Bend High grad was one of 14 local men who died in World War I

As we honor veterans on Veterans Day, we look back at Bend’s first casualty of the Great War, the end of which was honored by Armistice Day, the precursor to Veterans Day.

Percy A. Stevens

Bend’s first World War I casualty didn’t take place in the trenches of France or hills of Germany.

Percy A. Stevens, 18 years old, died on the beaches of Scotland on the night of Feb. 5, 1918, after the sinking of the SS Tuscania.

Working for the Shevlin-Hixon Lumber Company when he enlisted four months after his 18th birthday, Stevens joined multiple other Oregon men in the 6th Battalion, 20th Engineer Regiment in December 1917. Shipped out on the SS Tuscania from Hoboken, New Jersey in early February 1918, Stevens and more than 2,000 Army troops were headed to France to fight the “good fight.”

Early in the evening of Feb. 5, though, the SS Tuscania would make history as the first U.S. troopship carrying American soldiers in World War I to be torpedoed by the Germans. More than 2,100 U.S. soldiers would survive – 210, including Stevens, would not.

After leaving the East Coast, the Tuscania joined three other troopships and eight freighters. On Feb. 4, eight British destroyers met the convoy to guide the ships between the cliffs of Scotland and the coast of Ireland. But on Feb. 5, seven miles off Ireland, a German U-boat spotted the Tuscania’s two white smokestacks and, at 5:47 p.m., launched a surprise attack. The second of two torpedoes blew a hole in the Tuscania’s starboard side between the engines and the
boiler room. Stevens, by multiple accounts, boarded his assigned lifeboat and rowed unto the morning as the waves got stronger and a storm blew in. His lifeboat wrecked on rocks along the Scottish coast and Stevens drowned.

Unfortunately, his family was originally told that he had survived the sinking of the Tuscania, but five days later an official cablegram came informing them that Stevens had in fact perished off the coast of the Scottish island Isle of Islay. Islanders who found Stevens’ body took his remains to the town of Port Charlotte, where he and other fallen servicemen were buried with strips of red, white and blue fabric.  Stevens’ body was later moved to the Brookswood American Cemetery  in Brookswood, England, approximately 40 miles southwest of London.

Stevens was one of seven Central Oregonians on board the Tuscania – four from Bend and three from Crook County. (The 20th Engineer Regiment was made up primarily of men with timber and logging experience as they were expected to build the infrastructure for Allied forces as they marched through war-torn Europe.) Elmer Alfred Houston from Held, Oregon, near Brothers, also perished in the sinking.

Originally from Canada, Stevens moved to Bend in 1916 with his sister. One of the most “prominent students in high school,” according to The Bend Bulletin, Stevens served as the track manager and class treasurer and was a member
of the tennis team and the secretary of the Emersonian Literary Society. He also was a member of the Bend High
music committee and worked as a cartoonist for the student newspaper, The Pilot.

After graduating from Bend High in 1917 he went to work for Shevlin-Hixon as a stenographer before enlisting in the U.S. Army.

To this day, Bend’s American Legion Post is named after Stevens and John L. Chute, a math and history teacher at
Bend High who died in service during World War II.

(A version of this story first appeared in the Deschutes County Historical Society newsletter, The Homesteader.)