The Case of the Vanished Commandant
During a class project, my first-year history students uncovered a mystery. They had been tasked with transcribing, digitizing, and analyzing a body of letters written by a World War I veteran. Joseph F. Ware Sr., commandant of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets from 1911 to 1914, had handwritten more than a hundred letters, mostly to his wife, Susie, during the war.
My students worked with the original letters, which needed to remain in the university’s Special Collections. Transcribing proved not to be simple. Ware’s penmanship was lovely, but his handwriting was faint and often cramped. Sometimes sentences continued onto back or facing pages. He used hotel letterhead or notebook paper; he wrote in ink or pencil; he often scratched out phrases or even sentences. He referenced people, places, and events that were unfamiliar to the students.
Despite their struggles, something remarkable happened to my students. They felt awe holding history in their hands. They became attached to the letters they were assigned to transcribe, and they became invested in helping their classmates decode tricky passages. It was a puzzle to be solved—what did each letter say, and, even more important, what did each letter mean?
Once they finished transcribing, the students began constructing a timeline of events in Ware’s life. But suddenly the trail went cold. The students had plotted his location from Panama to Plattsburgh, New York, and from France to Koblenz, Germany, but the letters stopped.
I had witnessed the students’ attachment to Ware’s story, and now I saw their frustration. When I reluctantly showed them Joseph and Susie’s divorce certificate, they groaned and held their heads. Without more letters, how could they know how his story ended?
One enterprising student tracked down the widow of Ware’s son, Joseph Jr., and the information she shared was tantalizing. She believed Joseph Sr. had remained in Germany after his time in Koblenz, acted as a spy during World War II, and been captured and interned in a camp. He later escaped and married a German woman.
Unfortunately, Joseph Jr.’s widow had never known her father-in-law, who died long before her marriage to his son. Students were unsettled that the only nugget they knew for certain was that Ware had been buried in Arlington National Cemetery after his death in 1969.
But then I found what appeared to be the obituary of Joseph Sr.’s second wife, published in an Asbury Park, New Jersey, newspaper in 1993. Students latched onto it in the hopes of learning more about the missing commandant. Indeed, this Mary Ware had been married to Lt. Col. Joseph F. Ware, who died in 1969. She had been born in Germany and had moved to the United States around 1945.
That telling puzzle piece in place, my students took comfort in the further likelihood of truth to Ware’s intriguing captured-spy story. There are still more pieces to the puzzle, of course, and like all good historian detectives, we will keep searching.
Trudy Harrington Becker, a senior instructor in the Department of History, wrote a pedagogical account of her students’ experiences tracking Joseph F. Ware Sr. in Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association’s newsmagazine. This essay is adapted from that article.