A century later, a song for the lost

By Cody Wendt
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site 

The night before the Lester Hayton Centennial Memorial was to be held in Palouse, Washington on July 15th, 2019, I stayed past work hours at the office of the Lewiston Tribune — the regional newspaper of my employ — to finish the lyrics to a ballad I had been composing for that event.

Once it was done, I made a dead-of-night pilgrimage to Vineland Cemetery in nearby Clarkston, Washington, where I spent time reflecting before the plot at which Hayton’s family is buried and a tombstone in his name stands, though his remains were never recovered. It was then, as it is now, my fond hope to do justice in discussing their memory and the weighty matters that come with it.

Lester Haydon grave markerLester Hayton memorial marker in the Hayton family plot; his remains were never recovered after he perished in the Battle of Chateau-Thierry in WWI.Several months earlier, Palouse resident Brad Pearce had formed an interest in the name of his town’s “Hayton-Greene Park,” which he had never heard explained through three decades living in the idyllic community of around a thousand residents. Upon researching the matter, Pearce learned that the “Hayton” half of the park’s monicker derived from the city’s lone World War I combat casualty — Lester D. Hayton, who went missing-in-action during the 1918 battle of Chateau-Thierry, France — and that the 100th anniversary of news of Hayton’s demise reaching Palouse so happened to be approaching. So it was that he conceived of what he termed the “Lester Hayton Centennial Memorial,” a presentation to be made in the same city park that July in conjunction with a felicitously timed ice cream social.

Pearce recruited the local Lions Club and Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter to help stage and conduct the ceremony. He also reached out to ask the author of this article — a writer and musician active around the region with a bent for old-time Americana — to sing there.

I was to perform three suitable pieces over the course of the half-hour-long event. Sifting the corpus of traditional material, I chose the wrenching World War I lament “The Green Fields of France,” and added to it the old-time spiritual “The Wayfaring Stranger,” with which Hayton, as a churchgoing rural American, might well have been familiar. Finally, it was my idea to compose an original song telling Hayton’s story and situating it in the context of history — a song in the style and spirit of the ballads that were prevalent in his own lifetime.

Born in 1892, Hayton was 25 years old when he shipped off for the war effort in September of 1917, and would soon find himself serving in France under the legendary general John “Blackjack” Pershing. There is no knowing his feelings or motivations through all of this. Was he excited to see the world? Was he frightened and reluctant as he complied with the draft?

Was Hayton filled with a patriotic fervor, the slogans of his government ringing in his head? Was he perhaps proud to give aid and relief to a country that was America’s oldest ally, under a general in Pershing who had months-earlier paid a public visit to the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French officer renowned for crossing the ocean to help George Washington lead the United States to independence?

Regardless, I could not but imagine that 10 months after his enlistment, finding himself entrenched in the battlefield outside of Chateau-Thierry in the heat of summer with German forces arrayed against him and having already been wounded once, Hayton thought longingly of the farm in the famously scenic rolling hills of our home region where he had lived and worked with his father (who once made the papers raising money for survivors of the Armenian genocide), mother, and two younger brothers. It was thus that I conceived of the opening scene of my ballad, in which Pershing’s men speak of the lives they once knew “at home, at peace, and free,” and wherein we read the following:

“Private Hayton from Palouse
Said ‘My hands once found their use
In the land of the rolling hills

‘Fields of plenty wait for me
Fair as any man could see
When the battle has been won
For I am a farmer’s son
From the land of the rolling hills’”

The exact date and cause of Hayton's end were never determined (his body may well have been blown apart or mangled beyond recognition), but he was ultimately presumed dead, with word of that verdict reaching his hometown the following July, almost exactly a year after he was last seen in action. That was also around eight months after the war’s formal conclusion on November 11th, 1918 — Armistice Day — via a treaty signed in France. Hayton’s family soon left town, and but for the park bearing his surname (along with that of fellow-enlistee Laurence Greene, who died of disease before he could see combat), he had all but disappeared from memory before Pearce staged the event at which the two of us sought to tell his story. We garnered some notice in the local papers, drew several dozen attendees, and perhaps helped some to properly ponder the nature and costs of war.

The centennial of World War I’s conclusion struck me as a uniquely poignant one, for this was the conflict famously styled by the likes of H.G. Wells and Woodrow Wilson as the “war to end all wars,” which, it was said, would in spite of its apparent senselessness bear the fruit of lasting peace for humanity. I looked back 100 years later knowing that it had instead barely been the beginning of a century filled with unfathomable oceans' worth of bloodshed — that human beings’ urge and will to aggressively subjugate-and-destroy their own kind remained alive and well — and in turn, I envisioned Hayton and the other young men who shared his lot looking upon the world I knew, taking in the emptiness of that glowing promise some of them may once have believed. So were born the final lines of my song:

“‘Now one-hundred years have gone
And the warring rages on
‘Will one-hundred more have been
Ere the day of peace is seen?’
Ask the dead of Chateau-Thierry”

mugshothrCory Wendt of Moscow, Idaho is a composer, sportswriter, coach, and music instructor. He is a graduate of the University of Idaho.