Day after Strohl died, an order might’ve saved him

Last of two parts

This plaque commemorating Lieutenant Howard Lee Strohl (right) is on display at the Pennsylvania National Guard armory in Allentown.
(213th Regiment Museum, Charles C. Curtis Armory)

The museum at the National Guard armory in Allentown has a plaque with a photo showing two Army officers resting in a woods. They are Lawrence D. Howell and Howard L. Strohl, both lieutenants in Company D, 109th Machine Gun Battalion. A Lieutenant Fenstermacher caught them in a light moment, snapping the picture in July 1918 near Chateau-Thierry, France. The plaque reads: “Last picture of Lt. Strohl who made the Supreme Sacrifice Aug. 8, 1918 in an attempt to take his platoon across the Vesle at Fismes, France. Presented to Lt. Strohl’s Comrades by His Father – W.L. Strohl, Bethlehem, Pa.”

William Levinus Strohl

Howell, of Hawleyville, Connecticut, was kicked by a horse July 22 and severely wounded by shrapnel on August 7. Fismes is a village sixty-eight miles northeast of Paris, in the department of Marne. The Vesle River passes through the city of Reims, where French kings were crowned and German bombs fell. Strohl’s dad, William Levinus Strohl, toiled in a Bethlehem Steel rolling mill before becoming a grocer. One day in 1944, his heart failed while he sat in his kitchen. He’d lost his wife, Abbie, ten years earlier.

“August 8” is also on Howard Strohl’s gravestone in Towamensing Cemetery and turns up elsewhere, but appears to be an error. Army records, including the Company D casualty list, show he was killed August 9. So does a story in The Morning Call of Allentown, which quotes from a War Department telegram sent to Strohl’s widow. And the August 9 entry in a Company D diary says: “Lieut. Strohl was killed by shell.”

Ada Potts in 1940. She married Howard L. Strohl on October 31, 1917, in Augusta, Georgia, and was widowed less than ten months later. In 1920, she married William D. Potts.

His life ended just after the Battle of Fismes and Fismette began, during a furious shelling of the Americans.

The Company D diary is part of a short history of the unit put together by a captain with a prodigious name, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg Richards. His booklet was read on October 19, 1923, before the Lebanon County Historical Society, which had an interest in it because Company D was from Lebanon. Richards painted a picture of what was happening when Strohl was hit.

“The Germans retiring, a new line of battle was formed along the River Vesle, with Fismes, almost midway between Rheims and Soissons, the main point of attack. At this place and Fismettes, across the river, the carnage was awful, the best shock troops, including the famous Prussian Guards, being hurled, time after time, against it, and it was our 28th Division which successfully withstood the attack, at a fearful loss.”

Company D went into action at Fismes and Fismette on August 8. For six days, the Germans shelled and gassed them. “We also suffered from machine gun and sniper fire,” the unit history says, and flamethrowers.

Strohl was the only Company D officer killed.

Ada Strohl learned of her husband’s fate three weeks after the fact. When the telegram arrived at her parents’ home in Hellertown, she was holding the two-month-old son he’d never seen, baby Howard Ruch Strohl. “We regret to inform you that Lieut. Howard L. Strohl was killed in action on August 9th,” read the message from the adjutant general in Washington.

Company D unit history by Captain H.M.M. Richards of Lebanon, 1923

The Allentown newspaper called Strohl a “Martyr to Duty in Service of His Country.” The subhead said a “Boche bullet” got him, a detail that sprang from the writer’s imagination. It was shrapnel that felled the lieutenant, “the first native-born Bethlehem officer to give the last full measure of devotion to the cause of Liberty.”

If Strohl had survived one more day, he might have been headed home. The Lebanon Daily News reported on an order Strohl was about to receive. Major Harry D. Case of the 109th Machine Gun Battalion said Strohl “was killed the day previous to receipt of an order directing him to return to the United States to undertake instruction at one of the military camps.”

The letter Strohl sent from the Western Front to his aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Bert S. Miller, was delivered to their home in Allentown on September 7, almost a month after his death.

There’s some confusion about the final rank Strohl attained. It’s given as first lieutenant in some contemporary sources, including The Morning Call, which reported he got the promotion in France. The Company D history and casualty list identify him as a second lieutenant. So does postwar paperwork filed with the adjutant general of Pennsylvania. I’ve asked the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis for Strohl’s file, which might settle the matter, if the file exists.

Norvin L. Vogel

The photo plaque from Strohl’s dad was given to the 213th Regiment Museum at the Charles C. Curtis Armory in April 2008, according to John Yanno, the museum volunteer who keeps track of artifacts. The donor isn’t listed in the records, but Yanno said other items donated about the same time came from retired Army Major Norvin L. Vogel Sr. of Allentown. A World War II veteran, Vogel fought in the Battle of the Bulge and received a Bronze Star. He died in 2021.

A seemingly out-of-place home for a photo of Strohl is the State Archives of North Carolina, but it’s there. The archives have materials “collected by the North Carolina Historical Commission largely between 1918 and 1926, to document the service of North Carolinians in World War I.” The record identifies Strohl as being from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and adds this note: “It is unknown why this portrait was collected by Robert B. House for the N.C. Historical Commission.”

Robert B. House
(State Archives of North Carolina)

Strohl had no connection to North Carolina that I could find.

But did he and House know each other? Both served in machine gun companies in France during the war, and both had been Army instructors in Georgia. The similarities end there. House was in the 26th Infantry Division and Strohl in the 28th. House was back in the States before Strohl arrived in France. And House became an instructor at Camp Gordon, northeast of Atlanta, about the time Strohl was leaving Camp Hancock, which was 145 miles away. It seems unlikely their paths had crossed.

House went on to edit the North Carolina Historical Review in the mid-1920s and became chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Strohl’s widow, Ada, remarried in 1920 and had seven more children. The Gold Star Mothers of Bethlehem welcomed her into their midst, even though she wasn’t by-the-book eligible for membership. She outlived her soldier husband by almost half a century, passing in 1966 at the age of sixty-seven.

William D. Potts

Her second husband, William D. Potts, was in the Students’ Army Training Corps at Moravian College. Over the years, he was a printer and linotype operator at the Bethlehem Globe-Times and Lehigh Litho, an insurance agent, owner and operator of a Hellertown gas station, a Republican committeeman, and president of the borough’s Chamber of Commerce and Northampton County’s industrial development agency. He died in 1973.

Howard R. Strohl

Howard Ruch Strohl, an infant when his father was killed, had a risk-filled job in the Navy during World War II. He was on the crew of the Pearl Harbor-based gasoline tanker USS Halawa, which supplied fuel oil and diesel fuel to warships and out-of-the-way Navy posts. Later, he worked for Airco Industrial Gases in Bethlehem and was mayor of Hellertown. He was seventy-four when he died in 1993.

6 responses to “Day after Strohl died, an order might’ve saved him

  1. Amazing story. Enjoy them so much


  2. Thanks for another truly moving story. If only he would have received the letter 24 hrs earlier… Also thanks for introducing (to me) the terms “feather tick” and Boché…I wasn’t familiar with either!


  3. Cynthia Shoberg

    David, I am finding your story very interesting, well researched, and well written. I am the great niece of Howard Lee Strohl, and a Strohl Family research with 30+ years of research, accumulated by my late brother and me. I’d love to get in contact with you at some point to talk to you about this. I also have Howard’s footlocker.


  4. Hi Cynthia, thank you for writing and for the kind words. I’ve hoped all along that I would hear from one of Lieutenant Strohl’s relatives. I’ve hit pay dirt with you, who’s also someone with a strong interest in genealogy. Coincidentally, just the other day I got an email from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis affirming they have no file on Strohl. If it was there in 1973, it would have been in the area that had the most damage from a fire that destroyed millions of records. But they suggested I contact the Army casualty office at Fort Knox. I’m working on a letter to them. … It’s terrific that you have Strohl’s footlocker! Could you send me a photo of it?. … I would very much like to be in contact with you and to learn more about your great-uncle. My email is, and my cell is 610-295-7552. I’m in Allentown, and look forward to hearing from you.


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