WWI Profile: John William Vereen 1896-1973

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Meuse-Argonne First Division Monument
John William “Johnie” Vereen
Brunswick County, NC
US Army

July 15, 1916 – November 10, 1919
July 28, 1917 – September 3, 1919

Johnie Vereen was born and raised in Brunswick County, NC. A partial family tree is located in FamilySearch. Two brothers also served in WWI. Sgt Pearl Vereen enlisted May 1917 and served overseas with the 17th Railway Engineers. Seaman Jack Vereen enlisted in the Navy in July 1917 and served aboard the USS Peter Struven and USS Lakeside.

Johnie enlisted in the US Army at Fort Slocum, NY, on July 15, 1916.

When the United States entered WWI, the 1st Division was created, as described in the WWI Profile for William Thompson White. Pvt Vereen was assigned to the 6th Field Artillery.

In the beginning of the US involvement in the war, there were few transports available, which required that the division travel piecemeal. The infantry left first, on June 14. Pvt Vereen was promoted to Private, First Class on July 7. When the small fleet of transports returned after discharging the infantry in France, it was the artillery’s turn to board. Pfc Vereen and the 6th Field Artillery had left Douglas, Arizona, on July 23, and embarked at Hoboken, NJ, on July 28, 1917, on USS Henry R. Mallory, shown above [Source: Ancestry].

On the night of July 31st the convoy of three transports, with the cruiser “North Carolina” and five destroyers as escort, and an oil ship carrying fuel, started on another perilous trip across the Atlantic. St. Nazaire was reached August 13th without incident and all disembarked on August 14th.

The 6th Field Artillery, along with the 7th, were light infantry and were equipped with the French 77-mm guns (shown at left). The training continued for seven weeks and included road marching to condition the horses and drivers.

The 6th Field Artillery was credited with firing the first American shot in WWI, at 6:05am on October 23, 1917.

After the success at St. Mihiel, the first All American operation (described in detail in Herbert Burnell Ward’s WWI Profile), the next operation was planned.

Experience had shown that unless a final blow could be struck the lines would stabilize and there would be another winter in the trenches during which the enemy might recover the advantage that he had lost.

The Meuse River – Argonne Forest was targeted.

Nature had contrived to include within the zone the most difficult obstacles, from a military point of view, that could be encountered. The terrain was naturally so rugged and deeply cut by ravines that it was fit only for wild vegetation. Over this surface spread the great Argonne Forest, with an undergrowth that in places resembled a tropical jungle. The Meuse River was a formidable barrier to military operations. Between the forest and the river the country was cut by deep ravines, extensive woods and a succession of hills and ridges whose wooded crests afforded cover for machine guns to sweep their barren slopes. The Aire River flowed along the north and east of the Argonne Forest in a valley that was open throughout its length.

For the first time, the First Division was not waiting in the front line trenches. An eastward operation was planned instead. As the battle began on September 26th, the First Division waited. The Germans were resisting with desperate and relentless fighting and losses were mounting. All thoughts of the eastward operation were forgotten. The First Division awaited their orders to join the raging battle.

September 27, the First Division began to march.

This long night march proved to be another test of endurance and fortitude. For twelve hours the infantry plodded along the muddy and war-worn roads, the larger part of the time in a downpour of rain. The feet of many men were sore and inflamed from living in the mud and from ill-fitting shoes.

The pain that they suffered could be seen in their set faces, but only those whose condition was pitiable would succumb. It was touching to witness the devotion of these officers and men and to realize the sense of consecration that animated them. When the weary march ended, they found themselves in woods rendered boggy by old bivouacs or horse-lines and often tangled by the wire of the rear defenses.

The artillery and the trains were compelled to follow even more difficult roads than the infantry. Nothing short of the most patient and skillful handling could have preserved the strength of the horses. The strain upon these men was, if possible, more trying than that upon the infantry, for not only were they compelled to make their way on foot, but, at the end of the march, their remaining strength was required to care for the horses and keep their guns in readiness for the missions that lay before them.

The First Division relieved the 35th Division on the night of September 30th. The map above shows the location on the left side, as the sections marked “35” changes to “1.” See also the 77th Division on the left flank, as described in the WWI Profile of Forney Mintz, resulting in the Lost Battalion.

Wherever the eye rested, there were low crosses that marked the last resting places of the men who died for their country on either side. Many, alas, were new and crudely bore the names of American soldiers who a few days before went forward as the ranks of the First Division were now doing. Here and there were masses of swollen carcasses of horses torn beyond description by shell — dumb servants whose sacrifice was little less than human — and ceaselessly came the sullen roar of guns, growing ever louder and louder as the columns drew nearer the fate that awaited them.

These devoted men knew what battle meant, and all realized that some supreme test lay ahead. Their faces took on the grim resolution that had now become familiar, and their bearing told of a calm courage that takes little count of danger and death with those who follow the way of Duty, Honor and Country. Veterans of Lorraine [law-ren] and Picardy [pik-er-dee], of Soissons [swa-sawn] and St. Mihiel [san-mee-yel], proud in their record of achievement, strong in their faith of accomplishment and inspired by the memory of their sacrifices and their dead—these were the First Division.

When a passer-by warned of the grim task that awaited them, the reply was flung back from the ranks, “We are the boys who can do it.”

The clips below from the National Archives show the 6th Field Artillery on October 5, 1918. According to the 1st Division History they were in the area of Hill 272, so it is assumed to be recorded there.

“Batteries of the 6th Field Artillery holding a position under heavy shell fire near Exermont, Ardennes, France, October 5, 1918.”

The video clip above also contains the following segments from the Field Artillery of the First Division.

(16:36) “On July 5, 1918, the 7th Field Artillery fired 4000 shells of mustard gas, compelling the Germans to wear their gas masks for three days.”

(34:16) “The Artillery of the First Division opens a barrage near Beaumont, France, on September 9, 1918.”

General Pershing chose the 1st Division for the vital position, or post of honor, in most of his engagements. This, along with the long service time of the division, resulted in a large casualty count of almost 24,000: 4,964 killed in action, 17,201 wounded in action, and 1,056 missing or died of wounds. None of the men from Brunswick County became casualties.

On August 1, 1919, Johnie was promoted to Corporal. He boarded USS Mobile on August 24, 1919, to return to the United States. He likely marched in the parades shown in William Thompson White’s WWI Profile. He was then honorably discharged on November 10 and immediately re-enlisted. His re-enlistment evidently resulted in his rank reverting to private again, as the higher rank was likely only during war-time.

According to the 1920 Census he was stationed at Camp Meade, Maryland. Now known as Fort Meade, at the time it housed the nation’s tank school and experimental grounds. The census shows Pvt Vereen was serving with the Overseas Replacement Depot, Company 49, which processed soldiers sent to Germany for occupation duty.

Source: Ancestry.com. U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.

The Passenger List shown above lists Pvt Johnie Vereen sailing USAT Antigone on August 23, 1920 for Antwerp, Belgium. His name is crossed out and stamped with “Did Not Sail.” No explanation is found.

Johnie left the US Army on May 5, 1924 [Source: Department of Veterans Affairs Death File, Ancestry]. Around 1927, he married Lillian Hazel Gray. The 1930 Census shows he and his wife living in Waccamaw Township with their first child, little Johnie Jr, age 19 months. Johnie Sr was working at a lumber mill.

The 1940 Census shows him working as a foreman at the Reigel Paper Company. According to his family, his entire career was spent as a forester with Reigel Paper Company, planting and tending the forests around Lake Waccamaw.

Johnie William Vereen passed away on June 11, 1973. He was laid to rest in Lake Waccamaw Hillcrest Cemetery. No military honors are shown.

In 1991, his wife, Lillian Hazel Gray, passed away. The Brunswick Beacon published the obituary on April 25, 1991, p.6-B.

Lillian Hazel Gray Vereen

Lillian Hazel Gray Vereen, of Long Beach, died April 18 in Cornelia Nixon Davis Health Care Center, Wilmington. She was 80.

The funeral was April 20 in McKenzie Mortuary Chapel, with the Rev. Frank Elliott officiating. Burial was in Lake Waccamaw Cemetery, Columbus County.

Mrs. Vereen was born in Brunswick County and was the widow of Johnny W. Vereen Sr. She was a member of Ocean View United Methodist Church, Yaupon Beach.

Survivors include a daughter, Joyce V. Formyduval of Long Beach; two sons, Wayland Vereen of Yaupon Beach and Johnny W. Vereen Jr. of Long Beach; a half-brother, John B. Gray of Garner; a half-sister, Erma Holden of Supply; a stepmother, Maude Gray of Makatoka; three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to a local rescue unit.

Johnie Vereen, Jr, his son, is living in Brunswick County today. Johnie Vereen III served as mayor of Oak Island for four terms and passed away in 2015.

The Society of the First Division (1922) History of the First Division During the World War, 1917-1919. Philadelphia, The John C. Winston Company.

Meuse-Argonne Map: The Society of the Fifth Division (1919) The Official History of the Fifth Division USA, During the Period of its Organization and its Operations in the European World War, 1917-1919. New York, Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Company.

If you would like to help us honor John William “Johnie” Vereen or another Brunswick County WWI veteran, please use the following links:

Click here for the announcement: Announcement: Honor a Brunswick County World War I Veteran
Click here for directions to donate and honor a veteran: How to Honor a Brunswick County World War I Veteran

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