In Their Own Words – Arthur Niedermiller
Between Two Countries
The movement of the United States towards entry into World War I impacted German-Americans more that most other ethnic groups that were part of America’s celebrated melting pot. Forming roughly ten percent of the population at the turn of the century, first and second-generation German-Americans living within the United States retained strong cultural ties to the land of their ancestors. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, anti-German sentiment expectedly rose among the general population, yet many German-Americans enlisted in the U.S. armed forces to fight under the Stars and Stripes. Among them was Arthur Christian Niedermiller, the son of a Detroit shoemaker.
Between 1917-1918, the personnel strength of the U.S. Navy grew from 194,617 to 530,338 officers and enlisted men, among them Arthur Christian Niedermiller of Detroit, Michigan. Born on 2 September 1889, he was the second of five children and grew up in Detroit, Michigan, the growing number of factories in the city, many of them making automobiles, transforming the city into one of the nation’s industrial centers. Choosing a traditional trade over work on an assembly line, Arthur Nidermiller became an apprentice watchmaker after his graduation from high school. Then came the war.
The Girl Left Behind
When Arthur Charles Niedermiller shipped out for service in the U.S. Navy, he left behind a sweetheart, Bertha Catherine Orling. Just a few months younger than her husband, she was born into a large and prominent Detroit family that owned a successful sausage and meat business. She grew up in Detroit and spent summers on the family farm in present day Gross Pointe, where there were always plenty of cousins around (Bertha’s mother was one of ten children). Arthur and Bertha met at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Detroit, and his memories of their time together sustained him while serving in uniform. “I am alone in my tent and I am thinking of times we have had together,” he wrote her from Camp Bennett in Pensacola, Florida, on 30 April 1918. “I wonder when they will be resumed…Ah, so many things that at the time seemed insignificant now mean so much. It requires sorrow, hardships, partings, to establish a love that is firm and true.”
“The roughest, most unprosperous country…”
In stark contrast to his hometown of Detroit, with its skyscrapers and bustling factories, the American South through which Arthur Niedermiller traveled to reach Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, revealed itself to be “the roughest, most unprosperous country.” It was not much better when he reached his final destination of Camp Bennett, a detention camp where new arrivals were kept in quarantine to ensure that none of them were carrying a contagious disease. “It is not an attractive place,” Niedermiller wrote. “It is situated on the bay [and] surrounded by the bay, a few trees, and hard white sand.”
“A very beautiful scene…”
Arthur Niedermiller’s period of quarantine in Camp Bennett lasted twenty-one days, ones filled with a routine of participating in work parties keeping the camp ship shape and inspections. The end of the day left time for reflection, the scene on one may evening prompting this passage in a letter to Bertha.Through the branches of a few evergreen trees, about twenty feet away from my tent, is an American Flag, our flag, at the top of a pole about fifty feet in height…The sky is a beautiful, deep, blue for a canopy and background. The white sand on the beach looks like snow. The water in the big bay is of the deepest blue. In a tent on first street, a lad is playing on a cornet, a beautiful solo…It is very quiet. Not a bit of shouting, laughing, or singing. It is our twilight hour. The big airplanes swoop and dive and circle around in front of me and over the bay like big vultures. What a perfect day it would be if all the world was at peace.
“One feels like a lost sheep…”
May 1918 brought transfer from Camp Bennett to Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida. “Marched to the main station,” Arthur wrote to Bertha. “Then we marched first to one place then another. Then into the big mess hall, which must seat almost a thousand men at a time. There must be almost three thousand men here. It looks like a big auto plant…Also my first experience in a hammock. Quite a stunt to sleep in one, but I found the knack of it and did not fall out.”
“I like this little city very much…”
With his civilian background as a watchmaker, it was no surprise that Arthur was selected for training in the field of repairing aircraft instruments, his days at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola spent in the routine of early morning reveille, physical training, and classroom periods working on altimeters and speedometers. Rare liberty was oftentimes spent at the Y.M.C.A. in downtown Pensacola, where Arthur frequently wrote his letters to Bertha. “I like this little city very much,” he wrote in August 1918. “What makes me a little homesick is the Victrola playing some of the songs I love to hear…’Sweethearts’ was just finished. This afternoon a great many of the boys are being taken out for automobile rides by the people owning machines. How I would enjoy going for a ride in the Cadillac or Electric again. I do not like to put myself under obligations to these people and at the same time I must confess that it tempts me very much.”
“Most of my friends have gone…”
As the months passed, more men arrived at the station and comrades departed. “Another class will graduate this week and will be sent to France…Had a letter that Roland Loeffler has gone across. Most of my friends have gone. We are making accommodations at this yard [station] for about ten thousand men. It is to be the largest aviation camp in the country. I don’t know if my education is enough to meet the demands required to be an aviator, but may have a chance in the future to try and qualify.”
Nearly a month had passed since his last letter when Arthur sat down to write a letter to his dear Bertha on 20 October 1918. Like much of the country, Pensacola has not been spared the ravages of the influenza epidemic sweeping the nation. “Have lost a number of very good friends. A few of the boys in our company also died… The hospital was filled, the balance quartered in tents on the hospital grounds.”
“A big burning mass”
Arthur also described a crash, an unfortunately not uncommon occurrence in the skies over Pensacola during that era. A gas balloon “had passed only a short distance over the station when it exploded with a tremendous noise and from the height of about nine hundred feet fell in the bay in a big burning mass…The loss in about ten minutes was three men hurt by jumping and a machine worth sixty to seventy thousand dollars.” Fortunately for the Navy, in reality the cost was probably much less!
“A wonderful experience…”
Serving in New York City, where he was working with other men at Columbia University preparing a syllabus for the care and maintenance of aircraft instruments, Arthur reflected on his service. “It has been a very wonderful experience,” he wrote, “and I know I have gained considerable knowledge…It will no doubt be rather a difficult matter to settle down and be compelled to depend on oneself. In the Navy Uncle Sam takes care of you and I do not wonder at a man who reenlists after he has served four years.”
“And now he has gone to join them…”
Assigned to the aviation section of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Arthur’s service extended into 1919, marking an extended absence from home and family events. The death of an uncle reveals just how close those who served in World War II were to the veterans of the Civil War. “While at Arlington Cemetery… I made a remark while looking at the thousands of memorials marking the graves of Union soldiers that I also had an uncle living who fought for the same cause. And now he is gone to join them.”
“The quiet of your love…”
On 19 August 1919, Arthur penned his last letter to Bertha while in uniform. He was clearly mindful that one stage of his life had passed and a new journey awaited him. “Bertha, I love you more than anyone in the world and I believe such love is returned. For that reason it is only fair to speak of these things. Under present circumstances I cannot even ask you to wait, but if I can say that if I am successful I shall, if not too late, ask you to be my wife.”Arthur Niedermiller and Bertha Catherine Orling were married on 14 June 1921, Flag Day. They lived on Bertha’s family farm until their passing in 1964. They died three months apart.