The Heartbreaking Case of the William Kellerhals

In late April of 1917 the Des Moines Register reported the recruitment of William M. Kellerhals, a tall, slender, grey-eyed, light haired young man to the U.S. military. According to various records, William’s middle name was Morse although in some places it is listed as Morris or Maurice. Born on April 14, 1896, he was just 21 years old at the time of his recruitment.

William’s Draft Card

At the time of his recruitment he was living near Ainsworth, Iowa, a community located between Iowa City and Mt. Pleasant, where he was working on a farm. His parents were living near Noble where his father was a dairyman. His parents were both born in Switzerland. William was born in this country.

He was sent to Camp Pike in Arkansas on July 22, 1918, and later Camp Merrit in New Jersey where he was a member of the 164th Infantry. One might suppose that prior to that time, he had never been much further from his home than fifty miles.

Passenger Manifesto from William’s Ship

He shipped out as a private on September 15, 1918, from Hoboken, N.J., bound for France. Less than a month later he was dead, having died of pneumonia in Brest, Finistere, Bretagne, France. In this heartbreaking account from the Iowa Washington County newspaper of November 12, 1918, we learn that William died with three other young men from the same community.

Less than 16 months later, on February 18, 1920 the Waterloo Courier sported the following headline:

Booby Prize Car Is Object of Interest While Owner Tarries

“With no thought of notoriety or being the object of curiosity William H. Kellerhals, a former Navy service man whose home is in Sumner, Iowa, ambled into Waterloo last night with the most unique automobile outfit ever seen on the streets. Driving up to the police station he parked his car for the night in front of the city hall. The car is a Petrel, so old dismantled and changed that it is impossible to gain any idea of it origins. The engine has no signs of a hood and there is no radiator. A big vinegar barrel back of the single seat is filled with water which is piped to the engine by a homemade connection of gas pipes running around the chassis. There are no tires on the front wheels but the rear wheels seem pretty well shod. The top was once “tattered” but is now tattered and torn and the whole is paint-less and covered in mud. The outfit would surely win the booby prize at the Waterloo auto show, but the owner said he must hurry on to his destination.”

Kellerhals explained that he bought the car at Dysart, Iowa, for $40 and was planning to take it cross country to his home in Sumner, IA. From there he planned to ship it to Montana, where the government has awarded him a soldier’s claim. He planned to convert that car into a tractor.

Petrel cars were manufactured from 1908-1909

On February 24, 1920, the Waterloo Courier followed up reporting that the car which was “sans radiator, sans hood, sans tires and sans most everything else of the usual equipment of a motor car”, broke down near Denver, Iowa. Mr. Kellerhals had gone on to Sumner by train. “I got stuck with my car eight miles north of Waterloo”, he wrote to Srgt. Ed. Burk on a souvenir postcard. ” The friction wheels slipped is the reason. I left the car set alongside the road and came the rest of the way on the train.”

1920’s Waterloo Iowa East 4th Street

The Waterloo Courier followed up once again on February 28, 1920, with this headline:

Police Try to Solve Mystery of Owner of Famous Petrel Racer

The coverage of this story in the Courier and Reporter had been seen by William M. Kellerhals’ father, Emil, in Noble, Iowa, who became hopeful that perhaps his son who had been reported dead in France, was actually be alive. Emil traveled to Sumner in search of the boy.

By that time, William H. Kellerhals had returned to Waterloo from Sumner and reported “that he had not seen the elder man who had followed him to that place. “Young Kellerhals says he does not know anything about other Kellerhals. When questioned he seems vague in his knowledge of who or where his own father is.”

The Courier reported that another effort was going to be made by the police department to get the men who “really may be father and son to meet.” The boy had little money and asked to sleep in the station. He was given quarters in the boys’ ward. He had secured a job at a local factory with the determination to remain in Waterloo only until he had sufficient funds to take him to Wyoming where he said a government claim awaited him. He was also planning to have the car towed back as soon as he could find someone to get it into running condition. No other information about this incident could be found by this writer.

Nine month later, in November of 1920, Emil Kellerhals was contacted by Army authorities in New York City that his son’s body had arrived there and was ready to be shipped back to Iowa as soon as the address was confirmed. His body was initially buried at St. Amand in France. William Kellerhals was given a full military funeral at the Eicher Church near Noble. The local paper reported that the church could scarcely accommodate the crowd of friends and neighbors who attended. Three ministers conducted the service and were assisted by three different American Legion posts.

William and Ira Shanks are both buried in Eicher Cemetery in Washington County, Iowa, near the town of Wayland. William left behind his father, Emil; his mother, Mary; and a sister, Margaret. I like to believe that his return home helped the family recover from that momentary hope that he was still alive.

If you enjoyed this post and want to read more stories from the past, don’t forget to subscribe below. It’s free, of course! By doing so, you will be informed when new stories are posted!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: