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WWII Vet's grave mystery solved

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A portrait shows 1st Lt. Joseph Favre Baldwin, who was killed in action in World War I in France on Aug. 7, 1918 — just four days after his 26th birthday. Baldwin was the first Tylerite killed in World War I. A portrait shows 1st Lt. Joseph Favre Baldwin, who was killed in action in World War I in France on Aug. 7, 1918 — just four days after his 26th birthday. Baldwin was the first Tylerite killed in World War I.
By BRIAN PEARSON
bpearson@tylerpaper.com
 

(TylerPaper.com) - During a research visit to Oakwood Cemetery six months ago, Dr. Ben Bridges ran across the grave of 1st Lt. Joseph Favre Baldwin, the first Tylerite killed in World War I.

Bridges had come to Oakwood on behalf of the Smith County Medical Society to examine the grave of Baldwin's father, a longtime doctor in Tyler.

"When I was standing there, I looked down and saw all the graves of the Baldwin family," he said.

Bridges noticed that the grave for 1st Lt. Joseph Favre Baldwin, killed in action Aug. 7, 1918, was a full slab, but subsequent research revealed conflicting information on whether the soldier was buried there. 

It was a mystery — one that took the 87-year-old Bridges on a research odyssey here and abroad — that remained unsolved until this month.

"It was a very complicated story," he said.


BALDWIN FAMILY

Joseph Baldwin was born Aug. 3, 1892, in Tyler, according to records that Bridges uncovered. His father, Dr. A.P. Baldwin, set up his practice in Tyler in 1900.

According to a Dec. 20, 1920, account in the Tyler Daily Courier-Times, Joseph Baldwin was the eldest of two brothers.

The family home was on the corner of West Ferguson and North Bonner in Tyler, across from where Tyler City Hall sits today.

In a handwritten letter, A.P. Baldwin noted that his son grew up in Tyler, graduated from Tyler public schools and attended Virginia Military Institute.

Joseph Baldwin then followed in his father's footsteps, graduating from Tulane University's medical school in 1915 and then scoring an internship in New Orleans.

Baldwin enlisted with U.S. Army's medical department and was sent to England in October 1917, spending several months in training before serving with the British Royal Fusiliers.

He was assigned to field ambulance duty in France in spring 1918.

"He would go up to the front and pick up wounded and take them to hospitals," Bridges said.

On Aug. 7, 1918, four days after his 26th birthday, Baldwin was killed instantly when a shell burst over him while he was attending to front-line casualties.

"The 54th Field Ambulance Royal Medical Service commented on how brave he was," Bridges said. "They saw him directly under machine gun and artillery fire and bringing in the wounded."

Baldwin was buried in a cemetery in the small village of Franvillers, France, population about 500, Bridges said.

His father received word of the death later in the month and wrote a letters to the newspaper stating that his son had been killed "somewhere in France."

"He was a young man of splendid character and lovable disposition," the letter read. "We as parents have made a great sacrifice. We have given up one of our beloved sons. Only the Great General on High knows why."

Bridges said Tyler held a tribute for the fallen soldier about a week later, and the Baldwin family launched efforts to bring home his body.


PREMONITION

Bridges said his quest to find out what happened to Baldwin's body took an eerie turn when he uncovered a letter the soldier wrote to his family and kept on him in case he died in the war.

The letter's wording and tone gave Bridges the impression that Baldwin anticipated his death.

"The long-awaited orders have just come through, sending me up the line, and tomorrow will find me in the thick of things," Baldwin wrote. "Death in itself has no terrors for me … And so I go — with your dear faces before me, and your Love my guide and strength.

"Why should I fear bombs and shells when I know that your love has annihilated the spaces and you are both with me in spirit, walking by my side through all my labors.

"And now, my saintly mother, and my revered father, in the words of the old Romans: 'We, who are about to die, salute you.'


"GOOD BYE, FAVRE"

Bridges said more research stirred questions about the location of Baldwin's remains. He searched Canadian and U.S. military records. 

"There (was) some question on where his remains stayed," he said. "On Google he is not listed in that (French) cemetery. There is no mention of any Americans being buried there."

Bridges said Canadian officials told him Baldwin's body likely was exhumed at private expense and brought back to the United States.

"I (felt) fairly assured that he is here at Oakwood Cemetery," he said.

However, a fire sometime around 1940 destroyed Oakwood records from then back until about 1910, he said.

Baldwin's grave is next to those of other family members, including his father, mother and brother, Fred, who never married and died in a fire in 1945.

"There is no more immediate family left," he said.

Dr. A.P. Baldwin's obituary notes that he was to be buried next to his wife and son, who had been killed in World War I.


HOMESTEAD HISTORY

The Baldwin home on the western edge of downtown Tyler went on to make its own history.

A.P. Baldwin died July 10, 1934, just 12 days after his wife died.

Their home was used as a temporary city hall from 1938 to 1940, Bridges said.

During World War II, it served as a USO to entertain troops.

Before the building was torn down in 1970, it was called the Lion's Den, where social events were held for Tyler High School students.

Today, the site is a parking lot for City Hall.

The Favre Baldwin American Legion Post No. 12, 5503 American Legion Road in Tyler, bears the fallen soldier's name.

"But they have very little information about him," Bridges said of the post.

Bridges, a longtime Tyler physician, said that despite the limited information about Baldwin, he feels a connection to him.

Bridges was around 26 years old when he was a medical officer during the Korean War in the early 1950s.

"I felt a certain bonding with him when I saw his grave," he said. "(Had he lived through World War I), he would have practiced medicine here, and I would have known him."


MYSTERY SOLVED

Bridges felt he had reached a research dead end in mid-October, but that changed quickly.

He followed a lead to St. Louis and the National Personnel Records Center, which Bridges did not know existed.

The center's records show that Baldwin's body had been moved once before finally being returned to Tyler and buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

"The British moved the body from one cemetery to another without telling anybody," Bridges said.

The body was returned to Tyler in 1920, and a full military funeral was held here Dec. 29, 1920, according to a newspaper account.

Flags around the city were flown at half staff, and the entire community mourned.

"Every available space in the residence of Dr. and Mrs. Baldwin and in the spacious yard were filled with sorrowing relatives and friends who mingled their tears with those of the bereaved family, thus paying the last tribute of love and respect to the young man," the newspaper account read.

A service was held at Marvin United Methodist Church, followed by a procession to Oakwood Cemetery.

"Services at the grave were brief and impressive. Members of the American Legion, with a squad of cavalry, surrounded the grave," the newspaper account read. "As the draped casket was lowered into its final resting place, the band rendered the "Rosary," this beautiful piece of music having been a favorite of the deceased. A three volley salute was fired by the cavalry men, and taps (was) sounded by the bugler. As the beautiful notes of the bugle filled the air, first strong and clear, and then dying away into distant echoes, eyes filled with tears, heads were bowed and hundreds of loving and loyal friends of the gifted and brilliant young soldier, physician and Christian gentleman felt alike the throb of sorrow that beats in the hearts of his own dear loved ones."

About the services, Bridges said, "I think it was rather striking. They said it was the largest funeral they had ever had in Tyler up until that time."

Bridges said Baldwin's death was not just a loss to his loved.

"He's a loss to the community," he said. "If he had come back, he would have been part of this community."

Bridges said he hopes publicizing his research will help shed light on and Baldwin's story.

"I think we finally, at least in our own minds, have put him to rest, and to remember him," Bridges said.
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