One hundred years ago today, U.S. Navy Seaman Herbert Renshaw was Lost at Sea while serving his country during World War I. He then became lost to history, forgotten by the government he served, until an all-volunteer group hunting for World War I’s MIAs resurrected his memory and ensured he would receive the recognition he deserved a century after his death.
Seaman Herbert Hammond Renshaw staggered to keep his balance as the Atlantic Ocean vented its fury upon the sub tender USS Ozark. The Salisbury, Maryland, native had enlisted in the U.S. Navy in February 1914—just weeks after his 17th birthday and months before World War I ignited in Europe. By May 22, 1917, the world had become as violent as the waves that tossed around Renshaw’s ship as he attempted to signal the minesweeper USS Thornton just hours after both vessels had departed Charleston, South Carolina.
When the roiling sea gave USS Ozark a particularly hard kick, Renshaw lost his footing and fell overboard. With the Atlantic too rough to launch a lifeboat, the young sailor’s shipmates furiously threw him life belts and ropes, but even a good swimmer such as Renshaw had little chance of survival. The turbulent ocean swallowed the seaman. The following day, Renshaw’s father received the notice that his son had been lost at sea, his body unrecovered.
Renshaw’s hometown newspaper noted that the sailor was the first Marylander to lose his life in defense of his country since the United States had entered World War I the previous month. “The fact that young Renshaw was the first Maryland boy to give his life for his country will not be overlooked, and his memory will be kept among the records of the Navy Department,” reported the Wicomico News.
The United States, however, forgot about Renshaw over the ensuing century as Salisbury University professor and World War I buff Stephen Gehnrich recently discovered while researching Marylanders who fought in the war. While Renshaw’s name is enshrined on memorials in his home county and in Baltimore, it did not appear on the rolls of those Lost at Sea or Missing in Action (MIA) during World War I that was initially compiled by the U.S. War Department (the modern-day Defense Department) and is now maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC).
While the Defense Department has an office devoted to locating MIA service members, it does so only for wars dating back to World War II, so Gehnrich enlisted the help of the Doughboy MIA Team, an all-volunteer group of researchers, archivists and historians who have taken up the cause of identifying and recovering those World War I servicemen who are still unaccounted for.
Historian Robert Laplander, author of “Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legends of America’s Famous WW1 Epic,” launched the Doughboy MIA project after being contacted in 2005 by a battlefield archaeologist who had discovered the dog tag of an MIA Lost Battalion member. Laplander tells HISTORY that after doing some “Internet shoveling,” he found that the soldier had been interred in a temporary battlefield grave before being moved for permanent reburial in a military cemetery. While his efforts met a dead end because the records containing valuable information about the war’s unidentified remains—known as the “U files”—could not be found, Laplander made it a personal mission to try to account for as many of the fallen and missing servicemen as he could.
Volunteers for the Doughboy MIA project, which doesn’t receive any government funding, visit archives and pore through boxes of records, some of which haven’t been touched since the 1930s. They scour historical records and books detailing unit-by-unit movements in order to pinpoint exact locations of potential battlefield burials. On the ground in Europe, the Doughboy MIA Team has enlisted terrain experts to examine battlefield sites.
When the federal government closed all further investigations into World War I’s MIAs in 1933, more than 4,200 Americans remained unaccounted for, and Laplander is hopeful the team can solve some of the cold cases by employing technological tools that were not available decades ago. “They did all their work with paper forms and shoeboxes of index cards,” he says. “We have ground-penetrating radar and computer software that can search for similarities between thousands of files. If we can use this technology and bring only one of them home, why wouldn’t we?”
After Gehnrich brought Renshaw’s case to the Doughboy MIA Team, Laplander confirmed that the Maryland sailor’s name had been omitted from those Lost at Sea that are engraved on the Walls of the Missing at the military cemeteries in Brookwood, England, and Suresnes, France, Laplander’s team tracked down the necessary documentation to bring the oversight to the ABMC’s attention. Thanks to the efforts of the Doughboy MIA Team, the ABMC has authorized the addition of Renshaw’s name to the Tablets of the Missing at the Brookwood American Cemetery.
The Doughboy MIA Team’s motto is “a man is only missing if he is forgotten.” In the eyes of the federal government, Renshaw had been not only missing, but forgotten as well, which is why his descendants are grateful for the work of Laplander and his volunteers.
Renshaw’s niece, Gail Renshaw Blackwell, tells HISTORY that she had no idea that the government had lost track of her uncle’s existence until Gehnrich contacted her last month. “I’m ecstatic about their putting up Herbert’s name. I’m so happy that they found him,” says Blackwell, whose father also served in World War I, fighting in the brutal trench battles of Alsace-Lorraine. “It’s wonderful for me, and I know my daddy would be really, really proud.”
“We won’t let these guys be forgotten, especially on the 100th anniversary of the war,” Laplander says. “To give up because 100 years has passed doesn’t sound right to me. The least we can do is give them a name in stone.”
Laplander hopes that in the future the Doughboy MIA Team will recover the remains of fallen American soldiers from European battlefields and eventually find the elusive U files. Anyone interested in volunteering, donating or learning more about the project’s current active cases can find more information at the Doughboy MIA website.