Thornton Williams


MONTICELLO — So who was Thornton Williams?

Born Oct. 28, 1983, to William and Effie Williams, of Reynolds, the namesake of the Monticello’s American Legion Post 81 was the first soldier to die during what was then called “The Great War.”

Williams attended school in Reynolds and graduated from Monticello High School in 1914.

Thornton was known as one of the more popular young men in Reynolds and reportedly had a great love for his country. He was athletic, having won three medals as a short-distance runner during his high school track and field days.

After graduating from high school, he journeyed to Gary to seek employment in the steel mills as a roll turner — one who forms and shapes heated metal blocks with a lathe and other tools to obtain a desired shape and length — for two years.

Williams became an expert roll turner and eventually found his way to Woodlawn, Pa., — now known as Aliquippa — just outside of Pittsburgh. There, he became a foreman at a steel mill doing the same kind of work.

Williams returned to Gary shortly after World War I was declared. He and his brother, Wright Williams, both enlisted at the same time in Reynolds. Thornton was stationed with the 11th Field Artillery and later became a member of Battery B with the same division.

Immediately after his enlistment on May 28, 1917, Thornton was sent to Camp Harry J. Jones in Douglas, Ariz, where he remained for training until he was transferred to Fort Sill, Okla.

There, he suffered an attack of “grippe” — a French word for “influenza” commonly used at that time — before leaving Camp Jones and apparently appeared in good health. It soon developed into pleurisy, an inflammation of the membranes that surround the lungs and line the chest cavity. It was so severe that surgeons were called in to operate.

Gangrene formed from the surgery, placing Thornton in serious condition for two days until his death on May 28, 1918, at Fort Sill — exactly one year after his enlistment. He was 24 years old.

News accounts of the time report Williams’ body was brought home June 6, 1918, arriving at the Monon Station in Reynolds accompanied by his parents, brother and another woman. Reports state there were about 300 people gathered to await the train’s arrival.

Newspapers reported that Williams’ casket was carried to the family home on Kenton Street, led by five Red Cross nurses. His funeral was 10:30 a.m. June 9, 1918, at the home of the parents.

Accounts state that this was “perhaps the largest funeral ever conducted in Reynolds.” An hour had elapsed to channel all the mourners through the home.

In Reynolds, flags were lowered to half-mast from the time Williams’ body arrived in town until after his burial. Churches suspended Sunday morning services before the funeral.

Of the 27 White County men who died in service during World War I, 15 died from either influenza or pneumonia, according to the White County Historical Society.

Information for this story was provided by White County Historical Society Board President Kean MacOwan.