Remembering Don Gaston

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Remembering Don GastonDon Gaston, class of 1918, is one of the names listed on the memorial plaque at the Penn State Delta Upsilon fraternity house.  And like all of those listed, he was more than a name on a plaque.  He was like all of the young men who have passed through the doors of DU over more than 100 years.  And when the country called him to service, he answered the call.  It has been almost 100 years since his death, and so it is time to bring him back into focus.

Donald Frederick Gaston was born to Dr. William Gaston and wife Mary in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1891, the second of three children.  He lived most of his childhood in New Jersey before the family moved to Chester County Pennsylvania around 1910.  His older brother Abram died tragically in 1908, and was buried in a cemetery in Chester County.  The family then moved off to Laverne, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, where Don graduated from Bonita High School. 

World War I had been largely a European affair from 1914-1916, but as the German submarines increasingly preyed on neutral shipping, both passenger and merchant shipping, the U.S. could no longer stand aside.  President Wilson asked Congress for a Declaration of War that would "make the world safe for democracy," Congress voted to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.  On May 28, 1917, Don Gaston reported to the local draft board to register. 

His draft card gives the little bit we can learn about him:  He was 5’11” (“tall” for purposes of the draft), 155 pounds, blue eyes and brown hair.  He is listed as a student at Penn State, though when he started is unclear.  He is not in the D.U.  group photos for 1917 and 1918, and so the one picture we have of him is from the group shot in the 1919 yearbook.  In that book, he is not listed with a particular class, but rather listed as “Special 1917-18”. 

Remembering Don Gaston
Don Gaston's Draft Card

He did not graduate from Penn State, but instead left school as did many of his fraternity brothers to join the military.  In 1918, he entered military service with the Army at Fort McDowell in San Francisco, and then transferred to Fort Fremont in Palo Alto, California, which had been hastily built months before for the war effort.  In August he was enrolled in officers’ training school to qualify for the machine gun corps, and was sent across the country to Fort Hancock, outside of Augusta, Georgia. 

In mid-November, his parents back in California received a telegram telling them that their son was extremely ill.  There was no passenger airline option in 1918 – air flight was still relatively new.  The parents booked a train and raced across the country to their son’s side.   They arrived at his bedside a few hours before his death. The cause of death was listed as pneumonia and scarlet fever.  Sadly, death by disease was a far more deadly killer for U.S. soldiers in World War I than death in combat.  Fall of 1918 saw the worst influenza epidemic in U.S. world history:

“The virus traveled with military personnel from camp to camp and across the Atlantic, and at the height of the American military involvement in the war, September through November 1918, influenza and pneumonia sickened 20% to 40% of U.S. Army and Navy personnel. … By the War Department's most conservative count, influenza sickened 26% of the Army—more than one million men—and killed almost 30,000 before they even got to France.”  The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919, Carol R. Byerly, 2010.

Just weeks before he would have received his officer’s commission, and two weeks after the armistice was signed ending World War I, Don Gaston died, every bit as much a victim of war as those who died in combat.  He was brought back to his father’s hometown in Chester County, and is interred there, next to his brother.  I checked in on them last year, and cleaned his headstone, and brought a new flag for him.  His grave is marked with a military marker as well.  The cemetery is well tended. 

Don’s younger sister, Dorothy "Dot" Gaston, also attended Penn State. She apparently found her way to the DU house at some point, where she met one of Don’s DU brothers, Allen Oberle, who also appears in the 1919 yearbook photo.   Allen came back from the war, earned his Penn State degree, and married Dot.  In 1925, they had their first child, who they named “Donald”, in memory of her brother and his fraternity brother.  Donald A. Oberle lived the long life that was denied his namesake, dying in 2003. 

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