One hundred years ago this week, a Knox County man, Hoyt D. Decker, became one of the first American soldiers captured by the Germans during World War I. The United States declared war on April 6, 1917, and the first part of the American Expeditionary Force arrived in France that summer.
Eighteen-year-old Decker enlisted in the Army on April 18, and was part of Co. F, 16th Regular Infantry. He was first sent to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri for training and then to Texas. He arrived in France in late June 1917. Decker would later recall being part of the American troops that paraded through Paris on July 4.
On Nov. 3, shortly after being sent to the front, Decker was reported missing following a trench raid in the Toul Sector of France. He was one of 11 or so Americans captured. Decker was rendered unconscious and was hit by either a bullet or a piece of shrapnel resulting in the loss of his left eye. There were three casualties in the raid as well, including James Gresham, an Evansville man, who was the first American killed in the war. Decker’s parents, William and Winona Decker, didn’t get word from the War Department that their son was missing until Nov. 15, 12 days later.
The news then blared from bold local headlines. The Vincennes Sun said simply: “DECKER MISSING IN FRANCE,” and the Capital proclaimed: “WAR COMES HOME TO VINCENNES FAMILY WHEN HOYT DECKER REPORTED MISSING.”
No word was heard of Decker’s fate for three months. On Feb. 3, 1918 his parents had a message from the War Department informing them that the American Red Cross had located their son in a German prison camp in Tuchel (now part of present-day Poland). The Decker family lived on West Eberwine Avenue. Mr. Decker was employed by the Vincennes Bridge Co. and often worked out of state, as he was doing when the news came. His son had also worked there.
Decker would remain in that camp for a time and was later transferred to a camp at Rastaat, Germany. Post cards from him slowly began arriving home. His parents received the first ones, dated late Nov. 1917, in mid-February 1918, and they were published in local papers. His mother sent him care packages filled with food and candy.
The Armistice ending the war was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, and a little over a month later Decker’s mother had a telegram from the government telling her that her son, after 16 months as a prisoner, was free and in France. In February 1919, Decker sent a telegram to his mother informing her that he had arrived in New York. From there he was taken to Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio, and was back home by the end of the month.
Decker resumed life in Vincennes. He married Alice Marie Bouillet on April 8, 1924 and the couple started a family. They would make their home at 505 Willow St. for the next six decades. Decker was employed at Blackford Window Glass Co., first as a truck driver and then a foreman.
Decker was the Republican nominee for Knox County Sheriff in 1934, but was defeated in the race by Democrat Clarence Joice. Only 477 votes separated them out of the 21,307 cast. He ran again in 1936, but was unsuccessful in his attempt to unseat Joice.
Decker served on the police force for a time in 1937 and 1938, working as a traffic officer at Rainbow Beach.
In 1936, “Liberty” magazine published an article about Decker’s wartime ordeal, called “To Hell and Back.” It was Decker’s story as told to George Randall McCormack, a teacher at George Rogers Clark Junior High.
Decker would also speak to local groups about his experiences during the war.
Hoyt Decker died at the Marion Veterans Administration Hospital in Marion, Illinois, at the age of 84 on Dec. 19, 1983. He is buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery.
Brian Spangle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.