John was assigned to the USS Comber as a Chief Machinist Mate, 3rd Class. A new vessel initially built as a commercial fishing trawler, the Comber was commissioned into the US Navy on April 19, 1917. Refitted with mine-sweeping equipment, the ship conducted patrols in the waters around Naval Districts 1 (Portsmouth Naval Yard, Kittery, ME) and 2 (Newport, RI). John worked in the boiler room, ensuring that the plant provided propulsion, electrical power, water and steam to the vessel’s various systems.
Several months after John’s enlistment, his mother, Mary Ann, passed away at White Haven on August 20. His service record makes no mention of a leave of absence, suggesting that John continued to serve aboard the Comber throughout the summer and autumn of 1917.
On the evening of December 2, while on shore leave, John started to board a trolley car at the corner of Sumner and Washington Streets, Quincy, MA. When the car suddenly started, John was thrown to the ground. The back of his head struck the pavement and he was rendered unconscious. Rushed to a nearby doctor’s office for immediate attention, John was quickly transported to City Hospital, where staff determined that he had suffered a fractured skull.
John remained unconscious for several days, the force of the blow having ruptured his right meningeal artery. While surgeons performed surgery in an effort to stem internal bleeding, the operation proved unsuccessful. At 9:00 p.m. December 7, 1917, Chief Machinist Mate John Cleveland Wells “died as a result of an accident not in the line of duty.” His remains were transported to Nova Scotia, where John was laid to rest beside his mother in St. Lawrence Roman Catholic Cemetery, Mulgrave.
Bantry Publishing’s “First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume I” contains a detailed description of John Cleveland’s family background and military service, along with stories of 71 other individuals who died from causes related to military service during the war’s first three years.