They Call us the Flying Circus: Two West Virginians in the Great War.

Published: 6 November 2023

By Michael Coker
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site


“They Call us the Flying Circus: Two West Virginians in the Great War” exhibit on display at the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Parkersburg, West Virginia―where is that?

That was my first thought when I started unbundling the letters.  Over and over again, I saw that address scrawled across on the faded, discolored envelopes tucked away in the battered old shoeboxes.

Dozens of WW I letters from Cecil “Zeke” Gabriel and Louise Marsh were used as the source for a podcast and exhibit titled “They Call us the Flying Circus: Two West Virginians in the Great War.”

I filed the question of Parkersburg away for later.  At the moment, I was more concerned about bugs.  A shriveled gray carapace of some kind had just dropped from the bundle in my hand onto the floor of the basement where I was unboxing the shipment that had just arrived to my Cincinnati townhouse from the Ebay dealer in Wisconsin.

It looked like the letters had been kept in an attic or storage for quite some time, prior to landing in the hands of a dealer. In a later conversation, I learned that the dealer had purchased them from a picker who had found them in a dumpster along an interstate near a house that was being cleaned out for sale.

For almost a decade I had worked at the South Carolina Historical Society archives and had assisted our manuscript archivist as she dealt with similar incoming collections. To avoid a possible infestation, the shoeboxes were bundled securely up in garbage bags and placed in as remote a spot as I could manage in a freezer.

I forgot about the boxes and the mystery of Parkersburg for the next week, as I was nearing the end of the semester. After nearly two decades of false starts, night classes and night jobs, I was nearing the end of my undergraduate history degree at Northern Kentucky University (NKU).  I had articles and chapters to read and papers to write to get across the finish line at long last. In fact, these letters were purchased with the goal of using them as part of an independent research study I was required to complete.

When I was sure whatever lingering bugs were gone (and my wife wanted the freezer back) I started processing the collection again. It was clear, despite their initial condition they were once treasured family heirlooms.  They were arranged in a more or less chronological fashion; letters sent were kept close to letters answered. Envelopes had been painstakingly kept with the original correspondence. I surmised this collection had been looked after once and had simply gotten lost in the ensuing century or so since they had been written.

This assumption proved to be correct.  Free to examine the letters in closer detail, I was able to piece together enough biographical details to track down a living descendant. The letters, primarily from 1917-1919, were between Cecil “Zeke” Gabriel and Louise Marsh who lived in the Parkersburg region.  Zeke served as a mechanic for the 147th Aero Squadron and was part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France during the closing years of WW I. Louise taught at a local elementary school.  The two married and started a family after the war.

Wedding photo of Cecil “Zeke” Gabriel and Louise Marsh, 1920.

A deep dive on and internet searches lead me to Zeke and Louise’s grandson author Daniel Gabriel. Mr. Gabriel confirmed that these letters had been in family hands until fairly recently, and that the memory of his late grandparents was very much cherished. Rather than ignore me, ask for the letters back, or demand that I have nothing to do with his grandparents, he kindly answered my inquiries and gave me his blessing to continue my research project. Gabriel connected me to other family members and even consented to be interviewed for a podcast I did as part of my coursework.

To say I’m deeply grateful to the Gabriel family would be an understatement. As I was reading and transcribing these letters, I was immediately drawn into the lives of these two “ordinary” people of the Great War.  I dove into the history of the Gabriels, WWI, and Parkersburg, WV.

What follows is just a brief overview found in this remarkable treasure trove of letters. There is still more correspondence left to read, most of which is from before the war and a few items dated afterwards. A handful of letters, despite their careful handling, will need further conservation work before they can be safely read.

West Virginia mustered approximately 58,000 soldiers to serve. When the war ended in 1918, roughly 5,000 of this number were reported killed or injured in the line of duty.  West Virginia historian Boyd B. Stulter wrote, “West Virginia was represented in almost every combat unit and on every battlefield after the entry of America into the war. The record of her soldiers is one that can be pointed to with pride, and it is due the heroic sons of a great State that their record of service and sacrifice be preserved.”

Cecil “Zeke” Gabriel was born on April 4, 1894, in Kentucky, to John and Ida Chase Gabriel. By the time Zeke was 12, he and his siblings were orphans. According to family history, his mother died of an illness at some point between 1900-1904; the exact date remains unknown. His father John was killed in a quarrel with a co-worker in 1907. Despite this tragic loss, the family managed to stay together.

Louise Marsh was born January 13, 1897, in Arlington, Washington, to Harvey Marsh and Letitia Marsh. She was the oldest of four girls. Louise also lost her mother at a young age. When she was a toddler, her father remarried.

A day pass, a roster and a patriotic pin are just some of the items tucked away in the envelopes.

In the years prior to World War I, Zeke and Louise both lived in Parkersburg along with their families. Their relationship began when the two met at a church social event.  Zeke and his older brother George, embarked on their military career near the end of 1917.  In a letter dated October 25, 1917, on his way to a reviewing station in Columbus, Ohio, he wrote:

 “Dearest little girl, Arrived in Bluefield safely but feeling a little blue. I would give most anything to be with you tonight, but I will have to get over that though I suppose. We expect to sail tomorrow for Columbus. Gee, I am anxious to get into it. It is worthwhile to fight when one has something to fight for.  I only hope I pass at Columbus.  Dear, be a good little girl and when I return with all those Iron Crosses and Red Crosses and cross eyes and things, maybe everything will turn out all right…Dear I would love to be with you tonight I miss you so much… I am coming back to you just a soon as I can.  I will feel more like a man when I do come back.  I think I am going to like it.  I will bring back the Kaiser and you can punch his eyes out.”

This was the first letter I was given a glimpse of the amazing Zeke’s amazing sense of humor.  In fact, if I ever publish these letters in any way I would push for the title to be “Iron Crosses and Red Crosses and Cross Eyes.”

Louise was an equally gifted humorist.  In a 1918 letter to Zeke she details the contents of a misdelivered letter intended for a “Wife” from a man she didn’t know:

 “Clytie brought me a letter last night and I opened it and read, in a strange handwriting, ‘Dere Wife i am coming hoam soon’ etc. Man, I nearly collapsed with shock. I really hadn’t known I was married, especially to a man who spelled so abominably as that.”

Their playful sense of humor helped ease their fears throughout their long-distance courtship.  Their exchanged letters are filled with witticisms and humorous anecdotes, carried along a current of sadness and fear of being so far away from one another.

On Oct 27, 1917 Zeke proudly relays the results of his physical examination to Louise:

“I arrived in Columbus OK and have passed and have my uniform and am a full-fledged soldier all but the training, believe me it takes a man to get through.  We have had it hard most all day but are through the worst.  I passed almost perfect. I just had two bad teeth and a crooked little finger done by a baseball.  My heart was extra strong and my eyes perfect.  We three passed one poor little guy fainted while being vaccinated and a lot more got (shaky) but old Zeke didn’t mind it a bit…”

From Columbus Barracks, Zeke was sent to Kelly Field in Texas.  He reported his arrival to Louise on the very same day he arrived:

 “There are thousands here.  Gee, I like it fine.  We haven’t gotten fixed up yet, but I think we will be tomorrow-there are 400 airplanes here and they make some noise.” 

147th Aero Squadron logo from letterhead.

Zeke was chosen to be part of the 147th Aero Squadron, formed on the 11th of November 1917.  He served as mechanic, responsible for repairing and maintaining these high-tech weapons.  The fact that Zeke was chosen to work on what was then cutting-edge technology speaks to his natural intelligence.

From Kelly Field he was sent to Everman Field #2 at Camp Taliaferro, near Fort Worth. Texas.  It was here that members of the Canadian Royal Flying Corps arrived to help get their American allies up to speed.  A Nov 17, 1917 letter from Zeke recorded this moment:

“…about 8 or 900 Canadians came in today and we had to give up the barracks.  We will be in the Hangers for a few days…these Canooks are big fine friendly fellows, about 80 percent from the states up around N.Y.  They joined in Canada because they could get in easier, most of them are cadets just learning to fly and we will have some fun too because with new flyers and new machines there will be lots of crashes.  That and mealtime are the two most important things here…We are just getting fixed up.  Now, to have a good time.  I think we will stay here for a while at least.  We start to school tomorrow, and I think it will be good.  We learn the war game from A to Z as far is aviation is concerned.”

As he pursued his education, Zeke told Louise, “We are all red ribbon aviators (in) the 147th.  We wear red ribbons on our shoulders while going to school and everyone thinks we are officers.”  When their training was completed, they were sent to Hicks Field #2 at Camp Taliaferro.

During his transfer Louise regularly wrote to Zeke filling him on family news and once again showed her humorous side when discussing a mutual acquaintance:

 “You never told me about the Marietta guy, and I am all curiosity… What was it he told you about me?  Nothing criminal, I hope.  Horrors!  What if he shall be the guy, I met in jail up there the time they got me for being drunk and disorderly!”   

Zeke and his comrades were eventually ordered to the Western Front.  In New York, they boarded the British Liner, the S.S. Cedric and steamed across the Atlantic.  During the voyage over, “The Flying Circus Newspaper” appeared, claiming on its title page to be the first aviation paper ever published.

Originally, the term Flying Circus applied to the German air service.  Their pilot’s decision to paint their aircraft in a variety of different colors gave them a circus-like appearance.  One pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, gained his famous sobriquet as the “Red Baron” for his bright red plane.  The term Flying Circus seems to have been adopted by the American Air Corps by 1918, as the title of this newspapers and one of Zeke’s later letters attests, “We are called the Flying Circus air Sqdn. and it us well named too we are moving most of the time.

Commenting on the shared moniker Zeke wrote, “The Huns have a Flying Circus Sqdn. but I think we have them beat.” ‘Hun’ was a derogatory nickname used primarily by the British and Americans during the First World War to describe the German Army, and Zeke used it freely in his letters.

On March 18 Zeke reassured Louise they had traversed the Atlantic safely without encountering any “Subs” and reached England.  I should note he put subs in parentheses because it was likely to be a somewhat unfamiliar and new term.

The next documented letter from Zeke is about two weeks later.  He has arrived in France and after a miserable march he reached the Tours Aerodrome, a large complex of training facilities and airfields.  Here, the 147th continues their education, gaining instruction in French aircraft by French instructors.

Despite a rigorous schedule, Zeke found time to sightsee and collect souvenirs. “We got passes today and went sightseeing.  I had a splendid time.  I wish I could tell you all about this place, but dear I will save it all up for you when I get back.  I saw some grand old places.  This place is so picturesque.

He notes that the souvenirs he sends are the best he can get from camp, as he is not allowed to send anything else over.  He finds the clash of cultures here a little overwhelming remarking, “I got my English, French, Italian, Chinese and USA mixed up so I can hardly understand myself.

As a novice to WWI history, mention of the Western Front conjured up for me up images of cratered no-man’s lands, rows of muddy trenches locked behind rows of barbed wire, and foolhardy charges by swarms of men going “Over the Top” straight into the deadly fire of machine guns or roaring blasts of artillery shells.

My subsequent research into this period showed me how varied the experience really was in the Great War. Reading about Zeke’s experience on the Western Front helped open that door for me.  Zeke was in a support role, a mechanic for the airplanes, or “buses” as he called the planes of his squadron.  He did go to the front on occasion to repair downed planes but spent most of his time in an air base.

However, Zeke’s post could be equally dangerous.  Enemy planes regularly buzzed his post, he would find ingenious ways to write during such hazardous moments.  In a 1918 letter to Louise, he recalled such a moment, “I am in my ‘pup’ tent tonight writing with my candle camouflaged in the box from the stray Huns who may be up among the stars.”

Unsanitary conditions in the trenches and in the camps spread influenza, typhoid, trench foot and trench fever.  Trench fever was caused by the lice, or cooties as the men dubbed them.  This potentially deadly disease struck down those behind the lines as well.  Zeke commented on this to Louise:

 “Say, hunting wood ticks may be a great sport but hunting ‘Cooties’ is quite common here.  They are very popular though.  The few off hours we have from 10 pm to 3 AM is devoted to chasing them.”  

In early June 1918 the 147th had settled into the Gengoult Aerodrome, in northwest France. Jack Ballard, author of the indispensable unit history “The 147th Aero Squadron in World War I: A Training and Combat History of the ‘Who Said Rats’ Squadron,” related how a German plane flew over the base. The pilot dropped a photograph taken of thee base below aerial cameras with a note attached.  It read, “Welcome…Prepare to meet thy doom.

Undeterred, Zeke proudly continued to relate the exploits of his squadron back home:

O’ Neal on one our flyers on one of my machines brought down 3 Huns in 2 days.  The group got 11 that day.  I wish I could tell you all about this game but can’t.  You think I am (having) a hard time but gee it is great.  It is the best job in the whole war although we work very hard. “

The O’Neal mentioned by Zeke is likely Ralph Ambrose O’Neill.  O’Neil was an American Flying Ace contracted in 1920, after the war to develop the Mexican Air Force and was a pioneer in later commercial aviation.

Zeke was ever mindful of the military censors, who were on the hunt for anything that could help their enemies should the letter be intercepted.  Zeke always made their job easy; he avoided telling Louise, and anyone else he wrote, any revealing information.

Louise’s sister, Elizabeth “Libby” Marsh once asked him if her incoming letters to him were censored.   Sarcastically, he replied “No, your letters are not censored.  What would you write to help the Kaiser anyway?”  He also never tried to send home his collection of photographs, always promising to show them off upon his return.  Unfortunately, these photographs do not seem to have survived.

In July, 1918 Zeke remarked about growing accustomed to the sounds of warfare, joking, “I have heard the big guns roar for the past few months and couldn’t sleep if they stoped(sic) I believe.  On nights when things are pretty quiet the boys throw stones on the house so we can sleep.

After the Nov 11, 1918 armistice, the 147th was ordered to demobilize. Zeke wrote of this period of waiting with a soldier’s practiced pragmatism, “We’re still here but ready to go anytime.  I don’t know when we do though.  Maybe a day or so and maybe a month.  I hope its soon anyway.

As one war was ending another type of war was beginning.  The so-called, Spanish Flu begun its’ deadly ravages. Zeke referenced the Spanish Flu in only one of his final European letters to Louise, expressing his fear of carrying the disease back home, “I don’t suppose you and her have you taken the Flu shot yet?  All of our boys have left us now.  I was hoping we could go back together.  (Illegiable) said one of the first kids had the “Flu”.  How are they anyway?  I hope the rest don’t get it if I did.”

On March 8, 1919, the 147th boarded a troopship in France and sailed back to the US. Zeke remained in the Army until April 11,1919. After their discharge, he and his brother George settled in Berwind, West Virginia, to look for work.

Zeke and Louise continued their romance, now only separated by roughly 200 miles. They visited each other whenever they could. Louise wrote to Zeke on July 28:

“They are certainly planning a big time here in Parkersburg for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of September. It’s going to be a kind of jubilee, especially in honor of the returned soldiers and sailors. You and George should come up to celebrate.”

In 1920, Zeke and Louise married. They had two boys, Cecil Jr., and David.  The two remained active in the Parkersburg community and church. Zeke worked in building construction and was known in the community as an avid collector of rare rocks and stones. Louise published several books of poetry. The two traveled and camped extensively and jointly wrote for their son Cecil’s travel magazine for many years.

Zeke was 78 when he died in Parkersburg in 1972. Louise continued to write and traveled frequently between Minneapolis and Georgia, visiting her children and grandchildren. She died in 1995 at the age of 100.

In August 2022 I finally completed my undergraduate degree and determined not to let another two decades slip by, I started immediately into the Master of Public History program at NKU. I knew Zeke and Louise would somehow continue to play a part of my academic future.  Ultimately, I decided to make the 1917-1918 letters between Zeke and Louise my capstone project.

In July of 2023, my exhibit “They Call us the Flying Circus: Two West Virginians in the Great War” opened at the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. Mark Lewis, the Director of the CVB and his talented staff could not have been more gracious in providing a space, working on a constantly evolving timelines or been more helpful when it came time to install the exhibit.  They provided exhibit cases and the support needed to quickly install everything.

The exhibit comprises a series of information panels, a dispatch bag from the 147th I also found through a dealer, and a few personal items and ephemera included in the letters.  One generous local donated a 1918 Parkersburg newspaper to the exhibit featuring the armistice after its’ installation.  At the opening, I spoke to many locals, a few who had known the couple personally.  Others shared with me stories of their ancestors from the area.

Local new outlet WTAP came out and covered the opening.  In my anxiety at being on camera, I managed to utter a nonsensical string of comments when asked about the importance of an exhibit focused on the relationship between two “average” people.  “It helps root that they were people. They’re not just us in funny clothes,” I said. “They were us and so much of what we go through today, they did as well.”

To my chagrin, that aired.  I think I was reaching for some kind of bargain basement variation of the famed first line “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” by L. P. Hartley. Louise and Zeke lived in a time when the Great War continuously shattered long-established norms about civilization. The war was followed by a global pandemic that carried away close to 50 million more.

I visited the graveside of Cecil “Zeke” Gabriel and his wife Louise Marsh Gabriel at Evergreen Cemetery North in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Even someone from Parkersburg in 2023 would have difficulty visiting this era and not feeling a adrift in a strange country. Yet, I was also trying to say that while they had different sensibilities, so much of Zeke and Louise’s story of trying to survive difficult times to be together remains relatable to modern audiences.

I visited Zeke and Louise’s hillside grave shortly after that interview.  I paid my respects and before leaving promised them I would continue to share their story (and also vowed to do a better job in the future if ever on camera again).

In August, I graduated with my MA and have started to apply to various Public History, Ph.D. programs. Wherever I may land, I plan to somehow continue to honor Zeke and Louise.  I’m searching for a home for their correspondence.  Once I’m finished transcribing and annotating the letters, perhaps get them published in some fashion?  I think the story of two “ordinary” people who sacrificed for their country and for each other is a story worth remembering.

“They Call us the Flying Circus” is currently on display at the Parkersburg CVB.

The author would like to extend thanks to:

  • Academic Advisor: Dr. Brian Hackett
  • Publishing Assistant: Professor Kevin Eagles
  • Graphic Designer and Editor: Shanna McGarry
  • Genealogist Briegh Soto
  • A special thank you to the Greater Parkersburg CVB Director Mark Lewis and all of the staff there.

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