Tuesday, October 17, 2017


To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the entry of the United States into World War I, the Kossuth County Genealogical Society has been gathering the names of the men and women from this county who served.  Over 1400 names have been identified to date.  KCGS is researching and gathering information on each and every one.  Many interesting stories have emerged.  Over the next few weeks, I want to share a few with you.  Here is the first.

The S. S. Tuscania began its life in 1915 as an English luxury liner that accommodated 2,500 passengers plus crew.  It became a valuable asset to the British war effort in September of 1916 when it was requisitioned by the British Admiralty for war service as a troop transport.  Several successful crossings followed as the ship moved forces across the ocean.  On January 24, 1918, two Kossuth County boys, Sam Hethershaw from Swea City and Lewis Rist of Algona, boarded the ship in Hoboken, New Jersey, along with over 2,000 other troops bound for France.

The Sinking of the Tuscania - Kossuth County History Buff
1913 graduation photo
of Lewis Rist

Lewis came from deep roots in Kossuth County.  He was a descendant of Luther and Betsey Rist, very early settlers who were the grandparents of his father, Dr. Alfred Rist.  His mother, Mary Smith, was the daughter of Captain L.M.B. Smith, Civil War veteran and local hardware store owner.  Lewis was a member of 20th Engineers, Company E, Forestry Battalion.  His company was headed to Europe with lumber to be used for wartime needs including barracks, hospitals, bridges, defensive fortifications and even coffins.

The Sinking of the Tuscania - Kossuth County History Buff
Sam Hethershaw
Sam was born in Swea City, the son of William Hethershaw who died when the boy was 4 years old.  He was raised by his stepmother, Mary Hethershaw.  With a letter of consent from his stepmother in his pocket, Sam enlisted at the age of 17, one of the youngest volunteers from Kossuth County.  An article in the October 31, 1917 issue of the Upper Des Moines Republican telling of his enlistment described Sam as, “Full of ‘pep’ and a leader in the town’s mischief, nevertheless Sammy is as good and sound at heart as a Liberty bond of 1917.”  He became a member of the 158th Aero Squadron.  His talent with the trombone had won him a position in the American Air Service Band.  He also served as a bugler. 

The ship joined a convoy of troopships and freighters at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and proceeded toward her destination of Le Havre.  On February 4th eight British destroyers met the convoy to guide the ships between the cliffs of Scotland and the Irish coast.  Around 5 pm the next day, they entered the submarine zone just off the coast of Scotland.  All of the ships were on high alert due to the area in which they were sailing.  After sighting the convoy seven miles north of the Rathilin Island lighthouse, German submarine UB-77 quietly sliced its way through the choppy waters toward it without detection, despite the watchful eyes of 15 separate lookouts.  At 5:47 p.m., the German sub fired two torpedoes at the ship.  The first charge passed harmlessly by the Tuscania, but the second blew a hole in starboard side between the engines and the boiler room.  The ship began to rapidly take on water.

Passengers were scattered throughout vessel.  Lewis Rist was in the mess hall when the torpedo struck.  As lights flickered and eventually died, hundreds of soldiers made their way to their cabins to grab their life preservers and then back up to the deck for rescue. 

The Sinking of the Tuscania - Kossuth County History Buff
Algona Courier
February 7, 1918

Lewis later described the confusion that followed.  Efforts to lower lifeboats were disastrous in many cases due to the inexperience of the men.  Some boats were let down on others below, crushing those beneath it.  Others were let down so quickly that they were upset, throwing their passengers into the frigid water.  In some instances, men who did not know how else to get the boats loose, cut the ropes used to lower them to the water.  Men began jumping overboard and were soon overcome by hypothermia if they weren’t picked up quickly. 

Lewis did make it on to one of the lifeboats.  Tossed on the rough sea, the tide carried the leaking boat toward the rocky Irish coast.  The men watched in horror as three lifeboats washed up on the rocks, dumping their cargo into the sea to drown.  After floating for about six hours, the passengers on his boat were rescued by a minesweeper and taken to Ireland.

Sam stayed on the Tuscania, awaiting rescue.  After being picked up by a British destroyer, he was taken to the shore of County Donegal in Northern Ireland.  Two hundred and thirty-one Tuscania passengers lost their lives that day, including 17 from Sam’s company.

The Sinking of the Tuscania - Kossuth County History Buff
Picture of the sinking of the Tuscania
from Sam's personal scrapbook

Several days after the incident, Lewis wrote his parents sharing what he was allowed to about his experiences on that cold February night.  As a part of that letter, he stated:  “Have lived and seen much in the last two weeks that makes me take a more serious outlook on life.  Circumstances, events and environment have all left their impression upon me and I begin to realize as I never did before what we are up against.”

Lewis was stationed in England and then served in France.  At the end of his service, he sailed from Bordeaux, France on the ship Santa Paula on May 14, 1919 and arrived at Camp Merritt in Brooklyn, New York, on May 28, 1919.  Following the war he returned to college to finish his teaching degree. He was serving as superintendent of the Hannaford, North Dakota school system when he met and married Pearl Gaball, a teacher there. After serving as a school administrator at several schools in the Dakotas and Minnesota, Lewis became superintendent of the Eau Claire, Wisconsin school system. The couple had one child, Richard “Dick” Rist.  Dick was killed while serving in WWII.

The Sinking of the Tuscania - Kossuth County History Buff
Kossuth County Advance
March 17, 1918
Sam too was shipped to England following the Tuscania incident.  He spent the summer playing with the American Air Service Band including a six week tour which took him back to Ireland for several weeks.  During his service in Great Britain he stood honor guard for King George, Queen Mother Mary, and Prime Minister Lloyd George.  The band was waiting orders to move across the channel into France when the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. 

Following the war, Sam became a barber in Swea City.  He was married twice, with a son being born to each union.  He belonged to the Tuscania Survivors Association and was a founding member of American Legion Fisher Post 14.  Music continued to be a big part of his life.  He played trombone in the town band, church orchestra, dance bands and the Estherville Drum & Bugle Corps.  He played taps at funerals.  The Swea City Centennial (1895-1995) book contains this paragraph about the old soldier.  “Although not as smooth or eloquent in later years as they once were, one could often hear the notes of an old World War I bugle as they walked down main street.  The sounds, filled with memories and love, drifted out the door of Sam Hethershaw’s barber shop.”

I invite you to visit the exhibit “WWI-Kossuth County Answers the Call” produced by the Kossuth County Genealogical Society which will be on display Nov. 4th-19th at the Algona Public Library during regular library hours and 1-4 on Sundays.

Until next time,


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