Stories of American Heroes - Brought to you from the "Home of Heroes" - Pueblo, Colorado
Lieutenant Dwite H. Schaffner
The following is a transcript of an interview Captain Eddie Rickenbacker did with World War I Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Dwite H. Schaffner. The interview was one in a series of radio broadcasts Rickenbacker did in the 1930s called the Chevrolet Chronicles. Our special thanks to Lt. Schaffner's grandson David Jolley for sharing the following with us.
Ladies And Gentlemen,
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker:
Tonight it is my honor to present a man who will, for a few brief moments, take you with him to one of the most thrilling operations of the Argonne drive. Through an engagement in which he won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Tonight he will be again, Lieutenant Dwite H. Schaffner, commanding company K, 306th infantry, 77th Division. And it will again be the zero hour on the early fall morning 12 years ago; when the lieutenant and his men went over the top. Ladies and Gentlemen, Lieutenant Schaffner.
Thanks Captain Rickenbacker. Although the big drive started on the morning of September the 26th, it wasnít until the early morning of the 27th when we received our orders to advance again. To go directly forward and take the hill in front of us which was known as St. Hubertís Pavillion. To the naked eye, at a distance, it was just a scrubby sort of a hill dotted with trees and shrubbery, but in reality, it was one of the most strongly fortified positions on the entire Muesse Argonne front. Death was concealed behind almost every tree and bush.
At zero hour we went over in good order, protected by our barrage, across a narrow gauge railroad track down a hill. Nearing a second narrow gauge railroad track in the valley I wondered how long it would be before the enemy began a counter barrage. Then a red rocket shot from the top of the hill in front of us. I yelled to the men to hurry, to beat the enemy barrage which began almost as I yelled. Death was coming overhead, from behind the bushes, from the ground itself., but there was no wavering. Every man kept going up the hill. Machine gun bullets were kicking up the dirt in all directions and cutting the leaves of the bushes over our heads. At the top we found the first obstruction, a row of chicken wire. It didnít take long to get this down and then we came to a barbed wire entanglement at least twenty feet in width. The men soon cut a path through and we got the whole company inside as quickly as possible. In this operation, one of my Chauchat machine gunners was killed instantly but his machine gun was immediately picked up by private F.J. Brown. Youíll hear more about this man Brown a little later on. He was one of the greatest little fighters I ever saw.
Beyond the barbed wire on the top of the hill we found a vacated 77th gun emplacement together with a network of trenches. Here, I immediately established my company headquarters and proceeded to place my men around the hill in a most advantageous position in readiness for a counter attack. It was now getting daylight but it was still quite difficult to see any distance. Enemy artillery shells were screeching over our heads and landing in the valley back of us. We could hear some of our men who had been hit screaming down there. Ahead of us and on both sides at least a dozen enemy machine guns were kicking up a terrific fire. I thought to myself there was probably never so much death ever before distributed over such a small area, or so much courage either. We hadnít been on top of the hill long before I saw three enemy soldiers just a few yards ahead of us. I grabbed a rifle from one of my men and dropped the nearest one. The other two ducked. I crawled out of the trench to where the man had fallen and pulled him by the scruff of his neck back into our trench. He proved to be an officer, and from him we learned that there were ten or so machine guns on top of the hill. Then the enemy began to rush us.
Were these men of yours seasoned fighters Lieutenant Schaffner?
No Captain Rickenbacker. For many it was their first time under fire, but they certainly acted like veterans and never gave an inch. Well, the enemy next began throwing smoke grenades to cover their advance. They came so close that they would pull my soldiers right out of the trench and try to take them prisoner. Three who tried this got some little distance away with one of our men, when Brown, the little fellow who had picked up the machine gun, turned it on them so that our man was able to get back and get to us.
Later, in one of the other rushes, an enemy soldier threw himself over the parapet of the trench and leveled his rifle directly at me. Shoot him! Shoot him! I yelled and little Brown, still with the Chauchat gun, cut him down before he got a chance to pull the trigger.
What ever happened to this little fellow Brown? He must have been quite some boy.
He certainly was. He got a Divisional citation on this occasion for saving my life.
But to get back to our story. There was one machine gun in particular located about 100 feet in front that was giving us a lot of trouble. I called for a volunteer and plenty of the men offered to go out and locate the gun, but I felt that I should be one of those who went out. I picked one of the volunteers and we crawled out together. We each had a grenade in one hand ready to throw and a pistol in the other. We crawled through the bush toward the gun but I still couldnít see it. It had quit firing. Probably with too much conscience, I then stood up and looked around and saw, about twenty feet away through the brush, a machine gun with four or five gunners beside it. Apparently we saw each other at the same time. As they started to stir around I immediately tossed my grenade at them and yelled to the man with me to beat it. Stumbling and crawling and falling and rolling, we finally got back to the trench. I immediately indicated to my men the direction in which to fire and that was the end of that machine gun.
Shortly after we saw one of the enemy about 100 feet in front of us in the bushes. I told the men to protect me as I was going out to bring him in. I got pretty close to him and could see him through the underbrush when one of my men called, ďLook out Lieutenant, heís got a grenade in his hand!Ē I saw the enemy soldier start to pull the string on the grenade. I fired my 45 at him. One of my men fired at the same time and between us we dropped him. It would take a long time to tell about all the different things that occurred that morning under the terrific fire of a dozen or more machine guns sweeping up from three sides. Along about noon we were ordered to fall back to the position on the opposite hill along the narrow gauge railroad which we had first crossed in the morning.
It was pretty tough wasnít it Lieutenant, to have to give up the position you had won.
Well Captain, It was no tougher than it would have been to stay because the companies on our right and left flank had not kept up with us and we were exposed. The truth is we lost more men going back than we did in going over because of the terrible enemy artillery and machine gun barrage we had to pass through getting back.
How many men were lost in that engagement Lieutenant?
We started out that morning with more than 200 men in the company, that evening, a check showed only 85 left. The rest of them had been killed, wounded, captured or lost.
Did you ever win the position back?
Yes, we did. That evening an artillery officer came up and I pointed it out to him on the map. And when the American artillery got to pouring in their shells during the night it certainly was music to our ears. The next morning we moved forward again and took the position for keeps.
Did you have a chance to explore it?
Yes, that same day. And it certainly was a stronghold. Permanent machine gun emplacements on top of the hill. Pillboxes too, you know those concrete shooting towers with rounded tops. And the reverse side of the slope was lined with big deep dugouts all fitted out with pianos and other conveniences of the home. They must have held the position since the very beginning of the war and they certainly had done a thorough job of fortifying it.
Lieutenant Schaffner, You certainly were the center of many thrilling experiences at St. Hubertís Pavillion. Wonít you tell us just which piece of action won for you the Congressional Medal Of Honor?
Well. Captain Rickenbacker, I really canít say. I guess it was for the whole days work.
And what a days work. Thank you Lieutenant Schaffner for the graphic story you have been good enough to give us tonight. For hand-to-hand fighting and shear contempt of danger it surpasses almost anything I have ever heard. I am sure that everyone listening in has been thrilled by the gallant conduct just displayed by you and your men. In honoring you as America has with the highest of war decorations, America is honoring herself.
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