewell, TN, where his parents were from originally and where his father was living at that time.

But, based on other records, it doesn’t appear that he actually went to Tazewell. Instead, he went back to Battle Creek, Michigan where Camp Custer, also known as Fort Custer, where he had been serving before going to Leavenworth was located.

Ilo Bailey

What was happening in my father’s life during this time that might have had something to do with his decision to become AWOL?

Ilo Bailey, that appears to have been what happened.

On February 24, 1920, Ilo had a son, Lee Joseph Estes. Using a pregnancy calculator, Lee’s conception most probably occurred between May 26 and June 2, 1919. These dates of course presume a pregnancy of normal duration.

These dates may also explain why my father re-enlisted on May 20th, and they might also have something to do with his AWOL status in April. He may have been quite smitten with Ilo and wanted to stay in the vicinity.

On November 4th, 1919, he was AWOL and a month later, on December 3, 1919, he married Ilo in Battle Creek under an assumed name, Don Caroles who he claimed was from New Mexico.

When I initially discovered this marriage, I wondered why the alias. It seemed so bizarre. Now we know. He was AWOL. However, his mother’s name is listed as Mary Claxton. Margaret Claxton was his grandmother on his mother’s side. Even more interesting, Ilo’s mother is listed as Ollie Bolton, which was my father’s mother by her maiden name. I’m taking this as evidence that Ilo’s family did not approve of this marriage and the couple probably married without her family’s knowledge and/or consent.

This also makes me wonder if Ollie was somehow involved and may have gone along, posing as Ilo’s mother. Ilo, at 19, was surely old enough to sign for herself to marry. The problem was that Ilo wasn’t actually 19, she was 17, underage and pregnant, so perhaps Ollie was along as her “mother” to vouch for the fact that she was 19 and old enough to marry.

My father, aka Don Caroles, is listed as “in the service,” even though he’s AWOL. This could be a clear indication that he never intended to actually desert and still considered himself a soldier. As you’ll see in a bit, this may seem irrelevant or trivial, but it has important ramifications.

Otherwise, why would he make that declaration about being in the service? And why would he stay in the same town if he actually wanted to desert? People from Camp Custer were sure to see and recognize him there.

Interestingly enough, he’s also listed in the 1920 census, taken on January 14, 1920 where he as Don and Ilo, age 17, are living with her mother, Maud at 221 East Avenue North.

Here’s the property today.

The Battle Creek property tax system indicates that this home was built in 1920 and is a 5 room, two bedroom house, but was it built before or after he lived there? If he lived there, it was relatively new and that’s not likely given the circumstances.

If he was living in this house with his very pregnant bride and her family, it was cozy quarters indeed. Furthermore, given that they were living with her mother, it doesn’t appear that her family was estranged, at least not at this point. Perhaps he was helping to take care of her mother and her three siblings too.

Research reveals that Ilo’s father died on March 28, 1917, so her mother would have been left as a widow to raise the children alone. This puts the statement recorded in legal documents that “her people couldn’t” provide for her in a different light than meaning they wouldn’t care for Ilo. There’s a big difference between can’t and won’t.

It still doesn’t explain Ilo’s letter in March of 1921 to Dad stating that she had sacrificed the love of her family for him.

However, that’s not the only thing going on in his life, as if this wasn’t enough.

Martha Dodder

Dad had met Martha Dodder too.

We know from my half-sister Edna, daughter of Dad and Martha, that they met while he was hospitalized in the Camp Custer Hospital, shown below, with the attached YMCA building where families and volunteers came to comfort the ill or wounded soldiers.

Among other things, the YMCA provided soldiers with paper, envelopes and postage so they could write to their loved ones. My father’s letters to Virgie were written on YMCA stationery. It’s probably in this very building that he met Martha.

Dad was admitted to the hospital on or before August 7 and remained through August 30, 1919. His illness may have started with the flu epidemic, but it quickly morphed into something much worse and life threatening.

Image result for camp custer guard house photo

From his letters to a third girlfriend, Virgie, in Indiana, whom he met in June 1919, he literally thought he was going to die. He had previously proposed to Virgie, but her letters had dwindled to once a month while he was hospitalized, and he clearly knew that something was amiss in that relationship. In those letters, he had told her that he had broken it off with the previous girlfriend in Michigan, who would have (presumably) been Ilo.

His health deteriorated. From August 7th until at least August 30th he was hospitalized with either meningitis or encephalitis following a tonsillectomy.

My half-sister, Edna Estes, shown with her mother, Martha Dodder, below, was born on May 22, 1920.

The conception calculator (that’s getting a workout thanks to Dad) tells us that Edna was probably conceived between August 12, 1919 and August 29, 1919 but possibly as late as September 3rd.

He had broken up with Ilo, been ghosted by Virgie, had surgery, spent a month in the hospital, thought he was dying and clearly took comfort with Martha.

Surname Manipulation

If you’re wondering how Edna’s last name was Estes if he was married to Ilo at the time Edna was born, that too appears to be a clever construction of my father’s somewhat devious cunning. If nothing else, he was ingenious.

Purely guessing now, but given that at the time of Edna’s birth he was in the midst of being court martialed and was married to another woman with an infant 3 months old, he probably speculated that the judge might not look kindly on his leniency request if the judge knew that my father had indeed gotten two different women “in trouble” 3 months apart. Yep, that judge might, just might, view this behavior as a character flaw and decide to throw the book at him. And since the consequences of violating article 58 under which he was being court martialed were “up to and including death,” the outcome was incredibly important. So, Dad apparently successfully convinced Martha to protect him. I would like to have been a fly on that wall!

Edna’s original birth certificate, at the time she was born, listed her father as Edward Polushink and her name was listed as Edna Marie Polushink. No one in the family knew about this original birth certificate, nor had anyone ever heard the name Edward Polushink when the birth certificate was accidentally discovered after Martha’s passing.

After my father married Martha Dodder in 1921, they petitioned to have the birth certificate amended, and today, Edna’s birth certificate lists William Sterling Estes as her father which DNA testing of her granddaughter subsequently confirmed.

The dead give-away is that Edna’s birth certificate is listed in the official clerk’s book, not in the date order of the other birth records as babies were born, but on the date that the record was changed, in 1922. The clerk had a great deal of difficulty finding Edna’s birth record due to the out of order recording, which is also how that original record was discovered. The original was listed in the correct date location but was stricken through.

Timeline

I just can’t keep events like these straight without a timeline, not to mention that timelines help me visualize more accurately and see “holes” in things, literally or figuratively.

  • October 1, 1901 or 1902 – William Sterling Estes is born based on census and family records. Could possibly be 1903 but less likely.
  • August 24, 1917 – First military enlistment – age 13 or 14, falsified age
  • October 1, 1917 – 14th or 15th birthday
  • October 1, 1918 – 15th or 16th birthday
  • First Enlistment AWOL Nov 11, 1918 (Thursday) to Nov. 20, 1918 (Saturday)
  • First Enlistment AWOL from Feb. 10, 1919 (Monday) to Feb. 12, 1919 (Wednesday)
  • First Enlistment AWOL from April 4 (Friday) or 11 (Friday,) 1919 to April 13, 1919 (Sunday).
  • May 19, 1919 – First enlistment complete, honorable discharge
  • May 20, 1919 – Enlisted for the second time at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan
  • May 26 – June 2, 1919 – Ilo Bailey’s son conceived
  • June 25, 1919 – First letter to Virgie whom he had recently met in Indiana, states he has broken up with the former girlfriend
  • June-August 1919 – Has proposed to Virgie. Is taking her an engagement ring when he gets out of hospital.
  • August 7 – 30, 1919 – Hospitalized, flu, pneumonia and eventually either meningitis or encephalitis, meets Martha Dodder who is a volunteer at the hospital
  • August 1919 – Virgie not writing back according to his letters which she kept
  • August 30, 1919 – Letter to Virgie with entirely different tone, understands that her lack of communication means the end, says goodbye, terribly saddened, but leaves the door open
  • August 12 – September 3, 1919 – Conception dates for Edna Estes, daughter with Martha Dodder
  • October 1, 1919 – 16th or 17th birthday
  • Second Enlistment AWOL – November 4, 1919
  • November 18, 1919 – Status changed from AWOL to desertion (this changed his legal status from Article 62 AWOL to Article 58 desertion)
  • December 3, 1919 – Marriage to Ilo Bailey in Battle Creek using assumed name of Don Caroles. Ilo is 6 months pregnant.
  • February 24, 1920 – Ilo’s son, Lee Joseph Estes born
  • April 7, 1920 – Arrested for desertion/AWOL in Battle Creek, confined to the guard house at Camp Custer
  • May 20, 1920 – Martha’s daughter, Edna Estes born as he is being court martialed. He is still married to Ilo.
  • May 20 through August, 1920 – Court Martial proceedings
  • August 1920 – Court Martial sentencing
  • August 1920 – November 1921 – Fort Leavenworth performing hard labor
  • October 1, 1920 – 17th or 18th birthday while in Leavenworth
  • March 22, 1921 – Ilo letter saying she is leaving the state with the baby and has sacrificed the love of her parents for him and their marriage was never legal. Perhaps this is why a line was at some time drawn through the marriage record in the clerk’s marriage book.
  • October 1, 1921 – 18th or 19th birthday while in Leavenworth
  • November 26, 1921 – Term of service ended, honorably discharged from Fort Leavenworth
  • December 12, 1921 – Marriage to Martha Dodder in Battle Creek, 2 weeks and 2 days after leaving Leavenworth
  • October 1, 1922 – 19th or 20th birthday, married to Martha and living in Battle Creek
  • September 5, 1923 – Martha files for divorce stating that he “loafs around doing nothing and she has to go out to work.” (Was he the original stay-at-home Dad?) Both are seeking a divorce and she alleges the legally required phrase of “extreme cruelty” in order to obtain a divorce in Michigan at that time.
  • October 1, 1923 – 20th or 21st birthday, in process of getting divorced from Martha
  • February 26, 1924 – Divorce from Martha final in Battle Creek
  • October 1, 1924 – 21st or 22nd birthday – who knows where the heck he is? His two children are living with their mothers and he isn’t living with or married to either mother anymore.

That’s a lot of ground to cover by your 21st or 22nd birthday. One heck of a lot!

But that’s not the half of it.

Court Martial

Reading your father’s court martial is brutal. I was torn between wanting to know and not wanting to look. This would be a lot easier if this history was a couple of generations removed, and much less personal.

For God’s sake, this is my FATHER. Half of me is from him, but hopefully not the AWOL half.

I need to read this and try to unravel what happened. Perhaps I can understand why.

The investigation, above, recommended that my father be court martialed, and that’s exactly what happened. He was to be charged with a violation of the 58th Article of War.

ART. 58. DESERTION.–Any person subject to military law who deserts or attempts to desert the service of the United States shall, if the offense be committed in time of war, suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct, and, if the offense be committed at any other time, any punishment, excepting death, that a court-martial may direct.

Death?

DEATH?

My father was messing around with an offense that could result in a death sentence? Where they stand you up against the wall and your fellow soldiers line up and shoot you point blank.

What the bloody hell was he thinking?

This document was followed by 22 typed legal pages of testimony, much of it having to do with the morning reports in barracks, shown below, and the process that soldiers used to obtain passes.

Camp Custer Battle Creek - Copy (3)

Clearly, my father did not obtain or attempt to obtain a pass. The court martial also includes details such as that there was nothing missing, meaning no equipment or clothes had been taken when he was not present for the morning report. In other words, he hadn’t stolen anything from the government and it goes as evidence to suggest that he wasn’t planning to desert. He was just a few months late returning, that’s all.

Right!

He apparently was cooperative and said little. He said nothing about disliking the service or military at any time, according to the testimony from various people.

During the proceedings, my father answered questions respectfully, with “Yes Sir” and “No Sir.”

Reading the transcripts of the trial, several tidbits were revealed.

Question to his commanding officer: Was the accused ever in trouble in the company?

A: Well I believe he would go downtown and stay late and that is about all.

Q: What is your opinion of his character?

A: He seemed to be a very good soldier.

That’s so sad. It’s also worth noting that he was a Sergeant at one point, but ultimately was discharged as a Private.

The police officer, Edward Abbey, who arrested my father was tipped off by two ex-soldiers who spotted him along with his (presumed) wife, baby and another female at the Majestic Theater in Battle Creek.

The officer waited until the movie was over, then stopped him on the way out, put his hand on him, and asked if he was a deserter. My father replied no, that he wasn’t, but the officer took him to the station to question him.

Based on the testimony, there is apparently a difference in the classification of someone who is absent without leave (Article 61) and a deserter (Article 58.) The primary difference between the two offences is “the intent to remain away permanently” or if the purpose is to shirk important duty, such as combat. If a person intends to return to “military control,” then they are AWOL and not a deserter – even if they are away for years. For the first 30 days, the unit attempts to locate the soldier and convince them to return to the unit.

Oh yea, one other tiny difference. AWOL doesn’t carry the death penalty as a possibility – so it would have been important to have him convicted as AWOL and not as having deserted. Much safer for his neck that way.

So my father was just late – really, really late.

Today, at the 30 day mark, the soldier becomes “a wanted person” and their status changes to deserter. At that time, the line in the sand may not have been as clear. Anyone AWOL for more than 30 days is tried by court martial.

Given this distinction, the several pages of testimony by various individuals regarding the fact that my father was wearing at least a partial uniform when arrested and never left the area provides evidence that he may have not actually intended to permanently desert. When I first read this document, that repeated testimony seemed unnecessary overkill, but now I understand why so much focus was placed on that seemingly trivial information.

In essence, desertion requires intent while being AWOL does not. Although being gone for 5 months indicates that he made the same bad decision to be AWOL for roughly 150 consecutive days. However, every day was a new decision while a deserter makes one decision, once, and carries it out. A deserter likely leaves the area immediately to minimize chances of being caught, and he didn’t do that either.

So either he really didn’t intend to actually desert, or he was incredibly short-sighted – to put it nicely.

At the police station, my father apparently freely admitted that he had “left the army without permission” which is technically AWOL and not desertion. He denied being a deserter. He obviously knew the technical difference.

At the time my father was apprehended, he was wearing civilian clothes that mostly covered up his military issued uniform. According to the arresting officer, “I noticed his uniform pants because his civilian pants had a three cornered hole in them. He had on a dark colored civilian coat.” He was not wearing military leggings which you can see in the following picture of him kissing Virgie.

Based on letters he had written to Virgie during the time when they were briefly engaged in the summer of 1919, he was trying to figure out how they could live on his soldier’s pay. He commented that he didn’t need non-military clothes because the Army would provide his clothing. I’m wondering if the reason he was wearing his military garb under other clothes is because he only had one civilian outfit (with a tear in the leg) and he needed the layers for warmth. Wearing military issue simply increases the odds that someone will notice and recognize you, which is the last thing you want if you are a deserter. Or AWOL.

These pieces don’t all add up. Had he always intended to go back “tomorrow?” Yet each tomorrow looked increasingly bleak in terms of the consequences?

He had never left Battle Creek during the 5 months he was AWOL, so clearly wasn’t trying very hard to hide. He had been driving a team for someone, meaning a team of horses. And he was wearing a uniform, or at least pieces of his uniform in the town beside the military base where he was AWOL from. I have to wonder at his thought process.

The night he was apprehended, the officer said that there was a woman at the station without the baby, and a woman at city hall with a baby. Ilo could simply have had her friend take care of the baby while she waited for him. Or, maybe, the two women waiting separately were pregnant Martha and Ilo with baby Lee. If that was the case, then incarceration might have sounded like the best of two bad options and much safer than the explosion that might have resulted had Martha and Ilo met.

Or perhaps, they had met and his goose was already cooked in more than one pot.

During the court martial proceedings, my father stated that he did not wish to make a statement or testify on his own behalf. There really wasn’t much he could say.

Counsel for defense closing argument:

“The defense wishes the court to take into consideration that the accused has a wife and a 2 or 3 month old baby with no means of support and the accused asks that the court show leniency.”

The Judge Advocate read that there were no previous convictions and read my father’s statement of service that omitted his prior service enlistment, which he brought to the attention of the judge.

Fortunately, the Judge Advocate took pity on him and the sentence was modified, the dishonorable discharge order suspended and the hard labor being reduced from 18 months to just 6.

Ahhh, it looks like Dad got a break and the judge remarked that he was not determined to be guilty of desertion, simply AWOL. Six months for AWOL versus 18 for desertion. Maybe those old Army clothes he was wearing, for whatever the reason, saved his skin.

Hard labor at that time meant exactly what it implied – working rock quarrys, building roads or laboring on docks. Or, perhaps, building state or government buildings, like the prisons themselves.

The next document is an amended sentence.

The original sentence was for 18 months of hard labor, but this document says 6 months. He had been granted the leniency he requested.

It appears that the Adjutant General has a significant amount of discretion. There’s a difference between this type of case and one of desertion under fire that jeopardizes the lives of other soldiers. While there appears to be no justification for the choice he made, it’s still not comparable to defecting to the enemy or risking the lives of others.

Still, the fact that he would have done something that even MIGHT result in his own death sentence boggles my mind.

BUT, my father actually DID serve more than six months, and the reason why will astound you!

More Confusion

Then, the most confusing document of all was dated the day of his sentencing:

Let’s take this apart piece by piece.

  • Born in New Mexico, October 1, 1898? We already know that he “modified” his birth year significantly to enlist in the service. He was born in either 1901 or 1902. But he was NOT born in New Mexico. Why did he say that? What don’t we know?
  • Raised in urban environment by parents. That’s not true either. He was raised on farms and his parents divorced.
  • Quit school at age of 16. Assuming he attended school until he enlisted in 1917, that means he would have quit school at the age of enlistment of 14 or 15.
  • Claims that he was in second year of Carlyle Indian School at the time.

I’m dumbstruck at this claim which is clearly patently false. Why would he make this up?

The Carlisle Indian School was a “boarding school” for Native American students with the intention of removing them from the “Native influences” of their family and community and mainstreaming their assimilation into the Europeanized version of American life by depriving them of their culture and language.

My father was quite dark and our family had an oral history of Native heritage, so I’m not surprised that he could pull this off.

As fate would have it, a few years ago I transcribed the entire list of Carlisle Indian School residents, including the list from the school itself and from the National Archives, neither of which are individually complete. There is no Estes on this list. There is also no Don Caroles or anything similar. For those interested, I wrote about the records here.

Other information includes:

  • He worked as a fireman on the Grand Trunk Railroad. If he did this, I don’t know when it would have been. Firemen on the railroads tended the fire for the running of a boiler to power the steam engine.
By Elsie esq. – Copied from en:Image:Boiler man.jpg. Original image from flickr, URL: [1] flickr image ID: 7708375_03dd1f7439.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3829347

His job in the Army was at one point listed as fireman as was the 1920 census entry, so this is at least believable. It may be the only remotely true statement made by him in this sentencing memorandum.

  • He was about 5 months before being apprehended. True.
  • He denies use of alcohol, drugs and civil offences.

Alcohol probably played a factor in this situation, one way or another. Either that, or he got himself so head-over-heels in trouble that he drank to drown those problems. Of course, then alcohol would have made the problems even worse. He had a drinking problem which I believe started as a child when he was fed alcohol by his parents to ease hunger pangs when the family had no food.

  • He was convicted of AWOL and escape and given a sentence of 18 months.

But wasn’t his sentence reduced to 6 months, from 18?

Wait?

What?

ESCAPE???

What escape?

  • Prisoner’s statement is that he had got a young girl into trouble and married her and as her people were unable to support her he went AWOL to do so.

So, he finally tells us why, or at least a sanitized version of why. Is it a reason or an excuse?

As sad as this sounds, it’s likely at least partially true, given the nature and commentary of the Ilo letter that she wrote as a form of “Dear John” letter a few months later while he was serving his time at Fort Leavenworth. Not that she didn’t have cause (think Martha Dodder), but it’s sad nonetheless that he was incarcerated in Leavenworth as a result of taking care of her (and his child) but she left him by leaving town while he was serving the sentence.

Keep in mind that in 1919, my father was all of 17 years old, possibly 18, had gotten himself into one whale of a mess, had no family to turn to and no resources to help. A 17-year-old with a wife who was reportedly estranged from her family because of him, and a newborn baby.

By the time this statement was taken, he also had a second child with Martha who was born on the day his court martial began. It’s unclear whether the two women knew about each other or each other’s children. Furthermore, Virgie, whom he proposed to in the summer of 1919 was long gone although I don’t think he every stopped loving her – given that he married her 42 years later in 1961.

In other words, in 1919, he was a hot mess.

Lastly, he had survived a hospitalization in August that had very nearly taken his life and may have left him with some level of residual brain damage that exacerbated his poor decision making. Not to mention, the US was engaged in a war. Nope. No stress there.

  • Physical condition good.
  • Low-average intellect.

I wonder how they decided his intellect was low-average. He made very poor decisions, but he was not an intellectually impaired or stupid man by any means. Again, I wonder about brain damage from the August 1919 hospitalization.

  • Fair emotional stability.

I sure would like to know the criteria for this assessment. From the distance of 99 years, I’d say he was a train wreck!

  • Not recommended for the Battalion July 27, 1920, because of no desire for further military service.

But then, there’s that escape…

Escape? What Escape?

Just when I think my father is done surprising me, there’s more.

“While awaiting the results of trial, the prisoner escaped confinement on or about June 2nd.”

I’m.

Just.

Speechless.

He escaped custody?

After his trial?

Inside a military base?

What on earth was he thinking?

How far did he get?

How long was he gone?

I was so stunned by the “escape” that I nearly missed the rest of the information on this page that tells us that he never served overseas. I had never seen evidence that he did, but it’s nice to have confirmation.

What does it mean that he’s “not recommended for the Battalion?”

In the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 4, No. 6 (Mar., 1914), pp. 918-920 (3 pages,) the difference between a Disciplinary Barracks and a prison is set forth. The barracks hopes to reform military offenders whose offences are only military in nature. To that end, for prisoners whose merit warrants, they are allowed the privilege of being assigned to a special unit (battalion) to receive military training for a portion of the time that would otherwise be devoted to hard labor. He did not qualify for that privilege. In part, that might have been because his term of service would expire while he was at Leavenworth, so he would have no time left to serve.

The last statement was:

  • Clemency is not recommended.

No kidding. He blew that opportunity with his escape attempt and his reduced sentence of 6 months was reinstated to the original 18. Someplace he had also lost his officer status. He had been granted clemency, and then he subsequently lost it by his bone-headed escape. He made his own bad situation, literally, three times worse. I don’t think this man was firing on all cylinders. I truly do wonder about the meningitis or encephalitis from 1919 having a detrimental effect on his logical decision making ability.

Was he suffering from a brain injury? He went from being “a good soldier” to this. The change is like Jekyll and Hyde. What happened?

Amazingly, they did not reduce his discharge to dishonorable.

Maybe there is more to this story that we don’t know – something like he went out drinking with his guard buddies. Maybe his escape wasn’t quite like it appears. But we’ll never know.

I can’t imagine any soldier that was both AWOL and having escaped being given an honorable discharge under any normal circumstances. There must have been some sort of extenuating circumstances.

But then again, this is my father and “normal” has never been a word associated with him or even one day of his life.

Fort Leavenworth

I’ve heard of Fort Leavenworth, but what is it really?

First, Fort Leavenworth is a military base, but it’s better known for the prison, or prisons, actually.

Two Fort Leavenworth prisons exist, the Federal Penitentiary and the military United States Disciplinary Barracks. That’s where my father was sent.

The original military prison building was built in 1877 with a second additional building, below, being completed about 1921. Inmates at this older facility were used in the construction of the second building and the Federal Prison by the same name which was located nearby and completed about the same time.

Perhaps now we know the “hard labor” to which my father was assigned. This mustard colored building with the barred windows may have been his home. Somehow very ironic to build your own prison. Did he live in the new one too?

The original Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) was Fort Leavenworth’s biggest and tallest building sitting on top of a hill at the corner of McPherson Avenue and Scott Avenue overlooking the Missouri River. The largest buildings of the original barracks (“The Castle”) were torn down in 2004.

You can see a photo of the original building and cells, here. Note the pile of rocks by the shed that would have been quarried by the inmates.

The old domed building was nicknamed “Little Top” in contrast to the domed federal prison 2 1⁄2 miles south which was nicknamed the “Big Top”. The walls and ten of the buildings in the original location remain and have been converted to other uses at the Fort.

The original prison was 12 acres and the walls were from 16 to 41 feet high. Given the timing of the construction of this facility, it’s certainly possible that he worked on this wall, or others similar.

In 2002, Gail Dillon of Airman magazine wrote:

A visitor would immediately notice the medieval ambiance of this institution – the well-worn native stone and brick walls constructed by long-forgotten inmates when ‘hard labor’ meant exactly that – have witnessed thousands of inmates’ prayers, curses, and pleas over the past 128 years” and that entering the facility was “like stepping back in time or suddenly being part of a kitschy movie set about a prison bust.”

Given that my father was sentenced in 1920, it’s quite likely that he helped build the complex above (mostly torn down in 2004), those prison walls, as well as the Federal Penitentiary below.

By Americasroof – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8727865

He was discharged from the Disciplinary Barracks on November 26th of 1921, two days after Thanksgiving, with travel money to return to Tazewell, TN. Of course, that doesn’t mean that’s where he went.

We already know that 16 days later, he married Martha Dodder in Battle Creek, Michigan. Maybe he hoped to start anew, with a clean slate, and raise his daughter.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Third Enlistment

And, because twice in the Army evidently wasn’t enough for him, he had to go for enlistment number 3, but not for another 5 years and two months.

Where was he for those 5 years?

We know that he married Martha Dodder in Battle Creek on December 12, 1921 and that in February 1924 their were divorce was final, so he was apparently living in Battle Creek during that time, “being lazy” according to Martha.

A subsequent report from a different source tells us that he stated that he joined the Army from Lafayette, Indiana in 1926. Given his disregard for the truth, it’s hard to know if there is any shred of validity given that I’ve have found no evidence of a 1926 enlistment.

The third enlistment document in the Twisted Twigs packet is from Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and it too is very confusing.

My father re-enlisted on January 8, 1927 at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, an induction and training center.

And yes, he did it AGAIN! He went AWOL again!

What was this man thinking? Was he even thinking?

The top clearly says “Supplemental pay roll of deserter William S. Estes, Private Company A, 2nd infantry.

Deserter

It just kills me to see that word associated with my father.

Again, let’s dissect this information.

  • Deserted at Fort Sheridan May 23, 1927
  • Due US at date of desertion
  • Due US $17.53 for T fr Ft. Leavenworth Kansas to Fort Sheridan, Ill issued by Maj C.A. Meals May 14, 1927 on T/R 191,119 May 14, 1927
  • Reimburse Appn FD 700 P 5024 A 9-7
  • Due US clo lost RS $34.03 (clo apparently means clothing)
  • Due US C&E 20.74
  • Due US for clo overdrawn at date of desertion 41.40
  • Money value of clo drawn since enlistment 103.96
  • Sol having deserted within the 1st 6 mos of enlistment
  • Last paid to April 30, 1927 by Capt. Thomas B. Kennedy FD
  • No AWOL during current enlistment

What? Fort Leavenworth again! And he hadn’t even deserted yet when he was at Fort Leavenworth this time? Wouldn’t simply being AT (or anyplace near) Fort Leavenworth have been enough of a reminder that he would have sworn never to desert, be late or even sneeze again? You’d think so.

What do we have here? Did he just miss the home boys?

My heart sunk when I saw the mention of Fort Leavenworth. Based on what I think I’m reading, he traveled from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Sheridan on May the 14th. He then deserted on May 23rd. Or, conversely, he never made it to Fort Sheridan from Leavenworth.

Fort Leavenworth is the same location where he was sent for 18 months hard labor in 1919. You’d think that after one “visit” there, he would do absolutely everything in his power never to have to set foot anyplace near there again.

So he apparently enlisted on January 8th, got into some sort of trouble that was not AWOL, according to the last line, got sent back to Leavenworth for no more than 4 months where he had “resided” previously in 1921, returned to Fort Sheridan and then permanently deserted 9 days later on May 23rd.

He was either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid, one or the other. I’m betting he carried the “risk taker” mutation in the dopamine receptor DRD4.

This time, given his actions, there is no question that he intended desertion. Yet, somehow, in some way, his record was cleared and he received a military burial and a commendation certificate from President Kennedy, not to mention a military headstone.

How did that happen, given that NARA records indicate his discharge date from this third enlistment as October 31, 1938 was “other than honorable?”

This man is truly a conundrum and a contradiction of every expectation or assumption I’ve ever held.

Twisted Twigs, Again

I contacted the fine folks at Twisted Twigs again, and asked if there was any possibility of finding records of whatever happened at Fort Sheridan that resulted in him being sent to Fort Leavenworth again after his enlistment of January 8th. Obviously, he was in some kind of serious trouble right?

Well, as it turns out, maybe not.

Kathleen, at Twisted Twigs, tells me the following:

Fort Leavenworth was and still is also a working base, as well as a detention center. Soldiers passed through there without being headed for the prison, so he was probably just in transit from base to base.

She clearly didn’t understand my father!

Soldiers would receive their travel allowances in sequence rather than all at once. The payment mentioned there would be the money issued to him to travel from there to Fort Sheridan, and apparently he never made it to Fort Sheridan.

OK, so maybe he wasn’t sent to Fort Leavenworth from Fort Sheridan because he was in some kind of trouble. How ironic if he just happened to get assigned to Leavenworth for some task or duty, given the reason he spent almost 18 months there in 1920 and 1921. Still you would think if anything would have deterred him from deserting again, it would have been the vivid reminder of seeing those walls again. How much more “in your face” could a reminder be?

Was he just working on the outside, looking in, this time? Or is there still more to this story that we just don’t know? Again, Kathleen:

I’d say there are probably more records out there buried somewhere, but his peacetime service makes it a different type of search. A lot of peacetime paperwork was routinely destroyed, because it was perceived to be of little value once shipments were received or equipment was repaired. What survives most from those times are the higher level communications, rosters, and training records.

And of course, those records could have and probably did burn in 1973 in St. Louis.

I asked if we could find any records about his deserter status, and why he wasn’t discharged until 1938, which seemed really odd to me. Why wait until 1938 to give him the boot?

We did request the court martial from this time period as well, but it was not located. It doesn’t mean that it no longer exists, it means that at this moment in time its whereabouts are unknown, and it may in fact be destroyed.

He would not have been discharged without being present. Otherwise, the army had no authority to apprehend him as a deserter. Even if he was incarcerated by civilian authorities, the army maintained ‘control’ over him. It’s possible they simply took the paperwork to the prison and discharged him there since they had finally located him. This would have been part of his service record and was most likely lost in the fire.

The fire. Always that fire! Dang that fire!

The Conundrum

Why, then, if his final military enlistment ended with a less than honorable discharge did the family receive this document upon his death?

Envelope above which held the following document.

And the burial flag from his funeral service. As it turns out, given that he had two honorable discharges, even if he had one dishonorable discharge, he might still have qualified for the flag.

And why was a military tombstone sent when requested by the family in 2003 or 2004?

Would a deserter have received these things? It never in my wildest dreams occurred to me that his discharge was “less than honorable.” Why would I have ever suspected?

Not only that, the man was a proud veteran and very active in the Red Key, Indiana American Legion post, along with the Knightstown orphan’s home. To this day, I have his well-worn American Legion hat, threadbare in places, tie and pins.

Legion hat 2

My father is so confusing!

Kathleen again:

While he had a dishonorable discharge, he also had an honorable discharge on his record. In 2004, after the fire that destroyed so much information sometimes simple proof of service was enough to obtain a headstone, and by then nobody really looked terribly closely into fragmented seventy year old records when a vet’s family made a simple headstone request. If they presented the honorable discharge pay stub from 1921, it could conceivably have flown right through.

While I’m sure the family didn’t have a pay stub from 1921, there were other things. In the records sent by Virgie, I found his second honorable discharge. That would probably have sufficed. Obviously, something did.

William Estes honorable discharge 1921

Then, after my sister, Edna’s death, her granddaughter sent me a copy of his first Honorable Discharge that has been saved by Martha all those years.

William-Estes-honorable-discharge-1919.jpg

And, the VA confirmed my father’s honorable discharges, never mentioning the third enlistment.

William Estes VA confirm of discharge

Given this documentation, you can understand why I was so shocked to discover the court martial, not to mention the third enlistment complete with dishonorable discharge. There weren’t any hints about either. I was utterly astounded, gobsmacked, not to mention heartbroken.

In spite of everything else, up until this point, I could still be proud of his military service to his country, and at such a tender age, but now that too is compromised.

Kathleen continued:

I’m not too surprised at either of those things occurring – it’s also possible that someone petitioned the Army to have his record polished up, and the commendation served as confirmation of that. Involve the right people high enough up in the food chain, and anything is possible.

Then I recalled what Aunt Margaret, his sister, said:

It was his second hitch in the service when he was in trouble that I had investigated for you after his death.

However, that letter from President Kennedy arrived within a couple weeks of his death, before Aunt Margaret had time to investigate and remedy anything. It may have simply been a “form letter” sent to the families of all deceased veterans, but that fact that Virgie received it suggests that the government themselves hadn’t put 2 and 2 together and figured out that he had a final less than honorable discharge from his third enlistment.

I’m betting neither Margaret nor Virgie knew about that third enlistment. If they did, they never breathed a word of it, and Margaret talked about everything.

My mother, who was permanently and thoroughly disgusted with my father mentioned something disdainfully about some issue being “fixed” as well, but I was never clear about what was “fixed” or why, nor did I realize how relevant that tidbit would be to me after anyone who might have known the answers was gone.

Mother’s comment about “fixing” might have been about his military record, but it also might have been about his divorce to Ellen not being final when he married Virgie – yet one more thing the women in his life had to fix and clean up. He left one messy trail.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line to all of this is that while he may not have been sent to Leavenworth as an inmate in early 1927 during the first few months of his third enlistment (or he may have, we’re not sure,) he clearly didn’t manage to get himself from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Sheridan between May 14th and 23rd. Or, he did make it back to Fort Sheridan and then deserted. Regardless, he was in a heap-o’-trouble. And he clearly, very, very clearly knew better and was already painfully aware of the consequences.

Either way, that was the last straw, so to speak, and when the military caught up with him again 11 years later in 1938, they simply dishonorably discharged him. I believe that soldiers were only sentenced to Leavenworth until the end of their enlistment, which is why he only served 17 of his 18 months in 1921.

Regardless of what happened, he was “less than honorably” discharged as the result of his third term of service. Do we have any idea, any idea at all what happened?

Next Stop – A New Alias and A New Disaster

By 1927, when he deserted from Fort Sheridan, my father had apparently learned the power of an alias and how to misbehave more successfully. This time, he didn’t stay in the same town, and he apparently didn’t wear any part of his uniform. In other words, he wasn’t just chronically AWOL, he flat out deserted with full intent.

This time, he became Paul Lamarr (LeMarr), an alias he would maintain for the next 15 years. Yes, 15 long years. How did he select that name anyway? It’s quite unique.

It’s amazing that I ever found him, but he did, inadvertently, leave a few bread crumbs and sleuths in this digital age found his trail. Amazingly, he kept his past buried for 91 years.

Just over two months after disappearing from Fort Sheridan, Illinois, on August 6, 1927, now 24 or 25 years old, Paul LaMarr wrote a bad check in Berrien County, Michigan, across Lake Michigan from Fort Sheridan. The legal proceedings also mention that he had used the alias of Art Thomas, although we don’t see that name again.

He began living as Paul LaMarr.

On that same day, Paul LaMarr married Cora Edmonds, a minor, whose mother and grandmother, both widows, were members of the celibate religious order (some would say cult) known as the House of David.

If your jaw just hit the floor, mine too. No, I can’t even begin to explain that dichotomy, so don’t ask.

The next chapter in my father’s never-ending life-long-drama, now (mostly) as Paul LaMarr, but also at least for a short while as Dr. Donald McCormack, had begun.

And….Yet ANOTHER Shoe Drops

Not only that, but Cora’s family lived in the same multi-family commune home as Bessie Boruff…someone who would one-day have a daughter named Violet, surnamed Miller, last name compliments of her step-father. I never met Violet, but my mother and sister (Edna) did and I knew that she existed – but our families lost track of each other more than half a century ago.

Was Violet my father’s child, my half sister? He, Bessie, Violet and Edna all believed so.

Violet Miller crop2

This grainy photo from the newspaper is all that I have.

I do believe we look at least somewhat alike when we were younger, but who knows if we actually do, or if I’m simply looking for the resemblance and wanting to see one. I know how easy that is to do, because I did it with my brother who was not my biological brother, Dave Estes. I’m not about to find and fall in love with a sibling again just to discover that they aren’t.

Roberta and Violet

In the collage below, Violet is at left, me center, Dad at right and two photos of Edna, my DNA-proven half sister, beneath. What do you think? You can see photos Ilo’s son Lee, here, but Lee had no children so there is no way to prove that he is my father’s child.

Dad Edna me Violet

In spite of what I think is a resemblance, Violet’s conception date, based on her birth date if she was a full term child suggests that Violet might have been conceived when my father’s whereabouts were conclusively known, meaning in jail having to do with that bad check – and not anyplace close to Bessie. There is about a 5 week discrepancy.

DNA testing would solve that mystery once and for all, but Violet, who married Elmer Bruce Golladay (originally Golliday) and then Orville Blevins, died in 2004. Yes, Violet had at least three children while married to Mr. Golliday, and yes, I would love to DNA test one of Violet’s descendants.

Truthfully, I keep hoping that one of them will test on their own and just show up on my DNA match list someplace. I’d have my answer without having to explain any of….well….this. If they match me, they get to own my father’s soap-operaesque tale too. If not, then they have a different mystery to solve.

However…

When I think about trying to contact them, and yes, I have found at least two of Violet’s family members on Facebook, I struggle with how I would ever go about explaining this situation. Plus, an intrusion of this type may not be welcome news.

Merry Christmas, grandpa got run over by a court martial. Imagine if they are a veteran or lost a family member in service. Ummm…no.

They get to become aware of a very “colorful” character not far in their past, or conversely, one of their family members may not be who they think they are/were and either scenario may be unwelcome news they didn’t ask for. If they don’t seek answers by reaching out or DNA testing on their own, I’m very hesitant to intrude with what could well amount to distressful information.

Of course, if they have already tested and don’t match me, I’ll never know. So here’s hoping that maybe one day someone in Violet’s family will become interested in genealogy and google Violet’s name.

Hopefully, after they get over the same shock that I felt, they will contact me and we, together, can solve one more mystery in my father’s life.

If they are worried that the apple didn’t fall far from the parental tree – ironically – no. My father may have made boneheaded decisions about his own life, but the women who raised his children did an awesome job! He apparently had great taste in wives because their descendants are amazing people.

Sooo, maybe Santa will bring at least one of Violet’s children or grandchildren a DNA test for Christmas and they’ll just test!

Santa, can I arrange for a delivery?

———–

Epilogue: As you might imagine, this article was very difficult to process and write. I debated for weeks about whether it should be published or not, and I published it with no small amount of reservation.

After publication, my German friend and faithful blog reader offered the following slightly edited commentary, which I found very comforting as well as enlightening. Thank you so much Chris.

Though I do not know much about your father, only your articles, I am quite confident of this conclusion: No brain damage required to explain his running away, no bad decision making. I rather fear that running away may have been the only decision he was possibly able to take at all. He had no other choice!

He ran away to military to escape his personal life, he ran away from military service, he ran away from wives and the responsibility for his babies. He ran away to alcohol to forget about himself for a while. He tried to run away from himself by changing his identity. And, as I remember from your other article, it seems that his final choice was to run away from his life.

Importantly, this does not imply that he did not at the same time truly love these women and children, including you! It was not them whom he was running away from, it was himself whom he tried to flee from.

Please feel hugged! Thank you for your openness to share these stories with us all! And let us all try to give other souls on this earth a place to stay and find peace, not to leave.

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