Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How Percy Boarts won his wings.

Percy Frederick Boarts is interred at the Kirkland Cemetery.
As another Memorial Day weekend comes to an end, we at the Kirkland Historical Foundation  were gratified to see so much emphasis on the true meaning of what was once called 'Decoration Day', for the tradition of communities turning out to clean up their local cemeteries and decorate the graves of fallen military personnel.
Memorial Day is about honoring those who died in military service, but it is important to remember that in most of our past wars, many, many died not in battle but from sickness and disease that but for their military service they would not likely have been exposed to.
Battlefield or other combat deaths are the stuff of movies an adventure novels, but often the huge numbers who died in much less romantic ways might be forgotten, were they not honored today.
Case in point was young Percy Fredrick Boarts. Percy had come as a youngster with his family from PA and they settled near Issaquah, He and his family members were mentioned a few times in the 'Issaquah Press Newspaper', in the context of the who visited whom, who was ill, who had company visiting their home types of stories common to small town newspapers during that era. One 1911 story mentioned that he was attending the Acme Business College, located in Seattle. He would have been about 16 then, but this was an era when graduation from the 8th grade was often a significant achievement and study at what was essentially a private, business-focused high school was a great way to get marketable business skills.
On November 6,1916, Percy married Nora Brooks, of Kirkland. Her parents, Emery "EA" and Annabelle 'Belle" (Patty) Brooks, had come to Kirkland around 1891, during the Peter Kirk steel mill boom years (~1888-93) and quickly entered the grocery business. They were very hard-working and did well, even through the depression--the 'Panic of '93--and after changing the location of their 'Pioneer Grocery' a few times over the years, constructed in 1905 the Brooks Building, which still stands at 611 Market Street.

Record show that EA Brooks often owned owned property in Kirkland, Seattle and elsewhere and it seems likely that he would hold notes on real estate as collateral to secure credit in his store.
On April 6, 1917, the US entered the bloody carnage that had been raging in muddy European trenches since 1914: World War I.
President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Selective Service Act of 1917 on May 18 of that year  and Percy's draft registration card, dated June 5, 1917, reveals that he and Nora at that time living and working on a Gold Bar farm, owned by her parents. Percy, then 21-years-old, sought exemption from the draft, citing "dependents" as the reason, though the two did not have any children. He was not exempted, however, and entered service in the US Army.

Aviation had come a long, long way between the virtual motorized, unarmed kites used at the outbreak of the war in 1914, to the fast, deadly SPAD S.XIII French-built biplane fighter used by the US with its lethal, synchronized .303 caliber Vickers machine guns.

Just after Thanksgiving, 1917, flight cadets began reporting for duty at Rich Field, near Waco, TX, a newly constructed flight training facility. It was associated with the new Camp MacArthur, a very large primarily infantry training camp opened in July, 1917. This would have been an exciting, cutting edge and glamorous military specialty to have been entering, by that time the public on both sides of the war was enthralled by the tales of the brave young dogfighting knights of the air and their dashing exploits even served to entertain the men on the ground, hunkered down in the miserable, soggy trenches.
We are no sure of the exact date that Private Percy Frederick Boarts arrived at Rich Field for his 8-week flight cadet training course, but he was assigned to the 377th Aero Squadron of the Army's Air Service, Signal Corps (Yes, what ultimately became its own branch of military service, the US Air force, began in 1908 as a subdivision of the US Army Signal Corps. This is largely because the airplane was seen at first as primarily a mans of watching enemy troop movements, but unarmed observers quickly began firing pistols, and then rifles, at each other and soon the airplane has adopted a direct role in combat). In WWI, enlisted men were admitted to flight training, so it was not unusual that Percy arrived for training as a private first class.
Though Percy Boarts is not in this photo of soldiers at Rich Field, we seen men he served with at the time and a little insight as to where he spent the last weeks of his life. 
An abandoned Rich Field hangar decades after the war, it as demolished in the 1960's. 

A wartime shot of barracks at Camp MacArthur, c.1917.
What we do know is that the living conditions in the barracks were such that the aspiring airman from the small, fourth-class town of about 600 souls on the east shore of Lake Washington got sick. First a bad cough, then fever. He was admitted to the Camp MacArthur base hospital on Saturday, February 2, 1918 and he did not get any better, he got even sicker. In 1918, medical technology was still quite crude -- for example, antibiotics would not enter widespread use for another 25 years or so. There was not much doctors of that time could really even do.
A Curtiss JN-4 'Jenny' trainer assigned to Rich Field when Percy Boarts was stationed there. Post war, surplus Jenny aircraft were the plane of choice for the barnstormers who enthralled crowds during the 1920s.
Percy Boarts' death certificate.
It is not yet known whether Nora or Percy's other family members back home in Kirkland even knew of his hospitalization. We do know that at 12:02 AM on Thursday, February 7, that a base hospital doctor, 1st Lt J.W. Henry, declared PFC Percy F. Boarts, A.S, S.C. dead of  Bronchopneumonia. He was 22 years, one month and one day old and he left behind a 20 year-old widow.
His father, John Boarts, of Kirkland, provided the additional details to the Army for his death certificate. His body was shipped home to Kirkland, where he was interred in the Kirkland Cemetery near his late brother-in-law, Robert R. Wiley, who had died in 1916 at age 27, a Seattle Police Officer who, along with his partner, Sgt. John F. Weedin, 45, was gunned down when the two came across a burglary in progress when they were off duty and headed home. Wiley's widow was Etta Mary (Brooks) Wiley, Nora's sister.
Nora remarried Leslie Burgess of Yakima in 1919 and moved there with him, where the two had three daughters. Nora died in 1958 and was laid to rest in Yakima.

There are still a great number of Emery and Belle Brooks' descendents living in and around Kirkland today.   

Percy died while trying to earn these wings in life. If you look closely at the top of his grave marker you can see that he received them posthumously.
 NOTES: The unit on Percy's death certificate is listed as the 337th Aero Squadron. This seems to be an error, the 337th was not near Camp MacArthur. Percey's marker states "377th Aerial Squadron" (sic) and other documents put him in the 377th Aero Squadron, which was at Rich Field and Camp MacArthur. 

I have not been able to locate a photo of Percy in life, nor does there seem to be a surviving image of his brother-in-law, Robert Wiley. If you are a family member and have any of these men, we would like to scan it to make it available for further research efforts, please drop us a line!