In Their Own Words – Arthur Niedermiller: One Sailor in WWI

Published: 22 November 2023

via the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command web site

One Sailor Arthur Christian Niedermiller framed

Arthur Christian Niedermiller pictured in his service dress blue uniform.

Learn about Arthur Christian Niedermiller of Detroit, Michigan. Born in 1889 of German-American descent, learn how he overcame obstacles as the United States entered #TheGreatWar in April 1917.

Looking up Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, July 1917 (Library of Congress)

With the story of Arthur Christian Niedermiller, we inaugurate a new series of online exhibits focusing on naval aviation history at a more personal level. A profession of arms shaped in many ways by amazing technological achievement, the essence of naval aviation remains the men and women who served. Taken together, their individual stories preserved in the words they wrote at pivotal moments in their lives form the fabric of nearly a century of naval aviation history.

Between Two Countries

The movement of the United States towards entry into World War I impacted German-Americans more that most other ethnic groups that were part of America’s celebrated melting pot. Forming roughly ten percent of the population at the turn of the century, first and second-generation German-Americans living within the United States retained strong cultural ties to the land of their ancestors. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, anti-German sentiment expectedly rose among the general population, yet many German-Americans enlisted in the U.S. armed forces to fight under the Stars and Stripes. Among them was Arthur Christian Niedermiller, the son of a Detroit shoemaker.

One Sailor

Between 1917-1918, the personnel strength of the U.S. Navy grew from 194,617 to 530,338 officers and enlisted men, among them Arthur Christian Niedermiller of Detroit, Michigan. Born on 2 September 1889, he was the second of five children and grew up in Detroit, Michigan, the growing number of factories in the city, many of them making automobiles, transforming the city into one of the nation’s industrial centers.

Bertha Catherine Orling pictured around the time of World War I.

Choosing a traditional trade over work on an assembly line, Arthur Nidermiller became an apprentice watchmaker after his graduation from high school. Then came the war.

The Girl Left Behind

When Arthur Charles Niedermiller shipped out for service in the U.S. Navy, he left behind a sweetheart, Bertha Catherine Orling. Just a few months younger than her husband, she was born into a large and prominent Detroit family that owned a successful sausage and meat business. She grew up in Detroit and spent summers on the family farm in present day Gross Pointe, where there were always plenty of cousins around (Bertha’s mother was one of ten children).

Arthur and Bertha met at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Detroit, and his memories of their time together sustained him while serving in uniform. “I am alone in my tent and I am thinking of times we have had together,” he wrote her from Camp Bennett in Pensacola, Florida, on 30 April 1918. “I wonder when they will be resumed…Ah, so many things that at the time seemed insignificant now mean so much. It requires sorrow, hardships, partings, to establish a love that is firm and true.

“The roughest, most unprosperous country…”

Sea bags stacked in the foreground point to the fact that some of the sailors have recently arrived at one of the encampments established around Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, to process and quarantine the hundreds of sailors that arrived at the base for training during 1917–1918.

In stark contrast to his hometown of Detroit, with its skyscrapers and bustling factories, the American South through which Arthur Niedermiller traveled to reach Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, revealed itself to be “the roughest, most unprosperous country.” It was not much better when he reached his final destination of Camp Bennett, a detention camp where new arrivals were kept in quarantine to ensure that none of them were carrying a contagious disease. “It is not an attractive place,” Niedermiller wrote. “It is situated on the bay [and] surrounded by the bay, a few trees, and hard white sand.

“A very beautiful scene…”

Arthur Niedermiller’s period of quarantine in Camp Bennett lasted twenty-one days, ones filled with a routine of participating in work parties keeping the camp ship shape and inspections. The end of the day left time for reflection, the scene on one may evening prompting this passage in a letter to Bertha.

“Through the branches of a few evergreen trees, about twenty feet away from my tent, is an American Flag, our flag, at the top of a pole about fifty feet in height…The sky is a beautiful, deep, blue for a canopy and background. The white sand on the beach looks like snow. The water in the big bay is of the deepest blue. In a tent on first street, a lad is playing on a cornet, a beautiful solo…It is very quiet. Not a bit of shouting, laughing, or singing. It is our twilight hour. The big airplanes swoop and dive and circle around in front of me and over the bay like big vultures. What a perfect day it would be if all the world was at peace.”

Read the entire story on the Naval History and Heritage Command web site.
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