Sammy Backers of the Northwoods

Nov 27, 2019

One of the nicknames given to soldiers in the First World War was “Sammy.”  During the holiday season of 1917, people in the Northwoods were encouraged to support the troops by becoming a “Sammy Backer.”  What was a Sammy Backer?

Many nicknames have been given to American soldiers who serve overseas.  Probably the most famous nickname was that of the G.I. of the Second World War.  The letters “G. I.” of course stood for General Issue but became attached to the soldiers themselves.  Today we remember soldiers from the First World War as “Doughboys.”  The name Doughboy actually dates back to the Civil War and is a reference to the brass buttons worn by infantrymen on their uniforms.  A name that is largely forgotten today is the one that was most commonly used during the First World War.  American soldiers going overseas to fight on the European Western Front were frequently called Uncle Sam’s boys, or a “Sammy.”  British, French, and Australian troops in particular used the term Sammy when encountering a U.S. soldier, but it was just as common on the American Home Front.

World War I began in August 1914, and the U.S. entered the war on the side of the Allied Powers in April 1917.  In late May 1917, U.S. troops had engaged in their first major offensive against the Germans at the Battle of Cantigny.  Hundreds of men from the Northwoods either enlisted or were drafted into military service, and as the holiday season approached during that first year of American involvement many worried that some of the young men fighting overseas would be forgotten.  Therefore, starting in August 1917 and continuing through the holiday season, Northwoods residents were encouraged to become a “Sammy Backer.”  Everyone understood that soldiers serving overseas had mothers, fathers, and extended family members who cared for them, and that organizations such as the Red Cross sent out care packages.  However, to let the soldiers know that their service was valued by the larger community people were urged to sign on as a Sammy Backer and give that personal touch that no organization could possibly provide.

To be a Sammy Backer a person had to be a male, had to be above draft age, and had to be willing to follow through with promises of writing letters and sending small gifts such as a magazine, tobacco, or candy.  Anything to provide a little comfort on the front lines.  As the organizers wrote: “You can work here and send him magazines, Thanksgiving boxes, Christmas and birthday presents “smokes” and the thousand and one other little things that will readily suggest themselves.”  As they said at the time, why not be a Fairy Godfather to a Rhinelander Sammy?

It is not known how many people in Rhinelander or across the Northwoods signed up to be a Sammy Backer, but the Soo Railroad in the Northwoods started a monthly Overseas Tobacco Fund and collected money from passengers to provide, as they said, “Smokes for Sammy.”  On the more practical side, and probably just as greatly appreciated on the cold, wet battlefields of Europe, were gifts of clean socks knitted and sent from caring Northwoods families.  Thanksgiving wishes from 1917 to the men and women serving overseas.