John Tey Cowsert was born on July 4, 1896 in Goodman, Mississippi.1 His parents, John B. and T. Ricketts (T.R.) Cowsert, both Mississippi natives, were educated and owned a family farm in Goodman, Mississippi. Dice Sample, an African-American nanny, took care of John T. (1896) and James (1898).2 By 1910, the Cowsert family moved to Tarpon Springs, FL, where John B. worked in the new and growing sea sponge industry.3
In 1887, John Cheyney started a sponge farming business in Tarpon Springs, by 1890 his sponge farming earned one million dollars (equivalent to almost twenty-nine million dollars today).4 The area began to attract Greek immigrants who had experience as divers, their specialized diving suits increased harvests substantially.5 The Coswerts settled in Tarpon Springs, and supplemented their income by renting rooms to a number of people, including an Eastern Orthodox priest, who likely served the growing Greek community.6 John, age thirteen, and James, age eleven both attended school; Ms. Sample remained with the family working as the their cook.7
John began his military service in June 1916 as part of the Pennsylvania National Guard. He was assigned to Battery F, 1st Field Artillery and participated in the Mexican Border War.8 The conflict between the United States and Mexico, part of the Mexican Revolution, erupted when the revolutionary, Pancho Villa, crossed the border at Columbus, New Mexico, in search of supplies.9 President Woodrow Wilson responded by mobilizing National Guard units. 12,000 American troops marched across the border at Carrizal, Mexico and engaged the Mexican Army on June 21, 1916. John joined the Pennsylvania Guard three days later. John’s unit mobilized to El Paso, TX to train for any potential threat, but President Wilson withdrew all American troops from Mexico in January 1917, before John saw any ground combat.10 After a little less than a year of service, John was discharged on March 26, 1917.11
John did not have much time to contemplate a civilian career. After a short break in service, John re-enlisted into the regular Army on May 29, at Fort Slocum, NY, only a few weeks after the US declared war on April 6, 1917.12 John was assigned to Headquarters Company of the 12th Field Artillery (FA), under the 2nd Division. John and his company left New York City and deployed to France on January 11, 1918 on Transport Ship No. 527.13 After training with French officers, the 2nd Division served in the Toulon Sector, in the Lorraine region of eastern France, near the devastated city of Verdun.14 Shortly before this movement, John earned a promotion to Corporal on March 9, likely due to his previous military experience in the Mexican Border Service and his conduct during the training period.15
The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) fully entered the war during the devastating German Spring Offensive of 1918. At the battle of Chateau-Thierry, the 2nd Division worked to stop part of the final, major German advance meant to reach Paris only sixty miles to the west of the combat zone. The Allies, including 2nd Division, fought hard to stop the Germans along the Marne River. After stopping the Germans’ advance, the Allies launched a counter attack.16 On June 12th, the 12th FA received orders to bombard the northern edge of Belleau Wood. The night before, John showed extreme bravery by laying communication wire in dark, hectic circumstances. He earned the Silver Star for his actions. According to his commendation:
Corporal Cowsert distinguished himself by gallantry in action while serving with the 12th Field Artillery Regiment, 2d Division, American Expeditionary Forces, in action at Chateau Thierry, France, 11 June 1918, in making telephone connections under heavy enemy fire.17
After fighting along the Marne throughout the month of June, the 2nd Division kept the pressure on the Germans at Soissons, about twenty-five miles north of Chateau-Thierry along the more than 400-mile Western Front. At Soissons, the 2nd Infantry suffered 4,392 casualties.18 As the 2nd Infantry had been in near constant enemy contact since Chateau-Thierry, the men needed a break. Bruised and bloody, 2nd Infantry moved to the relatively quiet Marbache Sector to regroup, while the AEF prepared for a major assault on the St. Mihiel Salient.19
In September, John, along with the 2nd Infantry, fought at St. Mihiel, the first and only AEF led offensive of the war. Again, John, along with his buddies in the 12th FA, supported the infantry. By this point the men of the 12th FA had gained key battlefield experience. The 12th FA created a rolling barrage, one-hundred meters ahead of the infantry, and moved up their zone of fire every four minutes.20 The rolling barrage provided protection for the assaulting infantry by firing at the enemy line in front of them. Despite their skill, the division suffered 4,832 casualties in the three-day assault.21
As the casualties for 2nd Division piled up, command pulled them off the line after St. Mihiel.22 While 2nd Division recouped, the larger AEF took part in the last major offensive of the war, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (September 26-November 11, 1918). The Meuse-Argonne remains the largest land battle in US Army history, and represented the AEF’s sector of the final Allied push to end the war.23 While 2nd Division did not initially join the battle, the AEF faced off against a stubborn and determined German enemy; by the end of October the 2nd Division joined the attack in progress.24
On October 31, John and the 12th FA were back at the front, ordered to remain in close contact with the infantry.25 The artillery fired a slowly-advancing barrage for ten minutes, while the infantry followed. The division continued fighting for twelve days, until the armistice went into effect on November 11, 1918. The Meuse-Argonne remains the deadliest single battle in US history. The AEF suffered 122,063 total casualties, including 26,277 dead in just six weeks.26 The 2nd Division represented 3,314 total casualties (2.7%), despite only taking part in twelve of the forty-seven days of combat. After each of these engagements, John himself miraculously made it through, relatively unharmed.27
For John and many other soldiers, their service in Europe was not quite over. The 2nd Division participated in the Army of Occupation in Germany. After the war, the US, along with other Allies, occupied parts of eastern Germany, along the French border.28 The goal of the 2nd Division was to establish a military presence in the area around Coblenz, a major city in the Rhineland. The occupation force maintained order and watched over the Germans, in case the Paris peace talks broke down and the war was resumed.29 Due to four years of war, economic devastation, and a collapsing government, the 2nd Division became the de facto government of Coblenz during the occupation, with many officers having governmental duties they had to learn on the job.30
After nearly twenty months in Europe, John T. Cowsert returned home and was honorably discharged on August 15, 1919 at Camp Gordon, GA.31 He had seen far more of the war than the average American soldier, taking part in every major American engagement.32 For his gallantry in service he earned the Pershing Citation, the Silver Star, two Croix de Guerres according to his obituary.33
When John left the Army, he returned to Florida and married Irma Dannenmann on December 27, 1919.34 John and Irma had three children, John L., Irma Jean, and Caroline.35 By 1930, they lived in St. Petersburg, FL. John worked for Florida Power Corporation (FPC) as a “trouble clerk.”36 He worked for the FPC for the remainder of his career, reaching the level of assistant superintendent of the meter department.37 During this period, John suffered from health issues. We cannot be sure if John’s health issues stemmed from exposure to gas or other experiences suffered from the war, but he did file a request for veteran’s compensation in 1937 (which the VA denied) as seen here.38
John Tey Cowsert passed away at home on Wednesday, June 21, 1944. John was buried the day after his death at Bay Pines Cemetery on Thursday, June 22, 1944.39 He is buried at Section 9, Row 2, Site 18. John had grown up on a farm, gone on to serve his nation in two conflicts, and served the state of Florida and its people through his work with the electric company. Mr. Cowsert provided an exceptional example of hard work and patriotism, leaving behind an incredible legacy to follow.
2 “1900 United States Census,” database, Ancestry.com.
4 Exploring Florida, “Florida’s Historic Places: Tarpon Springs,” https://fcit.usf.edu/florida/ (https://fcit.usf.edu/florida/lessons/tarpon/tarpon.htm accessed 19 September, 2019), entry for Florida’s Historic Places/Tarpon Springs.
5 Exploring Florida, “Florida’s Historic Places: Tarpon Springs,” fcit.usf.edu/florida.
6 “1910 United States Census,” database, Ancestry.com.
7 “1910 United States Census,” database, Ancestry.com.
9 Richard S. Faulkner, Pershing’s Crusaders: The American Soldier in World War I (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017), 241.
10 Jennifer D. Keene, World War I: The American Soldier Experience (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 9.
11 “Pennsylvania, WWI Veterans Service and Compensation Files, 1917-1919, 1934-1948.”
12 “World War 1 Service Card,” database, Floridamemory.com (https://floridamemory.com/ : Accessed January 2019), entry for John T Cowsert, Army Serial Number 128251.
14 George B. Clark, The Second Infantry Division in World War I: A History of the American Expeditionary Force Regulars, 1917-1919 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2007), 33.
15 “World War 1 Service Card,” Database, Floridamemory.com.
16 Clark, The Second Infantry Division in World War I, 37.
17 John T. Cowsert, Awards by Date of Action. Valor.militarytimes.com. (https://valor.militarytimes.com/hero/81486 accessed 12 July, 2019), entry for John Cowsert/World War I/Silver Star. The Hall of Valor is a collection of military citations collected by Vietnam Veteran Doug Sterner. According to the page, John’s award citation is part of “GHQ, American Expeditionary Forces, Citation Orders No. 5 (June 3, 1919).”
18 Clark, The Second Infantry Division in World War I, 117.
19 Clark, The Second Infantry Division in World War I, 145
20 Clark, The Second Infantry Division in World War I, 146.
21 Clark, The Second Infantry Division in World War I, 156.
22 Clark, The Second Infantry Division in World War I, 157
23 Edward G. Lengel, To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne 1918, the Epic Battle that Ended the First World War (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 4-5.
24 Clark, The Second Infantry Division in World War I, 158.
25 Clark, The Second Infantry Division in World War I, 163.
26 Lengel, To Conquer Hell, 4.
27 “Pennsylvania, WWI Veterans Service and Compensation Files, 1917-1919, 1934-1948,” database, Ancestry.com
28 Clark, The Second Infantry Division in World War I, 179.
29 Faulkner, Pershing’s Crusaders, 612.
30 Clark, The Second Infantry Division in World War I, 181.
31 “Pennsylvania, WWI Veterans Service and Compensation Files, 1917-1919, 1934-1948,” database, Ancestry.com.
32 “Pennsylvania, WWI Veterans Service and Compensation Files, 1917-1919, 1934-1948,” database, Ancestry.com.
36 “John Cowsert Funeral Service Today at 1:30,” Tampa Bay Times 22 June, 1944. “1930 United States Census” database, Ancestry.com.
37 “John Cowsert Funeral Service Today at 1:30,” Tampa Bay Times 22 June, 1944.
38 “Pennsylvania, WWI Veterans Service and Compensation Files, 1917-1919, 1934-1948,” database, Ancestry.com.
39 “John Cowsert Funeral Service Today at 1:30,” Tampa Bay Times 22 June, 1944 edition, database, Newspaper.com.
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