Thursday, January 21, 2016

January Death Instead of a Homecoming

When I first started to research my 1st cousin twice removed, I assumed his death was related to World War I. I'm now learning that his story is different than I expected.

Norbert Frederick Henkel, the second of nine children, was born in 1894, six months after his older brother died of convulsions at the age of 1. A funeral prayer card shows that Norbert died on January 29, 1919. His youngest sister was only 7 years old when his family received the news.

I found Norbert's obituary in a Pittsburgh newspaper, but the only thing it said was that he died in Cape May, New Jersey. Some military records online recently helped fill in a little more detail.

In Ancestry's Pennsylvania WWI Veterans Service and Compensation Files, a record shows that the month before his 24th birthday, Norbert was called to report for active duty. While he was at training camp in Camp May, New Jersey, the war ended. Oh, the relief his parents must have felt. Their son would be coming home!

Unfortunately, just a couple of days before he was supposed to leave Cape May, Norbert died. In the U.S. Navy Burial Records on Ancestry, on a page where most of the men are listed as having died of influenza, the cause of death for Norbert is "Fracture cervical." A broken neck? How could that have happened? I was a little shocked to see that detail next to his name.

His death was confirmed in the Veterans Service and Compensation File. Norbert's father indicated on a Veteran's Compensation Application: "Killed Jan. 29, 1919 - Wissahickon Barracks Cape May, N.J." A couple of pages later in the file (be sure to read beyond the first image that pops up!), there's a copy of a 1934 typed letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Military Affairs to the Navy Department in Washington DC: "It is requested this office be informed the active duty date, the inactive duty date together with character and date of discharge; also under what condition Veteran died."

The Gazette Times (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania),
February 1, 1919
The response dated a month later was typed at the bottom of the page: "The above named man reported for active duty 25 Jul 1918 and served on active duty from that date until 29 January 1919 when he died at the Naval Hospital, Cape May, N.J., as a result of having been struck by a motor truck; otherwise entitled to an honorable discharge."

The Pittsburgh newspaper article shown here doesn't give any more details but does point out that the train Norbert was expected to take home on January 31 was instead carrying his body to be buried. His parents were so close to welcoming their son home, when this terrible accident took him from them forever.

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