To commemorate the end of World War I a century ago, the New Haven Museum has added a second exhibit alongside the comic flash of “The Courier.” This exhibit, titled simply Gilbert, focuses on the experience of one pilot from New Haven in the Great War, and in doing so, makes this vast historical event utterly personal.
It begins with the man’s fascinating biography. Gilbert Nelson Jerome was born in 1889 to Elizabeth Maude Jerome — descended from Matthew Gilbert, one of the original settlers of the New Haven Colony — and Yan Phou Lee, a Yale student whose powerful Cantonese family had sent him to New Haven to receive a Western education. They fell in love when Lee was a freshman and were married when he graduated in 1887. But the marriage didn’t take. Lee returned to China after a few years, and Elizabeth and her mother raised Gilbert and his older sister Jennie. It worked out. The siblings grew up to be close friends. Gilbert graduated from Yale in 1910 as an electrical engineer and worked for the Boy Scouts of America. He took his first airplane ride in 1917 while on vacation in Miami. He was hooked. While he was vacationing the United States entered World War I. On the train home from Florida he hopped off in Washington, DC to volunteer as an aviator, at the age of 28.
These biographical details alone give a sense of the man’s character. Far more fortunately, the exhibit is also packed with sketches Gilbert made of his wartime experiences — he was a talented cartoonist — and even more invaluable, a few dozen letters Gilbert wrote home to mother Elizabeth and sister Jennie. The letters reveal Gilbert as a funny, plucky young man, eager for new experiences but not blind to the realities of war.
He led with his sense of humor. “Have been kept busy all morning with drill, calisthenics, etc. Sleep in barracks. Will wear uniform as soon as one is issued to me. Very military here,” he wrote in a letter to his mother from the School of Military Aeronautics at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., where he was being trained as a pilot. While finishing his training as a pilot in Europe, he wrote to his mother again to reassure her that his accommodations were top-notch and he was warm and well-fed. He even joked in a letter to Jennie from October 1917 when he wrote that “I indulged in my first smash. I made a poor landing in a rather rough field.” The plane flipped over and he and his instructor “found ourselves hanging wrong-end up from our life belts. It was extremely droll to the onlookers.” On a rainy day in the same month, he headed into town to eat eel and Camembert with all the trimmings. In December 1917, he wrote, “I flew low up a wonderful little valley, swooped down on a railway train and raced it, hovered over Chateaux and had a great time. Finally I made seven successive spirals like this and came down.” It was the end of his training. He was ready to fly missions.
His sense of curiosity and humor remained intact even as he entered the war. “You seem worried about my underwear. Be at peace in this regard,” he wrote to his mother in February 1918, apparently in response to Elizabeth being worried that he might be cold. In another letter from the same month, he even joked about a forced landing, “the closest call I ever had,” when his plane’s motor “abruptly stopped” in mid-flight.
Though from the beginning, there were also glimmers of a more serious side to his life in the military. He finished one letter just before departing for Europe by stating that he had “no news that I can tell.” In another letter to his mother from November 1917 he described the glorious feeling of flying in a powerful aircraft, but ended by saying that “no one here seems to cherish any illusions as to the glory of war. There is a lot of joking about what we are going to do and what is going to happen to us, but the consensus of opinion is that there is no place like the old U.S.”
In January 1918, he wrote a somber letter to Jennie with news he wasn’t sure his mother should know, as his bunkmate was killed in a crash. He enclosed an anguished verse (he was a published poet), but added that “the first gap in our little circle has brought the war pretty close home, as you can well imagine. A very quiet, unassuming sort of chap, but very likable withal, and a sad loss to me.”
“That’s right, don’t be emotional,” he wrote to his “sisterling” In April 1918, as his missions drew him closer to the front. “Really, I have been in clover so far, except for occasional periods of boredom, I have had a really good time. Even if I should get ‘bumped off,’ as the boys say, it is consoling to know that I have lived and got more out of it than many who stick around longer. Every time I have a new experience I congratulate myself with the thought, ‘well, there’s something new that can never be taken away from me.’”
“Oh, I’m some little philosopher, I am,” he concluded.
In June 1918, he closed a letter to his mother describing himself as “your flying son (who is having the time of his life).”
On July 11, 1918, Gilbert was killed when an anti-aircraft gun blew his plane apart in midair near the town of Blâmont. A French villager saw the plane fall and identified the body. The mayor buried Gilbert in the German military cemetery nearby with full honors. In time Elizabeth and Jennie brought Gilbert’s body home and buried him in Evergreen Cemetery.
This exhibit, tucked away on the second floor of the museum, is appropriately a little hard to find. It feels personal, even intimate, and it’s very hard to shake a sense of profound loss — a loss writ far too large in the War to End All Wars that, as we all know, didn’t.
The wars America fights have grown increasingly separate from American society. Today they’re fought far away by a fully professional force that most of us, unless we have friends or family in the military, don’t see often in our day-to-day lives. We see the faces of soldiers on the news from time to time when something particularly terrible happens, but we never get to know them. “Gilbert” is a powerful reminder that maybe we should.