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First Lieutenant Josephus Benjamin Wilson

  • Unit: 5th Division, 15th Machine Gun Battalion, Company C
  • Date of Birth: March 28, 1897
  • Entered the Military: July 1, 1914
  • Date of Death: October 15, 1918
  • Hometown: Athens, Tennessee
  • Place of Death: near Romagne-Sous-Montfaucon, France
  • Award(s): Distinguished Service Cross
  • Cemetery: Plot C, Row 45, Grave 26. Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Romagne-Sous-Montfaucon, France
Contributed by Mrs. Whitney Joyner
Northeast Middle School

Early Life

“A Promising Future”

Josephus Benjamin Wilson, or Ben, as his friends and family called him, was born March 28, 1897, in Denver, Colorado. Ben was the fourth of seven children born to Captain Emera Ellsworth Wilson and Mrs. May Forney Wilson. Ben’s father served as a lieutenant in the Spanish American War, a captain in the Mexican Border War, and a major in World War I. Ben’s mother graduated school at age 16 and was a teacher before becoming a homemaker and raising her seven children.

In 1913, Wilson’s father bought the local newspaper in Athens, Tennessee, The Athens Post, and moved his family there. At age 16, Ben attended McMinn County High School and The Athens School of the University of Chattanooga, known today as Tennessee Wesleyan University. Education was a high priority for the Wilson family. While growing up in Athens, Ben played tennis and loved history. Articles from the local newspaper described him as highly educated and a popular boy with a promising future.

“Duty, Honor, Country”

On July 1, 1914, Wilson entered West Point Military Academy in New York. While at West Point, Wilson received the nickname, “Woodrow” from his peers and was a member of the basketball squad.

At West Point Wilson became engaged to Miss Mary “Joy” Bayless, also from Athens, Tennessee. Joy was the well-educated daughter of John and Agnes Bayless, and her family owned the town hardware store. Like Ben, Joy attended The Athens School of the University of Chattanooga, and she and Ben spent many days playing tennis together.

Wilson was supposed to graduate in 1918; however, with the United States entry into the war, rumors around West Point of an early graduation for Wilson’s class began to spread. With war raging in Europe and an increase in the demand for U.S. Army officers, the academy accelerated the graduation of its upper classes to meet demands. The cadets of Wilson’s class were told of their early graduation on May 9, 1917 in the mess hall.

As written by the class of 1918, “A letter from the Supe was read us and we reproduce it here, for it states more clearly than can we the responsibilities with which we were confronted…Play time was over, and work, some of it of a most disagreeable nature, was ahead of us.” By the end of the war, the only remaining cadets at West Point were freshmen. Wilson graduated from West Point Military Academy in August 1917, and was commissioned a second lieutenant. From there, he was assigned to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, where he received further training.

Military Experience

“Over There”

Wilson was assigned to the 15th Machine Gun Battalion, a component of the 5th Division, 10th Infantry Brigade. In April 1918 the battalion was moved overseas to join forces in France.

From September 12-15, 1918, Wilson’s battalion participated in the St. Mihiel Campaign, during which the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) launched their first major offensive operation as an independent army. Despite rough conditions within the trenches and surrounding area, the attack was a success for the AEF. During the St. Mihiel Campaign, Wilson was a part of Company B. In a letter written home to his family, Wilson stated,

I suppose you know I was in the St. Mihiel drive. It was sure a real fight and I consider myself lucky in getting into it. I feel as if I was beginning to do my part now. Our division has been complimented from all sides on our part in it…I came out without a scratch again, but was certainly all in. We’re back resting now and are about fattened up again. We sure needed sleep and eats. Am ready for another drive now. Hope we’ll keep right after them.

“Sterling Leadership and Devotion to Duty”

On October 15, 1918, the 15th Machine Gun Battalion was heavily engaged in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. First Lieutenant Wilson now commanded Company C. While leading a portion of his company through a hostile barrage on October 15, Josephus Benjamin Wilson was mortally wounded, dying on the battlefield.

The circumstances surrounding his last acts can best be described by the following remarks made by Major W. W. Grimes:

I don’t believe I ever saw a finer boy, nor one whom the future had so much in store for…He was advancing with a portion of his company, but finding that part of one platoon had become disorganized, he returned through a barrage to collect missing men. He was noticed by a fellow Lieutenant to go down on one knee, just as a large shell struck close by him, however, he was up again in a second and bravely struggled forward. Advancing about twenty feet he fell unconscious. A piece of shell had struck him close to his heart. We mourn the loss of one of the bravest, cleanest and finest fellows that ever lived.


Josephus Benjamin Wilson left behind a stunned and grieving family. Wilson’s mother, May, was at home when she heard the news of his death. His father, Ellsworth, was in Washington, D.C., when according to the Trench and Camp publication it was noted that, “It is a sad coincidence that Capt. Wilson mailed his son a long Thanksgiving letter on Sunday morning and in the afternoon received a telegram from the war department announcing his untimely death, after six months of service.”

In an extract from Wilson’s final letter home to his family, Wilson stated, “The poor German is certainly in a hole and if real winter will just hold off for a little while now think we can finish the thing up. Believe I’ll be home within a year from now. Hope so, anyway. Write when you can. Love. Ben.”

Soon after his death, First Lieutenant Wilson was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross. On November 15, 1921, Wilson’s remains were laid to rest in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, alongside over 14,000 comrades.

Each year from 1930 to 1933, the offer to take a gold star mother pilgrimage was extended to Wilson’s mother, May, to visit his grave in France. Despite indicating a strong interest, each year, she was unable to go, due to her health.

Today, the story and legacy of Josephus Benjamin Wilson lives on through Ben’s family. They never met him, but through family records and stories passed down, they remember his life, service, and sacrifice. Ben is also remembered in his hometown of Athens at the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum, where his West Point saber and a service flag with his gold star currently reside.



5th Division; Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I), Records of Combat Divisions, 1917-1921, Record Group 120 (Boxes 29-30); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

5th Division; Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I), Records of Combat Divisions, 1917-1921, Record Group 120 (Boxes 40-45); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

5th Division; Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I), Records of Combat Divisions, 1917-1921, Record Group 120 (Boxes 96-102); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

29th Engineers, United States Army. Map to illustrate the Meuse-Argonne Offensive: first, second, and last phases. Map. France: 1918. Library of Congress Geography and Maps Division.

Association of Graduates, United States Military Academy at West Point. Annual Report of the Association of the Graduates, 1919. West Point: United States Military Academy, 1919.

“Browning Circle Unfurl Flag.” The Daily Post- Athenian. 1917. Courtesy of the Wilson Family.

Exhibit Photographs, Browning Circle Service Flag and Description. McMinn County Living Heritage Museum.

Griner, George W. “Operations of the 15th Machine-Gun Battalion, 5th Division, in the St. Mihiel Offensive.” Ike Skelton Combined Arms Research Library Digital Library. Last modified 2007. Accessed June 12, 2018.

The Howitzer. West Point: Corps of Cadets of the United States Military Academy, 1915. Accessed June 12, 2018.

The Howitzer. West Point: Corps of Cadets of the United States Military Academy, 1916. Accessed June 12, 2018.

The Howitzer. West Point: Corps of Cadets of the United States Military Academy, 1917-1918. Accessed June 13, 2018.$c193832;view=1up;seq=1.

“Josephus B. Wilson.” American Battlefield Monuments Commission. Accessed February 28, 2018.

“Josephus B. Wilson.” East Tennessee Veterans Memorial Association. Last modified 2008. Accessed February 28. 2018.

“Josephus Benjamin Wilson.” For What They Gave On Saturday Afternoon. Last modified 2013. Accessed February 28, 2018.

Josephus Benjamin Wilson World War I Burial Case File and World War I Awards Card; Correspondence, Reports, Telegrams, Applications and Other Papers relating to Burials of Service Personnel, Records of the Quartermaster General’s Office, 1915-1935, Record Group 92; National Archives and Records Administration – St. Louis.

“Lieut. Ben Wilson Killed in Battle.” The Daily Post- Athenian. October 1918. Courtesy of the Wilson Family.

“The Meuse-Argonne Offensive.” American Battle Monuments Commission. Last modified June 24, 2015. Accessed July 25, 2018.

Stevenson, Kenyon. The Official History of the Fifth Division, U. S. A., during the Period of Its Organization and of Its Operations in the European World War, 1917-1919. Washington, D.C.: Society of the Fifth Division, 1919.

War Diaries, 5th Division; Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I), Record Group 120 (Box 2653); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

Wilson Family Photographs and Records. 1880-1954. Courtesy of the Wilson Family.

Wilson, Ben. Interview with the author. March 24, 2018.

Wilson, Marilyn. Interview with the author. March 24, 2018.

“Women and World War I Commemoration: The Gold Star Mothers and Widows Pilgrimages, 1930-33.” American Battle Monuments Commission. Last modified March 23, 2015. Accessed June 14, 2018.