Hundreds of Utah families observed Thanksgiving 1916 with an empty chair at the table. Their sons and husbands in the National Guard were in Arizona, guarding the border against raiders attempting to draw the United States into deeper involvement in the Mexican Revolution.
The 140 men and officers of Battery A, Utah Field Artillery, had been in Arizona since late June, reporting to Nogales only nine days after President Woodrow Wilson had called for troops. Battery A claimed to be the first National Guard unit to arrive at the border, although Illinois disputed their claim. Utah’s men were fully uniformed, equipped, examined and mustered, in contrast with other early arrivals who had rushed to the border unprepared for service.
In addition to their regulation artillery pieces and personal equipment, Utah had furnished their men two motor trucks and a handful of motorcycles, high-tech luxuries that were the envy of other units. Once in Arizona, Battery A also took responsibility for the care and training of 32 horses used for pulling field artillery.
Housed in tents overlooking Nogales, the men endured the extremes of Arizona weather: rainstorms “with drops as big as watermelons” part of the time, and heat so dry that spilled water dissipated before hitting the ground, according to troopers. They learned to look before they sat, because “everything in Arizona, animal and vegetable, has spines and thorns.”
Together with two squadrons of Utah cavalry and one hospital unit, the “Battery boys” were responsible for more than 100 miles of the international border. They drilled by marching from Nogales to Tucson, and stood long night watches guarding cattle herds, mountain passes and reservoirs.
But on December 7, word came that Battery A would be sent home and mustered out before Christmas. The news was greeted with cheers in Salt Lake City.
Daily bulletins reported the men’s progress. The battery entrained at Nogales at 4:00 p.m. on December 13. By the next day the train had reached Colton, near San Bernardino, but progress was stalled as the men unloaded their horses to give them rest and exercise. Travel was resumed the next day, with Salt Lake prepared to expect the men at 8:00 on the morning of December 16.
The train was sidetracked to allow regular traffic to use the rails, and finally reached Salt Lake at 8:43 a.m. “As the long train of cars and a caboose rolled into the Union depot yards, the soldier boys leaned out of the car windows, waving their hands and shouting while hundreds of relatives and friends rushed across the yard from the depot to welcome the returning guardsmen,” according to one account.
Among the men greeted so warmly on that cold and stormy day were bugler James Ritchie, who had sounded reveille and taps for the battery; blacksmith Lemuel Gibson, who had shod the unit’s horses; cook James Papadopolous, who had fed the men well on the 30-cents-a-day-per-man government allotment; Capt. William C. Webb, the battery’s commander; and soldiers whose surnames hint at backgrounds ranging from the oldest pioneers to the newest arrivals from eastern and southern Europe – Utahns all.
Following a few minutes’ greeting, the men unloaded their train. The horses were taken to Fort Douglas until stabling could be arranged at the state fairgrounds. Equipment was stowed in the armory on Pierpont Street. Then the men, escorted by the Salt Lake High School Cadets and the school band, marched to the Hotel Utah, where the men were treated to a turkey dinner. While they might rather have been with their wives and mothers – forced to stand in hallways outside the banquet room – the men listened to speeches by politicians and pledges of employment from local businessmen.
The men were soon mustered out of service, to spend a single Christmas at home before so many were called again to military duty in World War I.