James Claude Simpkins

Claude Simpkins
James Claude Simpkins
from The Sentinel yearbook

These links are to additional materials from Michael Webster's master's thesis.


Boulder, Montana- December 12, 1893

University Connection:

B.A. Chemistry- 1916

War Service:

Aviation, Second Lieutenant


Simpkins was killed by a bomb near Morvillars, France on September 18, 1918. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Simpkins Marker

The following is a protion of Michael Webster's master's thesis.

The Best Men First: James Claude Simpkins

The corporal triggered the booby-trapped hand grenade, most likely a Model 24 Stielhandgranate — German standard issue.  Potato mashers, the Brits called them, for they resembled wooden pestles with metal caps.  Unlike the small metal pineapples the Brits and French heaved, potato mashers could be flung end over end and were less likely to roll back into the trenches.  They were also easy to booby trap.

    Pulling a string at the base of the handle triggered an internal friction igniter and a five-second fuse.  Pick up a booby-trapped masher, and a weighed ball attached to the string would drop, activating the igniter by gravity—unseen, unheard, silently burning for five seconds.  In many cases, the final five.

    On the day the corporal found the grenade, September 18, 1918, World War I was in its waning days.  American forces had just completed the St. Mihiel drive, their first major offensive on the western front.  Fifteen American divisions fought, 216,000 men.  The battle was the biggest air operation in history up to that time—1,481 airplanes flew, nearly six times the total number of planes Germany had just four years prior.  Following the initial push, the young corporal of the First Army Air Service, Second Pursuit Group, had orders to drive a Lieutenant James Claude Simpkins, the radio officer from Montana, behind the advancing troops in southeastern France.

    From the car they spotted the grenade. The corporal stopped and got out to pick it up. He held the masher briefly as Simpkins joined him. Seconds ticked away. The corporal’s hand was blown off by the explosion, his thigh torn open. Simpkins was wounded badly in his side. He immediately attempted to fashion a tourniquet for the corporal, but unable to control his own bleeding, bled to death.

    The budding scientist, the chemist from Missoula was dead at age 24.

    “I am sure the nation has missed him,” his friend Robert Williams would explain years later in his memoir, Joyful Trek, “considering his brilliance and his dedication to science.  There was a common saying among us that the war was taking the best men first.”

James Claude Simpkins

Courtesy James E. & Elizabeth Simpkins

James Claude Simpkins

For years the United States had taken an isolationist stance against the war in Europe. But public opinion began to shift after the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915. One hundred twenty-eight American civilians were killed. On April 6, 1917, Congress voted for war. While Jeannette Rankin — one of Montana’s two congressional representatives and the first women elected to the U.S. Congress — cast an unpopular vote against the war, more than 12,500 Montanans enlisted. Nearly 28,000 additional Montanans were drafted after the government overestimated Montana’s population. The 40,000-plus men now serving comprised 10 percent of Montana’s total population: a percentage higher than any other state. Among them were farmers and lawyers, students and scientists, including the young lieutenant from Missoula who graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in chemistry in 1916.

    James Claude Simpkins was the son of a carpenter, originally from Boulder, Montana.  He had keen eyes that shone with intensity, alert and calculating and wise like an owl’s.  He was shorter than most and always quick to make a friend, winning people over with his smile.  “It was his warp and woof,” his friend Emerson Stone said, “those who came under its spell could not resist it.”  But given the trials Simpkins faced in his short life, his smile, the one that “went clear through,” was all the more remarkable.

    His father, also named James, and his mother, Ella, had four children in just over four years: the oldest, Eleanor (who went by Nell), followed by Edward, James Claude, and Franklin.  Whatever struggle the Simpkinses faced to feed four children was soon superseded by the heartbreak of losing one.  Franklin, the youngest, died at age nine months.

    Adjusting to the loss, Simpkins’ father focused on his carpentry and went on to construct many of the prominent buildings in Boulder — the Catholic church, the Jefferson Country Court House, the dance hall (called Simpkins Hall), and numerous residences.  He owned the area’s largest carpentry shop and lumberyard.  The work kept him busy for the following three years before the next child, Martin, was born in 1898.  By 1900, ten years after the birth of their first, Ella was expecting her sixth child, a girl.

    Pregnant and working outside in the early November twilight, she tripped and badly injured herself.  The family immediately sent for the doctor, despite his reputation as a dope addict.  He in turn suggested sending for another doctor.  James paid $150 for the train to fetch him, an outrageous sum at the time.  While he was en route, Ella delivered her daughter Mabel and died within 24 hours.

    About the same time, a woman named May Pender White, who went simply by “Anna,” left her home in the East on a train bound for Boulder, Colorado.  At the end of her journey, she departed the train and found herself not in Boulder, Colorado, but in Boulder, Montana.  She stayed long enough to meet the recently widowed James Simpkins, and the two married within the year.  Yet whatever solace James might have found in a new marriage didn't last long.  Shortly after the nuptials, Anna surprised James when her mother and sister arrived from back east, bringing Anna’s son in tow. Another mouth to feed, again followed by heartbreak.  By year’s end, James' youngest boy, Martin, then two and a half, died. Anna was to blame, Nell would tell a nephew years later.  She was convinced her stepmother had poisoned him.  He died three days before Simpkins’ eighth birthday. The couple divorced in 1903, Anna taking the house in the settlement.

Courtesy James E. & Elizabeth Simpkins Simpkins at Missoula High School
    Simpkins’ father moved the family to Missoula in 1909 and continued his successful career.  He was able to send James Claude and his brother Edward to the University of Montana, and there they flourished.  Edward, whirring around campus on his motorbike, found success on the football field. He graduated with an engineering degree. James Claude — “Simp” around campus — had other outlets.

    One August, he and Emerson Stone made headlines after spending 11 days traveling several hundred miles around Montana by foot, bike and boat. From Missoula they biked up the Flathead Reservation, boated across Flathead Lake and continued riding to Lake McDonald before exploring and crossing the park on foot. They visited Browning, Bynum and Choteau before following the Blackfoot home. They slept outside every night but one, worked in exchange for most meals, and laughed to a Missoulian reporter on their return about the “expensive wanderings” of eastern tourists in Glacier. They’d spent $15 apiece, including one night’s hotel fee. One day they reportedly covered 55 miles on foot.

    On campus, Simpkins leaned more toward the academic and social. He served on the prom committee his junior year, was a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity, and became the inaugural president of UM’s rifle club. He found a home for his mental energy in the laboratory and pursued graduate work at the University of Missouri. In 1917, he was admitted into Alpha Chi Sigma, the fraternity of chemical professionals. He then took a job with the Chemical Process company near Denver, studying a form of radioactive uranium ore. Equipped with his own lab, Simpkins was poised for a successful career. But when the United States entered the Great War, Simpkins felt his talents could be put to better use. Volunteering his services, he enlisted in the aviation service—a good fit for his leadership, athleticism and intellect—and was assigned to ground school on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin.

  Simpkins Rowboat

Courtesy James E. & Elizabeth Simpkins

Simpkins circa 1915

Aviation as a tool for warfare was still in its infancy.  In April of 1917, the United States had only 65 flying officers, most of whom where tied up in non-flying posts.  But war spawns productivity, and by September, when Simpkins reported for duty, ground schools were operational at seven university campuses around the country.  They drew young men from all walks of life, including Robert Williams, a young Texan who would years later write about his service in WWI and a young man he met named Jimmie Simpkins. 
Williams came from a large ranching family near Abilene, Texas.  The son of a former Baptist minister, he had a square jaw, booming voice and loquacious disposition that belied his caring and often softhearted nature.  He’d go on in life to be a journalist, lecturer, political analyst, inventor, and to serve his country again in World War II.  But on a warm September day in 1917, he was still a wet-behind-the-ears, 20-year-old farm hand struggling to figure out how the pieces of his newly issued uniform fit together.  He sat down on the steps outside his barracks on the University of Texas campus, staring at the yellow canvas puttees in his hand.  He knew they went around his shins: above the trousers and laced up the side.  But was it the inside of the leg?  Maybe the outside.  He went to work figuring it out, feeding the laces through eyehole after eyehole up the inside of his shank. Another man, dressed in the same uniform, sat down beside him.  Familiar with the get up, Williams noticed, he began lacing the puttees on the outside of his leg.  Williams realized he’d gotten it wrong.  The man next to him, most likely seeing Williams’ error, broke the silence.  He snidely commented on what things of beauty these old cavalry-issue puttees were.  Both men erupted in laughter.  He then gave a winning smile and introduced himself as James Simpkins of Missoula, Montana.

    “I immediately liked the fellow,” Williams later said of his first encounter with Simpkins.  “Though he was carefully analytical with the caution of a true scientist against jumping to conclusions, he was a warm and generous soul, especially thoughtful of a friend.  He had a large head full of horse sense, with large and thoughtful blue-gray eyes that could instantly twinkle, and it became obvious that he had an abundance of energy, mental and physical.

ground school graduation

Courtesy James E. & Elizabeth Simpkins

Squadron 18, Class H. Graduation, 10 November 1917. Simpkins, back row, fourth from left. Williams, front row, first from left

     Williams and Simpkins became inseparable during their month of ground school, graduating together on November 10, 1917.  From Texas, they were shipped to Mineola, New York, where an icy fog gripped the air one day as the two lined up on the parade ground.  Before them, an officer called for volunteers, those willing to ship for France for pilot training.  Simpkins and Williams, their breath hanging in the air before them, volunteered and were among the 100 cadets chosen who would compose the Sixteenth Foreign Detachment.  Eight others from their class in Austin were also among the 100, and together they quickly became known within the detachment as the Texan Ten.

    From New York to Halifax, where on December 5, 1917, the Texas Ten along with the rest of the Sixteenth Foreign Detachment set sail aboard the British White Star Line Baltic, bound for Brest, France.  Their trip could have ended there if they had shipped out the next day.  On the morning of December 6, 1917, Halifax was nearly obliterated when the SS Mont-Blanc, carrying wartime munitions bound for France, collided with the Norwegian SS Imo, caught fire and exploded. Every structure within a 500-acre area was destroyed. Windows were broken up to ten miles away, the blast heard up to 130 miles from the harbor.  It triggered a tsunami that came ashore 60 feet above the high water mark.  A piece of the Mont-Blanc’s anchor shaft, weighing over half a ton, landed more than two miles away from the explosion.

    A short time later, Simpkins and the rest of the detachment made it to France and the foggy village of St. Maixent, where they waited with other detachments that had arrived before them for the coveted spots available at the few French flying schools.  Simpkins, the rest of the Texas Ten and the Sixteenth Foreign Detachment had no choice but to bide their time.

Simpkins and the others lived the lives of privates, steady in routine and monotony as they waited for their chance to fly.  Working outside in the winter rain and spitting snow, they occupied their time policing the grounds, performing latrine duty, or whitewashing the barracks walls.  At chow time, he and the rest of the men ate outside, exposed to the elements. The prefab mess hall had not yet arrived.

    Falling into his bunk at lights out, Simpkins could see the shadowy figures of the men around him: a few entertainers by profession, an architect, several engineers, musicians. They talked and sang and bonded.  Cadet Gettinger might silence the chatter with a magnificent, effortless rendition of Ave Maria. Cadet Tinnerholm’s violin would bring to life the classics.  Another cadet from New York might erupt in a triumphant parody of an aria, the rhyme and meter often bawdy and ribald. Williams reveled in the education of it all.  Occasionally he’d contribute a few lines of Kipling in his Texan twang.  One night he ran his mouth and brought his entire barracks to laughter.  “Williams,” another cadet said, “you talk so much you have to say something funny once in a while.”

    As the chatter and laughter subsided, taps would eventually play.  Lying in the dark and silence, Simpkins, Williams, and the rest of the men would prepare for another day, another week, another month of waiting.

Simpkins with woman

Courtesy Donald Williams

Simpkins in France with Mme.Brard's daughter

Occasionally Simpkins would explore the nearby villages.  He spoke French but quickly found that his pronunciation betrayed his book learning of the language.  Yet he had the opportunity to practice when he and other cadets were invited into the French homes for tea parties and socials.  Most of the French men were also away fighting, leaving the wives and daughters at home to host the Americans.  The men enjoyed the women’s company, and Simpkins was always at ease with his natural social graces and trademark smile.  Yet in his friend Williams’ eyes, he always held something back, never getting too involved, though one woman in particular wanted to marry him.  He had the opportunity but not the will.  His heart belonged back in Montana to a woman with whom he was engaged.

    Simpkins received a few letters from her while in France, and they troubled him deeply.  Twice after reading a letter from her, he confided in his friend Williams that he wasn’t going to make it home.  The comments disturbed Williams, who could only speculate as to why Simpkins felt this way.  Such pessimism was rare for Simpkins.  Word around the barracks was that the flying schools were losing more men each day as they crashed their hastily made airplanes, so Simpkins certainly had reason to believe he might be one of them soon.  Perhaps it was just the maturity that came with Simpkins being four years older, Williams thought.  He put the dreary images out of his head, and convinced himself that Simpkins’ girl would be motivation enough for him to make it home alive.

Four months passed at St. Maixent while Simpkins and the rest of the detachment waited for their shot at flight school.  They began to talk more and more about flying.  As the wait continued, morale dropped.

    Williams described the waiting as almost being to the point of desperation.  “Picture several hundred ambitious young men, overcharged with energy and eagerness to get into the action,” he said, “consigned month after month after month to the colorless, futile routines of camp life.  [We] had to get into the action.”

    The Allied air forces were gaining strength.  Only a year before had been the “Bloody April” of 1917, where British aircrews had suffered 50 percent casualties in only one month.  During that time, a pilot’s life expectancy was only 11 days.  Now the Allies had regained air superiority, producing new planes twice as fast as the Germans. And Manfred von Richthofen, the infamous “Red Baron,” destroyer of 80 Allied aircraft, had just been shot down and killed.  The end of the war was coming, and the Americans, Simpkins and William included, were ready to fight—before it was too late.

    A man in their detachment, Cadet Fiery, wrote a letter to his older sister explaining their situation and asked that she pass it along to her husband, Newton D. Baker, who conveniently held the post of Secretary of War.

    By the end of their fifth month in France, Simpkins and the rest of the men got an indirect reply.  Through the ranks, the call came down to try to persuade the men to volunteer for other services.  Simpkins and Williams, unable to wait any longer, volunteered for radio service.

    In northeastern France, Simpkins attended the intelligence school in Langres, where he and Williams learned about the radio equipment of the day, in addition to the basics of radio repair and installation, and became more proficient in Morse code.  When the course was finished, he and Williams were commissioned second lieutenants and assigned to the air training field at Tours, France, where they installed what Williams called “intercommunication sets” in the observer’s cockpits of the two-seater planes.  Pilots took them up to test the equipment in-flight, where Simpkins and Williams continued conversations, plane to plane, above the noise from the engine’s din and whistling wind.  They’d check in with the ground radio and return to Earth, the closest they’d ever get to flying.

    By mid-August they had finished their service at Tours and were sent to the First Army Air Service as radio officers.  Simpkins was assigned to the Second Pursuit Group, Williams the First Day Bombardment Group.

In the early morning darkness of September 12, Robert Williams awakened to the sound and force of an explosion that from a dozen miles away rattled his cot, almost dumping him on the floor.  In preparation for the St. Mihiel drive, an effort to retake German occupied land surrounding the stronghold town of Metz, French and American troops were launching artillery shells over the front to clear a way for the upcoming charge.  The ground continually shook under Williams, who found the dawn’s light that morning dampened by a storm whose high winds and low clouds were as frenetic as the squadrons around him.  Amid the ringing telephones and constantly updated wall maps, orders went out to send up the bombers of the squadron, American-built DH-4s.  The two-seater planes were called “flaming coffins” for they so often burned upon crashing, which was often enough even in good weather.  Williams found it criminal to send novice flyers up in such conditions, but wasn’t in a position—or the place—to do anything about it.  By noon, he was ordered to the First Pursuit Group to help with their radio station.

Simpkins with bottle

Courtesy Donald Williams

Simpkins in France. Robert Williams wrote under this photo "Innocent Jimmie."

    With the added number of American troops, the Allies easily broke through the line and retook the salient. The attack ended quickly, and things became less chaotic.  The battle was the first victory of the war by an independent American army.  But in the mess one night at headquarters after the initial push, Williams’ world became much more turbulent.  A captain entered and told him that the radio officer in the Second Pursuit Group, traveling behind the troops with the danger seemingly passed, had been killed along with his driver, a corporal.  Sickened, Williams left the mess immediately and headed toward the office to verify the report.  His worst fears were confirmed.  The man he’d loved like brother, his alter ego, was dead.  Innocent Jimmie Simpkins was dead.

Thousands of miles away, another group of men were breaking ground on the University of Montana campus in Missoula.  Earlier that spring, the War Department had developed the Student Army Training Corps at 157 college campuses across the country, and the ground being broken in Missoula was the site for two SATC barracks.  A successful carpenter in town was in charge of the construction, a man who, before moving to Missoula nine years prior with his four children, had constructed several other large buildings in Boulder, Montana.  What he didn’t know as construction began was that the dormitory he was building would later bear his son’s name and by extension his own: Simpkins Hall.

    When James Claude Simpkins was killed in action on September 18, 1918, he was the first graduate of the University of Montana to die in World War I.  A month and a half later, UM President E.O. Sisson wrote to Chancellor E.C. Elliot of “what seems a very interesting and worthy suggestion” from Professor Farmer: “that the first unit be named after Lieutenant Claude Simpkins.”  Chancellor Elliot, President Sisson and the local executive board of the university met a short time later and decided that one of the barracks would officially be named in Simpkins’ honor.    A short time after Simpkins’s death, his father received a letter from his son’s commanding officer, dated September 27, 1918.  Lieutenant Colonel Davenport Johnson of the Second Pursuit Group, First Pursuit Wing, told James that “Lieutenant James C Simpkins has been in my command since September, 1918.  During that time . . . I had every opportunity of observing his work closely.  I found him, as everyone who came in contact with him, extremely capable and authoritatively versed in radio work.  Loyal and courteous as an officer and highly respected by everyone . . .”    Years later, in his mid-80s, Simpkins’ friend Robert Williams still frowned at the death.  “There’s got to be some way to prevent wars,” he’d write.  “Running away from a hardened, expansionist enemy, softening our defenses, would invite destruction.  But it is criminal to keep on killing off the finest young men in all countries.”

     Lieutenant James Claude Simpkins, 24, scientist, soldier, Montanan, was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.