"It is sweet and fitting to die for your country." The Roman motto, written in Latin, graces a plaque near the tennis courts in Lithia Park containing the names of 15 Ashland men who died in World War I, a war the country naively believed would end all wars.

"It is sweet and fitting to die for your country."

The Roman motto, written in Latin, graces a plaque near the tennis courts in Lithia Park containing the names of 15 Ashland men who died in World War I, a war the country naively believed would end all wars.

Two of the men, Walter A. Phillips and Guy Spencer, are featured in photographs in a new exhibit at the Ashland Railroad Museum honoring Veterans Day and those who died in the first world war. Poster-size photos show uniformed men at the Ashland train depot saying goodbye to their loved ones.

Some would never return.

Phillips, for whom Ashland High School's football stadium is named, was shot down and killed over Germany in 1918; Spencer died of the Spanish influenza the same year.

"They were very eager to fight," says Robert Harrison, a Southern Oregon University history professor who will give a lecture Friday on the war and its impact on Jackson County.

"There hadn't been a real war since the Civil War, 52 years earlier, and they knew nothing about fighting or the horrors of the new machine guns, poison gas and trench warfare that awaited them. They thought they could charge across the battlefield, like in the old days, but machine guns just mowed them down and made that impossible."

Harrison's free lecture, "We're Coming Over: Ashland Goes to War by Train," will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Ashland Railroad Museum, 258 A St., Suite 7 (upstairs).

More than 116,000 American servicemen died between April 6, 1917, and Nov. 11, 1918. Of those who died, roughly half perished from illness. Jackson County suffered 35 fatalities, 10 of them in battle.

"Americans took a lot of casualties and did most of the fighting at Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood and Meuse-Argonne," Harrison says. "We just threw ourselves into the war, but we couldn't fight an offensive war, couldn't even see the enemy from the trenches."

Phillips was an all-around athlete at Ashland High School and was quarterback and captain of the football team in 1912. Upon graduation in 1913, he went to Oregon Agricultural College. When the war broke out, Phillips enlisted and trained as an Army officer in Presidio, Calif., then went to aerial gunnery and photography school in Bordeaux, France.

In 1918 he was assigned to the First Aero Squadron as an artillery observer.

"What Phillips was doing as an observer, shooting glass-plate negatives from his Salmson plane, was an incredibly dangerous job and it took four German fighters to shoot him down that day, October 1, just a month before Armistice Day," says Victoria Law of the Railroad Museum.

"He was a popular young man of great promise and a member of the 1st Aero Squadron — among the very first Americans ever to fly in a U.S. combat unit — but now he lies buried in the Muese-Argonne American Cemetery."

In 1940, the AHS football field was officially named Walter A. Phillips Field.

In a touching letter posted on the AHS website, www.ashlandturf.com, his wingmate describes Phillips' plane going down in flames and his burial by a "pretty road" near Varennes, his airplane struts used for a grave cross.

Phillips, in a letter to be opened in event of his death, wrote: "The best way to lighten the effect of sorrow is by hard work. Do not sit and brood over your own misfortune, but set about to relieve the suffering of others. By helping others who have been as unfortunate as yourself, you will receive the greatest solace."

Guy Spencer and his brother Don served in the 65th Coast Artillery, manning giant 9.5-inch howitzers and serving in the bloody 1918 battles of Meuse-Argonne and Chateau-Thierry, where casualty rates ran around 12 percent, Harrison says.

While Guy died overseas of the flu, his brother would go on to become Ashland's first delivery mailman.

His granddaughter Julia Woosnan of Half Moon Bay, Calif., donated historic photos, newspaper articles and a Spencer war journal for the Railroad Museum's exhibit.

One photo shows a uniformed Lt. Don Spencer saying goodbye to his grim wife at the train, with their daughter, Altadeena, Woosnan's eventual mother, looking about 8 years old. Another shot shows Sgt. Guy Spencer — soon to be buried in Limoges, France — at the train with a girlfriend.

A previously unpublished wide shot shows hundreds of townsfolk attending the emotional send-off, with sparsely populated hills of Ashland in the background. In a 1967 Daily Tidings interview, Don Spencer, then 78, said the train headed south to the Bay Area, where troops shipped out through the Panama Canal, then boarded the Mauretania, sister ship of the Lusitania, to France.

The men were incensed over the German sinking of the Lusitania with large loss of American life and also the notorious Zimmerman telegram sent by Germany to Mexico, encouraging an attack on the U.S., Harrison says.

These young farm boys and fishermen were soon to face a loss of innocence, however, and, for many, decades of recovery from wounds and shell shock, Harrison says.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.