The first to go; the first to die
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
The first six men to be drafted into the Army from Madera in WWI with Herbert Macon, second from the right. The six draftees are in dark suits and stand on either side of two members of the draft board. The date was Sept. 9, 1917, and the photograph was taken at the S.P. train depot.
World War I had been over exactly one year when Madera observed its first Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1919. The community gathered at Lincoln School to remember those who had fallen in World War I, especially the 17 young soldiers from Madera County. As one scans the list of Maderans who made the supreme sacrifice, one name stands out — Herbert Macon. He was the first to leave for the war and the first to die.
War fever had swept Madera in the spring and summer of 1917. America had entered World War I, and the local boys were not going to shirk their duty, least of all Herbert Macon. He was the oldest son of Horace Macon, Madera County Tax Collector, and in August 1917, he was drafted into the army.
Herbert was one of 54 men from Madera County who was first accepted for the draft and one of the first six to actually report for duty. It was reported that those half dozen Maderans were “anxious to leave for mobilization,” as they arrived to be sworn in on September 8.
Little did Herbert Macon know when he raised his hand to take the oath that day that he had less than a year to live.
The local draft board put William Forrester, one of the draftees from Fairmead, in charge of the six-man squad, and they spent the afternoon being instructed on how to proceed to Camp Lewis, Washington for training before being shipped to the front. Then they all returned home to get ready for the big shindig at the Yosemite Hotel restaurant that night.
The party began at 7 o’clock that evening. Folks who remembered said that it was the most elaborate affair ever held in the hotel dining hall. Thirty-one dignitaries and guests joined the new soldiers to pay special tribute to the first Maderans to go off to fight in the war that was supposed to end all wars.
Following a social hour, the banquet was served, and following the meal, a local orchestra entertained the group. Then, of course, some gave patriotic speeches.
Mrs. Dow Ransom, the head of Madera’s War Relief Committee, made a few remarks and presented a “comfort bag” to each of the draftees. Following this, her husband, Dr. Ransom was introduced as the Master of Ceremonies, and tried in his remarks to add a little humor to what could have been a sad occasion.
Professor W.L. Williams, who taught at the high school, was the main speaker. He spoke passionately about the need for America to be in the fight and insisted that more men of honor, such as were being acknowledged, were needed in the struggle. Williams took a verbal swipe at all who opposed the entry of the United States into the conflict and was roundly applauded.
Mill owner George Thurman then proposed a toast and led the group in “three cheers that were given with such enthusiasm that they made the walls echo.” Then the boys left with their families to spend their last night at home before boarding the train for camp the next day.
The Macons lived at 718 West 5th Street in Madera, and one can only imagine the scene that night, as Horace and Ida Macon surrounded by their children Viola, Lawrence, and Elton, said their private good-byes to Herbert. Since they were members of the Presbyterian Church in Madera, one would not be surprised to learn that they leaned heavily on their faith that night.
The next morning, September 9, came early. The family dressed, ate breakfast, and drove to the Southern Pacific train depot. When they arrived, they found a huge crowd of Madera folks on hand ready to say goodbye. The platform was crowded with well wishers and family members. Henry Seron, a professional photographer managed to grab John Griffin and George Teaford, members of the local draft board, and line them up with the six draftees in front of the depot office for a picture. It was the last photograph ever taken of Herbert Macon.
At 11 o’clock that Sunday morning, the northbound train arrived, and Madera’s first World War I soldiers said farewell and boarded. As the train pulled away from the station, tears filled the eyes and fear filled the hearts.
Herbert Macon and his comrades-in-arms were taken to Camp Lewis for basic training. He was then assigned to Company B of the 59th Infantry, Fourth Division. Within weeks he was in Europe.
Macon made it through the first half of 1918, but in July he was wounded in the Battle of Chateau Thierry. He died a few days later — the first Maderan to give his life in World War I.
Life went on for the Macons and Madera, but they never forgot young Herbert Macon’s sacrifice. On January 22, 1936, the Madera Mercury announced that the new VFW Post 1981 was being named after Corporal Herbert E. Macon.
So the next time there is an event at the VFW Hall, we can remember all of those who served and those who died. We can also be proud of Herbert Elmore Macon, the first Maderan to leave and the first to die fighting for his country in World War I.