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Diary of a soldier’s wife

With the 1898 sinking of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in the Havana harbor, the United States went to war.

Alice Applegate Sargent, diary in hand, was one of only three women who eagerly followed their Army officer husbands to Cuba. Once there, Alice almost lost him.

Lt. Herbert Howland Sargent was quickly promoted to colonel and ordered to take a regiment to Santiago, Cuba.

Arriving in September, they marched through a pastel-colored town with the red tile roofs to their camp on the hills overlooking the city.

“Our camp would be pleasant,” she wrote in her diary, “but for the drenching rains. The sun is intensely hot, and the air seems full of hot steam.”

For the first few days, food and water were scarce, so much so that they had to be happy with just a tin cup of coffee and a slice or two of bread for breakfast.

Living in tents, unwelcome guests were free to visit. “A scorpion on my skirts and a small snake warned us to keep our eyes open for creeping things,” she said. “The mosquito toots his small horn, while tiny flies drive our poor horses almost wild.”

Measles, malaria and typhoid fever seemed to be everywhere, but most dangerous of all was the mosquito, carrier of the deadly Yellow Fever. In just weeks, 37 soldiers died in the camp’s hospital tent.

“With heavy hearts,” Alice said, “we laid them to rest under the drooping palm trees on the hills of Santiago.”

Alice herself suffered with the fever for weeks and, while recovering in bed, she could see dense clouds of smoke in the far hills, where piles of civilian bodies, victims of the fever, were being burned.

“Then came days so dark and dreary,” she said. “My husband, who had kept up wonderfully through the long summer months, fell ill and lay for weeks at the point of death.”

She recovered from her illness and now had the strength to nurse him back to health.

Alice was a soldier’s wife, and no matter where he went she promised to be at his side.

They met and married in 1886. Herbert had just graduated from West Point, and his first duty station was Fort Klamath.

Alice was the daughter of Lindsay Applegate of Applegate Trail fame, and likely met her husband while visiting with her brother, Oliver, who was an assistant Indian agent on the Klamath Reservation.

As a child she vowed never to leave Oregon, but now her soldier was on the move.

Following Klamath came a year in Herbert’s home state of Illinois, then Northern California, followed by a 500-mile, side-by-side horseback ride to Washington state. There were years in the desert Southwest, then Cuba, the Philippines, and WWI assignments on the East Coast.

“How little we know of the future,” she said. “My feet have wandered far since those days.”

After 32 years of army life the couple settled in the Rogue Valley, first Medford, and then Jacksonville, where “the Colonel,” as they called him, joined the losing fight to keep the county seat in Jacksonville.

Herbert died suddenly of a heart attack in 1921, while fighting a fire in his front yard.

Alice buried him in the Jacksonville Cemetery. They both had chosen their plot before he left for WWI.

Two years after Herbert’s death, Alice had the stone wall constructed that edges the road leading up to the Jacksonville Cemetery and dedicated it to her husband.

In 1934, Alice joined her Herbert at the top of the hill.

“I am thankful,” she said, “to have been for so many years of my life with my husband and the Army of the United States. The Army that has never known defeat.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “Forgotten Voices of WWI.” Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.