Trusted To His Duty Like a Man: A Veteran’s Letter to Dr. Ladd

In the winter of 1909, at the age of 18 William Henry Miller was one of just thirty-three inmates committed to the Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded in Exeter.

His father died young, driving horses, when William was only a boy; his mother was a widower, unemployed and raising five children alone in the city of Providence.

William Henry Miller, 1917

Except for these few and perfunctory details, the circumstances of William Miller’s family, his brothers and sisters, and his own life in those dark and early days must forever remain a mystery to us. The genealogical record is scant; much of the history is unrecorded, and the memories are long forgotten.

If not for a single letter, handwritten in pencil on paper and surviving against all odds for a century nigh, we might have never known that this institutionalized man — “feeble-minded” so he was called — was one among many unexpected heroes drafted into the United States Army in the year 1917, to test his mettle on the world stage in the throes of the first Great War.

Letter from William Miller, November 1, 1920

From the desk of Dr. Joseph H. Ladd, Superintendent of the Exeter School, November 1, 1920:

Dear Doctor:-
I thought I would write about getting my discharge from the School. I have been in the army, also across the sea, for seventeen months and six months on the side.
I have an honorable discharge from the United States Service. I was in the Fifth Division, which was called the Red Diamond, and was in five battles; Metz, [illegible], St. Mihiel, Argonne, St. [illegible],and [illegible] section, beside going over the top several times. I also carried messages from my Officers to the rear [illegibile] a few times.
So you see I trusted to my duty, like a man, and I think I am entitled to a discharge from the school at Exeter.
At present I am working in the jewelry factory and I am getting twenty-five dollars per week and also have money in the bank, and I am well clothed, and I think that is pretty good, don’t you?
Please let me hear from you about the matter as soon as possible.
Send my best regards to all.
From your friend, William H. Miller
Middleboro, Massachusetts