Sergeant Neil Evans Wheeler
- Unit: 2nd Division, 5th Regiment, 47th Company, 3rd Platoon
- Date of Birth: February 3, 1892
- Entered the Military: July 28, 1917
- Date of Death: June 18, 1918
- Hometown: Oswego, New York
- Place of Death: Belleau Wood, France
- Cemetery: Plot B, Row 3, Grave 23. Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, Belleau, France
Robert Frost Middle School
On February 3, 1892, Neil Evans Wheeler was born in Oswego, New York, to Frank and Sarah Wheeler. At the time of Neil’s birth, both parents were 26 years old, and Neil was their fourth child. Frank Wheeler worked as a farmer, and the couple had seven more children.
Before Neil’s service in the military he resided at 291 West 2nd Street in Oswego. Census records indicate that the population of Oswego was over 70,000. Oswego families sent many of their sons to serve in the Great War; more than 100 did not return. Before enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps, Neil worked as a textile operator at the Standard Spinning Company.
When the United States entered the war the U.S. Marine Corps was still small. On April 6, 1917, a significant number of Marines were stationed in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Nervous to decrease forces in these countries, which had experienced rebellion in previous years, the Marines relied on a vigorous recruiting campaign. Neil Wheeler registered for the draft on June 5, 1917 and volunteered for service in the U.S. Marine Corps on July 25, 1917, at age 25.
On August 3, 1917, Wheeler was five feet eight inches tall and weighed 141 pounds when he reported for boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. Before leaving basic training he received marksman qualifications for firing small arms. When the brown-haired, blue-eyed private completed training in January 1918, he went on to Quantico, Virginia.
At Quantico he trained as a member of the 119th Company, 1st Replacement Battalion. Before leaving for Europe, Private Wheeler received a 4.3 out of 5.0 on his evaluation on his conduct and professionalism. During this time Marines were evaluated on military efficiency, obedience, and sobriety. For his service in the United States, Wheeler earned $1.00 a day.
American Expeditionary Force
On February 5, 1918, Wheeler and his fellow Marines boarded the 23,500 ton, German-built Von Steuben in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The ship reached Brest, France on June 25. Marines aboard the ship disembarked the following afternoon.
In France, Wheeler became part of the 2nd Division, 5th Regiment, 47th Company, 3rd Platoon under the Second Division of the U.S. Army. In a combat theater, his pay increased to $1.25 a day. Three months later, his unit fought in one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history at Belleau Wood.
Germany fought the war on two fronts. They faced the Allied Forces to the west and the Russians in the east. After the Bolshevik Revolution in late 1917, Russia withdrew from the war, allowing Germany to focus its efforts on the Western Front. In March 1918, it launched a major offensive with 50 divisions hoping to overwhelm the Allied forces in France. By late May 1918, the German offensive advanced the line within 50 miles of Paris, France.
On May 31, after receiving rations, Wheeler’s unit moved out towards Belleau Woods. As the Marines advanced, they encountered exhausted French soldiers. The French soldiers urged the U.S. Marines to withdraw. It was here that Captain Lloyd W. Williams made his legendary retort, “Retreat, hell! We just got here!”
By June 2, the Marines held the line along the edge of Belleau Wood. Over the next four days, the men held off several German attacks. The early success that the inexperienced Marines achieved was attributed to hours of target practice. After making their stand, the men shifted from defense to offense. Unfortunately, the terrain favored the enemy: open fields in the shadow of overgrown woods, with German machine gun nest on every ravine and hallock.
Battle of Belleau Wood
June 6, 1918 marked the beginning of the Battle of Belleau Wood. The U.S. Marines crossed a wheat field into oncoming German machine gun fire. When the day was over the Marines would see 1,000 men killed or wounded. On that day, Wheeler was wounded; the extent of his injuries is unknown.
The records regarding Wheeler’s death are conflicting and confusing. Originally, the U.S. Marine Corps listed Wheeler’s death on June 13, 1918. However, Wheeler’s remains were identified as those of Private Sayles Shanafelt. In subsequent documents, Wheeler’s date of death was changed from June 13 to June 17, 1918, but his remains were still unidentified.
Identifying Wheeler’s Remains
From August 1918 to July 1919, Frank and Sarah Wheeler sent ten letters to the U.S. Marine Corps in an effort to receive official notification of their son’s death and the location of his body. In a letter to the Marine Corps, Mrs. Wheeler mentions that other families in Oswego were informed when something happened to their service member. To her, it seemed that “Neil did not matter.” The Marine Corps’ responses to the Wheeler family did not always explain why the flow of information to them was delayed.
In a February 11, 1919 response to the family, Captain C. A. Ketcham reported to the family that the location of Neil’s body, when he was in the field hospital, was not reported to his commanding officer. Ketcham noted that it was impossible for officers, especially during an engagement with the enemy, to keep themselves informed as to the disposition made of all their men who are wounded in action. It is often weeks before complete reports are received.
When Wheeler was injured on June 6, 1918, his name was not mentioned on a casualty cablegram. In a letter to Mrs. Wheeler, it was explained that his injury may have been minor. This information conflicted with that received from the American Red Cross. In May 1919, Sarah received a letter from the American Red Cross saying that their New York office had a record of Sergeant Wheeler’s chest injury. The severity of his wound(s) is unclear, as is a possible advance in rank.
There is no explanation as to how Wheeler advanced four pay grades in a short period of time. Promotions such as this are usually granted to Marines for demonstrating exemplary performance. The explanation given for the promotion to Mrs. Wheeler came in a letter dated July 22, 1919. The Marine Corps wrote that they had no record of her son’s promotion to the rank of sergeant. In all probability it was issued in France and the paperwork for it was never received. In that same year the Wheeler family received word that the Marine Corps was beginning an investigation as to the location of their son’s remains.
Locating the remains of service members required the cooperation of the French government. In December 1919, Mr. Wheeler received a letter from Captain Ketcham stating that initially the French government disapproved of the removal of bodies for sanitary and economic reasons. At the time the letter was written there was no permanent decision made on recovering and returning the dead to the United States. The American government was carrying on diplomatic negotiations with the French in hopes of an early removal of the dead.
On October 19, 1920, the Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army wrote a letter to Frank Wheeler requesting all of his son’s dental records and any records about bone fractures that Neil may have sustained prior to his entry into the Marines. A frustrated Mr. Wheeler responded that all dentists were required to send dental charts of enlisted men to Washington. Frank Wheeler responded that since the government did not know the location of his son, he did not see what good the chart would do. The Wheelers’ response to the government’s request for dental records of their son delayed the process, forcing the Marine Corps to make additional requests, reminding them of the importance of the records to their investigation.
Initially, Wheeler’s body was confused with another Marine; Saylor D. Shannafelt. When Wheeler’s body was located there was no identification tag on him. A bottle containing information created confusion in identifying the remains. The bottle contained information that led many to believe the body was that of Shannafelt. During the investigation it was determined that Shannafelt survived. He was injured on June 11, 1918, and returned to the United States where he received an honorable discharge.
The burials of Marines were not always done in an organized fashion. According to a message from Captain William A. Grebing to the Chief of the Graves Registration (GRS), service members were often buried in trenches and near hospitals. Name pegs were not always spaced to correspond with the burial. This lack of consistency in procedure led to problems identifying service members after the war. Dental records became important to investigators in order to ensure correct identification.
Four years following their son’s death, the Wheeler family received a letter from the Quartermaster General (Cemeterial Division) informing them that the investigation had been successful. The family chose to leave their son’s remains in France.
On July 7, 1919, a brief article in the Oswego Daily Times reported that the Wheeler family finally received notification that their son was killed in action. Wheeler’s death was also reported in the July 22, 1919 edition of the Buffalo Courier.
On March 2, 1929, Congress approved a law to allow mothers and widows of deceased service members interred in European cemeteries to make a pilgrimage. Sarah Wheeler was concerned about making the trip for health reasons and originally declined to go in a November 2, 1931 letter to the Quartermaster General of the War Department. In a future letter, Mrs. Wheeler was reassured that there would be access to medical personnel if needed and that other women that had made the pilgrimage in 1930 and 1931 with similar medical concerns without incident.
In May 1932, Sarah Wheeler set sail from New York City with 79 other Gold Star mothers and widows aboard the S.S. Leviathan. At that time, 17,380 women were eligible to make the trip. By 1932, over 5,400 women made the trip. On a few occasions Mrs. Wheeler had to seek medical attention for instances of fatigue.
On the one hundredth anniversary of World War I, a plaque was dedicated to those from Oswego County who lost their lives in the war. Neil Wheeler’s name appears on this plaque, along with over 100 other men from the county who died in action.
2nd Division; Records of Combat Divisions, 1913-1939, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I), Record Group 120 (Boxes 51-53); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.
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Battaglia, Bryan B. “World War I and the Marine Corps: Bravery at Belleau Wood Set the Tone for Today’s Force.” Military Times, April 4, 2017. www.militarytimes.com/military-honor/world-war-i/2017/04/04/world-war-i-and-the-marine-corps-bravery-at-belleau-wood-set-the-tone-for-today-s-force/.
Marines, U.S. (5th) in cars…after disembarkation. Photograph. June 1917. National Archives and Records Administration (111-SC-002110-ac). Image.
McClellan, Major Edwin N. The United States Marine Corps in the World War. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Marine Corps Historical Branch, 1920. www.marines.mil/Portals/1/Publications/The%20United%20States%20Marine%20Corps%20in%20the%20World%20War%20%20PCN%2019000411300.pdf.
“Neil E. Wheeler.” 1905 New York State Census. Digital Images. ancestry.com.
“Neil E. Wheeler.” 1915 New York State Census. Digital Images. ancestry.com.
Neil E. Wheeler Deceased Veterans Claim File (XC-248,390); 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.
“Neil E. Wheeler.” U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958. Digital Images. ancestry.com.
Neil E. Wheeler World War I Burial Case File; Records of the United States Marine Corps, Record Group 127; National Archives and Records Administration – St. Louis.
New York. Oswego County. 1910 U.S. Federal Census. Digital Images. ancestry.com.
“Neil Evans Wheeler.” New York, Abstracts of World War I Military Service. Digital Images. ancestry.com.
“Neil Evans Wheeler.” U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards. Digital Images. ancestry.com.
“Oswego County WWI Vets Honored Overseas on 100th Anniversary of Armistice.” I Heart Oswego. Updated October 16, 2018. Accessed August 30, 2019. www.iheartoswego.com/oswego-county-wwi-vets-honored-overseas-on-100th-anniversary-of-armistice.html.
“Our Country’s Roll of Honor.” Buffalo Courier, July 22, 1919. Newspapers.com (409518942).
Perry, Tony. “ ‘Incomparable bravery’ gave U.S. Marines victory at Belleau Wood.” Accessed August 30, 2019. www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php/communicate/press-media/wwi-centennial-news/4545-incomparable-bravery-led-u-s-marines-to-victory-at-belleau-wood-in-june-1918.html.
“Remembering Oswego County’s Own Buried in Europe.” Oswego County News Now, October 21. 2018. www.oswegocountynewsnow.com/news/remembering-oswego-county-s-own-buried-in-europe/article_3defd65c-d233-11e8-af3a-8337cf3b25bb.html.
Ruane, Michael E. “The Battle of Belleau Wood Was Brutal, Deadly and Forgotten. But It Forged a New Marine Corps.” The Washington Post, May 31, 2018. www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/05/31/the-battle-of-belleau-wood-was-bloody-deadly-and-forgotten-but-it-forged-a-new-marine-corps/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.68c1e24e4820.
“Sarah Wheeler.” U.S. World War I Mothers’ Pilgrimage. Digital Images. ancestry.com.
Scott, Georges. The American Marines at Belleau Wood [La Brigade Marine Americaine au Bois de Belleau]. Illustration. 1921. Wikimedia Commons. Image. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scott_Belleau_Wood.jpg.
U.S. Marines in France. Photograph. June 1917. National Archives and Records Administration (111-SC-004227-ac). Image.