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Men on the Ground
Bleckley & Harold Goettler
Battalion of WWI
Like the knights of old, the new Knights
of the Skies were fiercely independent, notably courageous, and admirably
chivalrous. Such chivalry was evident in their respect for the greatest
among them, whether friend or foe. The impressive military funeral the
British, French and American fliers gave their most dangerous enemy, the
infamous Red Baron, illustrates that these men respected the qualities
of skill, cunning, courage and aerial ability in even those they sought daily
to battle with and destroy.
Also like the knights of old, these Knights
of the Skies served with great empathy for the less fortunate, ever
standing ready to defend them against all odds. It was to become a
tradition that would mark the valiant service of American aviators, as well as
those of other nations, through many wars to follow over the next century.
By the twentieth century, dragons were
known to be mythological, but modern weapons had advanced to the point that
the ancient Knights of the Roundtable might have easily confused the big guns
of the artillery or large tanks belching streams of deadly fire as a new breed
of fire-breathing dragon. Damsels in distress may have been a
rarity on the battlefields of the Western Front, but as pilots took off from
their aerodromes each day to fly over the trenches in search of enemy planes,
it did not take them long to realize that there was no shortage of
distress. Perhaps one of the best glimpses of the impact the sight of
ground warfare had upon the minds of an aviator, can be found in an account of
27th Aero Squadron Commander Major Harold Hartney's visit to the front lines
with soon-to-be Ace of Aces, Frank Luke.
In the days after the August 1 air battle
that cost Hartney six planes out of an 18-plane patrol, he assumed his dubious
task of visiting the front lines to search for survivors or salvageable
aircraft from the battle. In his subsequent book Up and at 'Em,
he described some of the events of that trip:
The first time I really took much of an interest
in him (Lieutenant Frank Luke) was about three days after I had lost
six of my officers and Don Hudson had shot down two Rumplers carrying
four men on Aug. 1, 1918. I had already been up to the lines to
see if I could find any of my boys. That first day I could not
get any farther than Villers Cotterets, not far from our small advance
airdrome, although farther north, and had to return by foot and
freight train via Paris.
A couple of days later Luke came to my tent and
said, "Major, Lt. Clapp (Luke's flight commander) says it's all
right for me to go up with you this morning if you can take me."
I shall never forget that journey. Frank,
one enlisted man and I went along in my Packard. On this trip he
talked freely of his days on the plains back home, of incidents of
his training, of his ambition to be an outstanding flier. He was
extremely serious always.
Walking to the top of a hill we found the two
German planes Hudson had brought down. The two pilots and their
observers were still there, their faces black, the summer sun getting
in its rapid work. One of them had on very light patent leather
low shoes. This impressed Luke. "Wonder where he
was the night before," he murmured. Rumor had it
among the ground troops that one of the Germans was a girl, but this
was not true.
hundred yards farther we came to the top of another knoll and looked
down the other side, a smooth space of about a hundred acres.
Never have my eyes rested on such a sight. May they never again
behold one like it. The hill was literally covered with dead
men, side by side, head to head, little or no space between,
practically all of them American doughboys. They had died in
droves charging German machine gun nests left behind to cover the
retreat. Right in front of us were a German and an American who
had actually pierced each other with their bayonets and neither
bayonet had been withdrawn.
Frank stooped over and picked up some unmailed
postal cards fallen from a pocket of one of the dead boys. The
one on top was addressed to his mother out in Iowa.
"Leave them there," I said.
"That American padre over there is busy picking up such things to
send back to the next of kin."
Carefully and reverently, Luke replaced the
cards in the pocket of the dead Yankee.
"Boy!" he exclaimed. "I'm
glad I'm not in the infantry. They haven't a chance, have they
No one can say for certain what impact
Frank Luke's visit to the front lines had on his subsequent rise to become
America's Ace of Aces. Luke certainly would have become the great
Balloon Buster had he NOT seen that battlefield early on, driven to
attack them by the sheer fact that they were the greatest challenge to any
airman. But perhaps to some degree, upon seeing the devastation wreaked
upon soldiers of the ground, and in the knowledge that observation balloons
contributed materially to such carnage, it gave him an added
determination. We do know that, during his brief stint as the Balloon
Buster, he became a friend and hero to the infantrymen on the ground.
Of a truth, ground combat was no more
dangerous than aerial combat. One of the best ways for a young man to
become a combat casualty was to become an airman. But when the dogfight
was over and the tracers had ended, the victorious pilot could fly back to his
aerodrome to eat in a mess hall and sleep in tent, while the infantryman
struggled to sleep through a miserable night in a rain-soaked trench or
The sheer brutality of combat in World
War I is perhaps most evident in the casualties sustained. During World
War II some 16 million Americans served, suffering more than 1 million
casualties, 408,306 of which were battle deaths over four years. During
the three year Korean War nearly 55,000 Americans were killed in action, and
during the 14 years of American combat action in Vietnam, more than 58,000
Americans were killed in action.
While the American Expeditionary Force
(AEF) arrived in Europe in June 1917, there was little combat action for the
doughboys until the German offensive in the spring of 1918. From the
closing days of May until the Armistice on November 11th, U.S. Forces suffered
more than 100,000 battle deaths, and more than 200,000 wounded in
action. That translates into more than 300,000 casualties among a force
of 1.2 million soldiers, in a period of only six months.
After decisive victories at Cantigny,
Chateau-Thierry and the Belleau Wood to halt the Spring Offensive and push the
German forces backwards, the 1st US Army under General John J. Blackjack
Pershing launched the St. Mihiel offensive on September 12. Within 24
hours the German salient on the right bank of the Meuse River fell,
eliminating a long-standing threat to the Allied line. More than a
half-million American soldiers and airmen participated in the encounter.
At the cost of 7,000 casualties they captured 16,000 Germans, 443 artillery
pieces, and created a new threat to the enemy stronghold at Metz.
The results of these four major actions
as well as British, Australian and French ground fighting primarily in the
north of France, had pushed the Germans all the way back to their first line
of defense. In the north this virtually impregnable system of trenches,
bunkers, and barbed wire barricades was known as the Hindenburg Line.
Built in 1916-17 under Paul von Hindenburg and his quartermaster general Erich
von Ludendorff, the well-fortified line stretched from Arras in the north to
St. Quentin, and eastward into Belgium. This line of defense was further
extended by the dense Argonne Forest that lay between the Aisne and Meuse
Though labeled a "forest", the
Argonne could probably be more appropriately called a
"jungle". Stretching from the Belgian frontier to Verdun, it
comprises a region of northern France about 44 miles long and with an average
width of 10 miles. Elevations average over 1,000 feet, but this average
is difficult to compute because the area is ruggedly laid out in a series of
deep valleys and sheer cliffs that rise to become high mountains. The
entire region is heavily forested over a blanket of dense brush.
Throughout three years of warfare, German
forces had supplemented the natural barrier of the Argonne with elaborate
concrete and steel bunkers, some so advanced as to contain electricity and
modern furnishings. Machine gun emplacements had been built up with
concrete and timber to withstand the most formidable of assaults, then
carefully camouflaged to enable them to catch any advancing foe by
surprise. The valleys and ravines were strewn with barbed wire, logs,
and other man-made obstacles. When the Spring Offensive failed, the
German forces were able to retreat to an area into which only a foolish enemy
would dare to advance.
On September 22, following the highly
successful St. Mihiel Offensive, General Pershing reluctantly moved his 1st
Army into the Argonne sector. Four days later the American line,
consisting of the Ist, IIId, and Vth Corps, stretched nearly 20 miles from
Regneville-Sur-Meuse to La Harazee in the Argonne Forest above the Biesme
River. Nine divisions formed the front line with three held in
reserve. West of the Aisne River and on to the East of the doughboys
were French troops, now under U.S. Command, poised to attack the German
fortress. Opposing them was the German Fifth Army with eight
divisions, part of the German Third Army, and enemy commanders had at least
eight divisions in reserve.
With British and Australian forces
attacking the Hindenburg line in the north while French forces assaulted the
middle, the AEF was divided between the two sectors. Pershing wasn't
happy to have more than one million doughboys involved on two lines separated
by some 60 miles, but followed orders to poise the forces under his command to
enter the Argonne Forest. Allied military planners hoped that this
Autumn offensive would continue to push the Germans, still reeling from their
earlier losses, out of their sanctuary before winter set it. If that
could be accomplished, the Allies would mount their own Spring Offensive the
following year and hopefully bring the war to an end. Even the most
optimistic tacticians would never have dreamed that in six weeks the campaign
would be so successful as to result in Armistice on November 11.
The great Allied offensive that
ultimately ended the war within six weeks began on the morning of September
26, and was actually conducted in three phases. The first phase
(September 26 - October 1) drove a salient about 7 miles deep into enemy
positions in front of the Hindenburg line. The one blemish on the first
four days of advance was along the Argonne region, where the 1st Army
struggled not only against the German forces, but against the rugged terrain
and inhospitable weather.
On the left flank of the 1st Army's front
along the Argonne was the 77th Infantry Division, better known as New
York's Own. Organized at Camp Upton, Yaphank, New York on August 25,
1917, most of its 23,000 men were citizens-turned-soldier as a result of the
Selective Service Act of the same year. Ultimately, the Draft
would call to service 2.5 million men between the ages of 18 and 30 during
World War I. As such, the men who were holding the left flank of the
American assault on the Argonne Forest were former Manhattan taxi drivers,
Bronx tailors, Brooklyn factory workers, Wall Street executives, and first
The bright blue patch bearing the image
of New York Harbor's most famous lady, the Statue of Liberty, earned the
division another nickname that would endure through World War II. The
77th Infantry became known as the Liberty Division, and was the first
Army division to arrive in France in the quest to shine the light of the torch
of liberty in war-torn Europe.
the Liberty Division held the left flank of the First Army's assault, its
component 308th Infantry Regiment held the left flank of the Division.
First Battalion, 308th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division was commanded by
33-year-old Major Charles Whittlesey, a most unlikely citizen-soldier.
Born in Florence, Wisconsin, the
be-speckled Whittlesey graduated from high school in Pittsfield, Massachusetts
where his classmates voted him "the third brightest man in the Class of
1905". After high school young Charles attended Harvard Law School,
graduating in 1908. Whittlesey was practicing law in New York when he
was called to active duty in August 1917 and ordered to report to Camp
Upton. After three months of training and an OCS (Officers'
Candidate School) commission, he was sent to Europe where he first served with
Headquarters Company of the 308th. When a three-hour artillery barrage
signaled the start of the Meuse-Argonne offensive at 2:30 a.m. on September
26, Major Whittlesey prepared to lead his battalion of citizen soldiers into
the German lair. In the process the 1st Battalion, 308th Infantry
Regiment, 77th Infantry Division would lose its official identity to become
forever, and erroneously labeled:
Lost Battalion of World War I
THE FIRST POCKET
At 5:45 a.m. the 308th Infantry began the
ground assault in their area of the Argonne region near the town of Binarville.
To their right was the rest of the 77th Division and the bulk of Pershing's
1st Army. On the left flank was the 38th French Corps and the 368th
Infantry of the 92nd (Rainbow) Division. During the first day's advance
the 1st and 2nd Battalions crossed a large number of enemy trench
systems. For the most part, resistance was light except for Company A
which encountered an enemy force about a mile southwest of Binarville,
resulting in 8 Americans killed, 23 wounded. As night fell, the men of
the 308th dug in and tried to keep warm against the oncoming chill of
winter. To facilitate the advance into the Argonne, the infantrymen had
been ordered to travel light, leaving behind their winter garments and wool
Of that first night of the offensive
Major Whittlesey later wrote, "we found mineral water in bottles in the
German dugouts, so it might have been worse." The 308th had
advanced a quarter-mile during the day, achieving the Corps objective, a
marshy area north of the German third line of trenches. Unknown to them
during their advance, as they had moved dangerously into enemy territory,
their own left flank had been unprotected. The 368th Infantry had been
withdrawn, and further flanking cover was would fall to the French.
The advance resumed at 1 p.m. on
September 27 with Whittlesey's First Battalion leading the way.
Company A again ran into a deadly hail of fire that decimated their ranks,
resulting in twelve men killed, eighteen wounded, and four missing. In
the first two days of fighting, the 205-man company was reduced to 144
doughboys led by a single surviving officer. Casualties mounted among
the other companies as well, and 2nd Battalion under Major Ken Budd was rushed
to the front of the American lines.
At regimental headquarters during that
day, Colonel Prescott was relieved and command of the 808th Infantry Regiment
was transferred to Lieutenant Colonel Fred E. Smith, a likable leader who had
entered the service from Bartlett, North Dakota. Smith had previously
ingratiated himself to the men of the regiment by smuggling in a quantity of
grape marmalade, which he sold to the men at cost to provide some dessert for
their otherwise bland died of field rations.
By nightfall, despite increased enemy
resistance, the 308th had advanced nearly a quarter of a mile further into
enemy territory, with orders to continue at 5:30 a.m. the following morning.
Despite the orders to continue the
advance, September 29th dawned with some good news. The first field
rations in two days arrived, even as some units were moving out. As the
half-starved men turned to welcome the needed breakfast, German observers
noted the activity and opened fire in what the veterans of the regiment later
called the "Cruller Barrage". The commander of Company B
recorded in his official report: "Bacon, butter, bread, and a one
pound cannon barrage from the Germans, which wounds Corporal Spahr."
Despite the irony of being shelled upon receiving their first ration detail in
two days, the day would only get worse.
Moving into ever more-dense forest, the
advance companies found themselves frequently separated and confused.
Enemy trench mortars halted the advance of the assault for hours, and Company
A suffered two more soldiers killed, eleven wounded, and one man
missing. Company D had been reduced to but two fighting platoons, and
enemy resistance throughout the region had wreaked such a toll on the 308th in
the first three days that beyond the three battalion commanders and Major
Whittlesey's adjutant, no battalion officers remained. Non-coms were
forced to lead entire companies of infantrymen, now devoid of company-grade
officers, and every unit was suffering from being under strength to the task
By nightfall, the 1st and 2nd Battalions
realized that their exposed left flank had been filled by the Germans, and
communications had been cut off to Headquarters. Major Budd of the 2nd
Battalion watched as elements of B and E company came under fire in an exposed
ravine from an enemy machine gun, and ordered their withdrawal while covering
the retreat with his pistol. Most of his doughboys settled in near a
railway in the valley to dig funk holes to try and survive the night.
Companies A, C, F, and H had advanced
under Major Whittlesey to an area only a half-mile southeast of Binerville
before digging in for the night. Despite the chill, the men welcomed the
rain that came that night. Many of them having gone without a proper ration of
drinking water for nearly four days. By daybreak the rain had become a
curse, filling the funk holes and turning the trenches into a field of mud.
From the night of September 28 until
October 1, most of the First and Second Battalions were well ahead of the rest
of the advance, dug in to find shelter from the now heavy enemy fire, and
suffering from a lack of rations and ammunition. To make matters worse,
their runner lines were cut off by the German infiltration, requiring them to
communicate with headquarters by carrier pigeon. Though the subsequent
isolation of October 3-7 would mark them the Lost Battalion and their
tenuous position labeled The Pocket, survivors later spoke of The
First Pocket (the position from September 29 - October 1) and The
Second Pocket, the later incident. History has often confused the
two separate incidents.
Runner Lines and Carrier Pigeons
As in any war, communication was essential to the
advances of any unit during World War I. Before the advent of
radio communication, transmissions of tactical information between
headquarters units was left to telegraphed messages, or even more
rudimentary means. Military units on the advance, as was the case
with the leading battalions of the 308th Infantry, could not reasonably
establish telegraph lines back to headquarters, so messages were
normally passed through RUNNER LINES.
As the infantry commander moved his front lines
forward, runner posts were established at intervals to relay messages
from the commanders at the front to the headquarters in the rear, much
as a track team passes the baton in a relay race. It was an
effective means of two-way communications unless, as happened during the
night of September 28, the enemy was able to surround the advance
element and break the runner line.
Even more rudimentary was the back-up method
of communication, sending messages by carrier pigeon. An advancing
unit during World War I often carried some of these small birds, trained
to fly back to their coop upon release. When a message couldn't be
sent by runner line, the field commander would write his message, fold
it neatly into a small canister attached to the leg of one of his
pigeons, and release the bird to fly home.
Back at the pigeon's coop an intricate system of
wires were rigged to sound a buzzer any time a bird returned home.
The coop-keeper would remove the message from the canister, then pass it
on by messenger or telegraph, to the appropriate headquarters.
On the morning of September 29 Major Budd and
Major Whittlesey sent four such carrier pigeons with messages to
headquarters. One of them summed up the situation:
"Our line of communication with the rear
still cut at 12:30 p.m. by machine guns. We are going to clean
out one of these guns now. From a wounded German officer
prisoner, we learned that there is a German Company of 70 men
operating in our rear, to close up the gap we made yesterday. We
can of course clean up this country to the rear, by working our
companies over the ground we charged. But we understand our
mission is to advance, and to maintain our strength here. It is
very slow trying to clean up this rear area from here by small details
when this trickling back of machine guns can be used by the
enemy. Can a line of communication not be kept open from the
rear? We have been unable to send back detail for rations and
ammunition, both of which we need very badly."
Back at headquarters Lieutenant Colonel
Smith read the message from Whittlesey and Budd with mixed emotions:
concern for their tenuous situation - surrounded by enemy forces, and
admiration at their determination to comply with orders to continue the
advance and trust the reserve elements to mop up their now enemy infested
rear. Quickly he assembled a small detachment of ten men, two officers,
and some runners to carry messages. With them the element carried
ammunition to resupply the beleaguered forward battalions, and the regimental
commander himself led them to the anticipated rescue.
The soldier acting as a guide for Smith's
squad-sized relief force believed he was leading the element directly into the
forward element's position, when in fact he became confused and wandered deep
into the enemy-infested left flank. The first sign of trouble came when
a German machine gun opened up from a distance of only 50 yards.
Shouting for his men to take cover,
Lieutenant Colonel Smith ordered his men to fall back and take cover, while
boldly drawing his pistol to fire on the enemy gun crew. Hot lead opened
a hole in the regimental commander's side and he staggered for a moment,
severely wounded, then regained his footing. Despite the pain, he
continued to fire at the enemy position until most of his party had reached
Realizing the hidden enemy gun posed a
dangerous threat to his command, Lieutenant Colonel Smith refused first aid
for his wounds. Working his way to a hand grenade dump he armed himself,
then returned in full view of the enemy to single-handedly attack the menacing
position. Before he could locate it, enemy fire again tore into his
body. For his courageous leadership that day, Lieutenant Colonel
Frederick Smith was subsequently awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor, the
first of five for the men of the 308th Infantry Regiment, and the second to be
earned by a member of the Liberty Division. (Farther north in the
attack on the Hindenburg Line, nine other American soldiers earned Medals of
Honor on this day. To the south of where Lieutenant Colonel Smith's body
lay, an eleventh Medal of Honor was earned in support of the offensive into
the Argonne Forest when Lieutenant Frank Luke destroyed three enemy balloons
before vanishing into history.)
Back in The First Pocket, Majors
Budd and Whittlesey struggled to maintain the morale of their now starving
battalions in the face of almost certain doom. One of their company
commanders refused to let the situation ruin his own sense of humor.
Captain George McMurtry enticed his men with suggestions of: "How
would you like to have a good thick rare steak smothered in onions and some
French fried potatoes?"
One month shy of his 41st birthday at
the advent of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Captain George McMurtry could
well be described as an "old war horse". Born in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, he was a Harvard graduate. At the age of 22 he
enlisted in the Army at New York to serve in Troop D of Lieutenant
Colonel Theodore Roosevelt's famous Rough Riders, with whom he
made the legendary charge on San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American
War. As a young enlisted man, McMurtry became a career soldier who
worked his way up through the ranks, then obtained a commission when the
Army established its first Officer Candidate Schools in May of
1917. Described as a big, burly, Irish-American with a ruddy face
who seemed to always be of good cheer, McMurtry was one of the most
experienced officers of the 308th Infantry Regiment who easily acquiesced
to the orders of those above him despite his greater degree of military
Captain McMurtry's sense of humor
and overt optimism was sorely needed during the three days of survival
in The First Pocket. Relief finally arrived on the
afternoon of September 30. Captain Delehanty and Lieutenant Conn
guided Company K through down a narrow path to bring supplies to the
beleaguered forward elements of Major Whittlesey and Major Budd.
It was the same day that Major Budd departed for the General Staff
College at Langres, and Captain McMurtry was assigned to command 2nd
Battalion, 308th Infantry. Major Whittlesey later wrote:
"Lt. Taylor came up with
a lot of rations and a big carrying detail. (It) looked 'practically
O.K.,' as George McMurtry put it. And everybody ate! That
night I went back to Regl. Advance
Hdqrs.-which had been moved forward in the woods. It was the
blackest night I've ever seen and I had to be passed on from reserve
post to post holding the hand of each successive guide. And I'll
never forget going into the Hqrs. dugout and getting warm for the
first time, and seeing Frank Weld's genial face. Cocoa,
cigars. Then back to the Bn. again, which I found with great
difficulty in the darkness.
"Orders were to advance
Advance they did, directly into
enemy fire and more tragedy. Lieutenant Scott led his Company A in
one assault, becoming one of nine men killed this day. By
nightfall, no living officer remained to command the company, and of the
205 men who had comprised Company A when the assault began on September
26, only 106 remained.
The first phase of the offensive
against the German lines in the Western Front closed on a highly
successful note. In heavy fighting the British, Australians,
French and American soldiers in Northern France had breached the
foreboding Hindenburg line and stood poised to break it
completely. The only dismal reports reaching Allied headquarters
seemed to be those coming from the Argonne region. Phase Two
(October 4 - 16), was set to begin. General Robert Alexander,
commander of the 77th Infantry Division had decided it would begin with
his doughboys already turning the tide in the enemy-infested
forest. He ordered a three-prong assault directly into the middle
of the Argonne, with the 308th Infantry Regiment pushing through a gap
in the German lines on the left flank of the American front. "My
orders were quite positive and precise," he wrote in his
official record of the Argonne-Meuse operations for the 77th
Division. "The objective was to be gained without regard
to losses and without regard to the exposed condition of the
flanks. I considered it most important that this advance should be
made and accepted the responsibility and the risk involved in the
execution of the orders given."
At 10 a.m. on October 2 Major
Whittlesey received his orders. Together with McMurtry's 2nd
Battalion, he was to proceed through the gap in the German defensive
line towards the ravine along the Charlevaux Creek and take up a
position below the east-west La Viergette-Moulin de Charlevaux road and
the railroad track that paralleled it. Orders were precise, the
objective was to be taken that day, regardless of casualties, and
regardless of whether or not the anticipated protection on the left
flank by the French forces materialized. Remembering the earlier
tragedy when flank support broke down and his doughboys were trapped for
three days in The First Pocket, Major Whittlesey protested:
"Well, I don't know if you'll hear from us
As specified in his attack orders, Major
Whittlesey placed two companies (D and E) under Lieutenant Paul Knight on the
west end of the ravine as a containing force for the left flank. At 12:30
p.m. he then committed the rest of his force to the fulfillment of his battle
The element that would later be called
"The Lost Battalion" was not really a battalion at all, but a
composite of three separate battalions and two machinegun companies.
George McMurtry's 2nd Battalion entered the valley below Charlevaux Mill under
the command of Major Whittlesey, giving him six companies of infantrymen from
the 308th (Companies A, B, C, E, G, and H) for the attack, with Companies D and
E in their position of containment. Supplementing the initial advance were
nine machine guns from Companies C and D of the 306th Machine Gun
Battalion. Despite the manpower of three different battalions in his
composite force, Whittlesey's command was well below strength for a normal
infantry battalion, and he entered the ravine with fewer than 700 men.
Slowly the American force wended its way
along either side of the ravine behind a heavy artillery barrage and an advance
line of scouts. Along the route, Whittlesey placed 2-man runner posts
every two hundred yards, to relay messages to and from regimental
headquarters. Resistance was relatively light, and one patrol from Company
D captured an entire company of German Hessians without a fight, the prisoners
being marched back to the American rear guard. But when resistance WAS
encountered, the results could be devastating. The already battered A
Company assaulted one small hill and lost 90 men in less than 30 minutes of
fighting. Only eighteen men of the once 205-man company remained to enter The
Second Pocket with Major Whittlesey.
After crossing Charlevaux Creek via a small
foot-bridge, Major Whittlesey began placing his survivors beneath the road that
was their objective. The battalion had reached its goal for the day by 6
p.m. and needed to dig in for the night. Whittlesey wisely selected a deep
gash 300 yards long and 60 yards deep in the steep slope beneath the road.
It was this gash, surrounded by heavy forest and dense brush, that would become
known as The Second Pocket. Little did anyone realize that it would
also be their home for the next five days. For all too many men under the
command of Major Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry, it would also become their
The scholarly lawyer from New York
certainly selected his position well, placing his command post in a funk hole in
the center of the position and sharing it with Captain McMurtry. His
machine guns were set up on either flank, and when the men had dug their own
funk holes in the hard shale, they settled in for an evening meal of field
rations. Quickly word spread that two of the companies had been marshaled
forward so quickly they had been unable to draw their rations. Generously,
and on their own initiative, the men of the other companies volunteered to share
with those who had none, despite the order that had sent them into their present
position with only one day's rations.
Morning dawned after an uneventful but
chilly night in the Argonne, the men huddled for warmth in the absence of tents,
blankets, or even heavy coats. Beneath the first rays of light,
Major Whittlesey set in motion his runner posts, passing back to headquarters
more than a kilometer away, news that he had reached his objective and advising
of his condition and position.
Regimental headquarters already was aware
of much that had happened the previous day, knew that 1st and 2nd Battalion had
entered the ravine below Charlevaux Mill after breaching the gap in the German
line. Colonel Cromwell Stacey, who had replaced Lieutenant Colonel Smith
after his death, also understood what Major Whittlesey didn't yet know.
The two battalions from the 308th Infantry had been the ONLY American units
along the entire 1st Army offensive line to break through the German defenses,
leaving them alone behind enemy lines. On the evening of October 2,
support units had been dispatched throughout the sector to support this advance
American element. All had met heavy enemy fire, and ultimately only one
small element succeeded in breaking through. That unit was the 97 men of
Company K, 307th Infantry under a young Lieutenant named for a legendary
American military hero.
Named for Civil War hero and Medal of
Honor recipient Nelson Appleton Miles, Nelson Miles Holderman was himself
destined to distinction. Entering military service as a member of the
California National Guard, the Nebraska native had served in 1916 during the
Mexican Border Service. When the United States entered World War I he had
risen through the ranks to the position of lieutenant in Company L, 7th
California Infantry Regiment. He and his entire company were subsequently
assigned as replacements to Company K, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry
Division. From the moment of his arrival at The Second Pocket early
on the morning of October 3 until October 7th, he and his 97 soldiers would be
the last Americans to safely enter or leave the ravine along Charlevaux
Creek. During the night of October 2-3 the enemy had discovered the breach
in their lines, filled the gap, and then surrounded 554 Americans.
An hour before Lieutenant Holderman arrived
in the pocket, Whittlesey had dispatched Company E under Lieutenant Karl Wilhelm
to attack enemy positions west of the ravine and guide Companies D and F forward
from their blocking positions. As yet the commander was unaware that his
forces were surrounded and trapped, or that his runner lines had been
broken. At 8:30 a.m. German artillery began to fall but with little
damage, as the pocket was well protected by a reverse slope. During the
bombardment, two small patrols were sent to recon the right and left
flanks. Twenty minutes after the barrage began, the
as-yet-undisturbed major dispatched the first of his carrier pigeons
to the rear with a simple message:
are being shelled by German artillery. Can we not have artillery
Shortly after the first pigeon was
released, the bad news began arriving. Both reconnaissance patrols
returned to advise Whittlesey that they had seen enemy patrols on both flanks,
and had been unable to contact any friendly units. At 10 a.m. the
survivors of Company E returned from their early morning mission to link up with
the blocking force to the west. After departing the pocket and scaling the
western slope of the ravine the company had been engaged by a large enemy
force. Only some 18 men under Lieutenant Leake had managed to get safely
back to the pocket to advise the commander that the enemy had fortified the area
to the rear of the advance line. Minutes later one of the men from the
nearest runner post arrived to report that enemy fire had wiped out at least two
posts, and the runner line was broken. At 10:45 Major Whittlesey sent his
second pigeon back to headquarters with a solemn message:
runner posts are broken. One runner captured. Germans in
small numbers are working to our left rear about 294.6-276.2. Have
sent K Company, 307th, to occupy this hill and open the line.
"Patrols to east ran
into Germans at 295.1-176.3 (6 Boches). Have located German mortar
at 294.05-276.30 and have sent platoon to get it.
"Have taken prisoner who
says his company of 70 men were brought in here last night to
294.4-276.2 from rear by motor trucks. He says only a few infantrymen
here when he came in. German machine gun constantly firing on
valley in our rear from hill 294.1-276.0.
"E Company (sent to meet D
and F) met heavy resistance, at least 20 casualties. Two squads
under Lieutenant Leake have just fallen back here."
Whittlesey and his men weren't lost in the
traditional definition of the term, they knew exactly where they were, as did
their command headquarters. Unfortunately for all of them, the Germans
also knew exactly where they were. Even the wire service editor who later
coined the term "Lost Battalion" acknowledged he had never meant to
imply that the battalion was confused about its location, but rather that the
battalion was "done for... in a hopeless situation." This
latter definition was all too close to the truth of the matter.
The Lost Battalion
Roll Call - October 3, 1918
|1st Bn HQ and Runners
2d Bn HQ, Scout Platoon,
|306th MG Bn
Total Strength - 554 Men
At last fully aware of their desperate
position, Major Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry held council in the funk hole
they shared, then personally passed their orders to their company
commanders: "Our mission is to hold this position at all
costs. No falling back! Have this understood by every man in your
As the afternoon wore on, sniper fire began
raining on the pocket from all directions. In the distant woods the
surrounded Americans could actually hear the enemy officers calling roll as they
mustered their troops. And then they came, swarming the pocket from all
directions. At 4:05 p.m. Whitlessey dispatched his third pigeon and last
message of the day:
are on cliff north of us in small numbers and have tried to envelope
both flanks. Situation on left very serious.
"Broke two of our runner
posts today near 294.7-275.7. We have not been able to reestablish
Need 8000 rounds rifle
ammunition, 7500 chau-chat, 23 boxes M.G. and 250 offensive grenades.
"Casualties yesterday in
companies here (A, B, C, E, G, H) 8 killed, 80 wounded. In same
companies today, 1 killed, 60 wounded.
"Present effective strength
of companies here, 245.
Whittlesey's report of 245 effective soldiers
reflected all that remained of the more than 400 men of the 308th that had
entered the pocket the previous day. With slightly more than 150 men of
the machine gun companies and Lieutenant Holderman's company, his force had
fallen below 400 effective fighting men, and reflected a 25% casualty rate in
the first 24 hours alone.
To make matters worse, the men had eaten the
last of their rations during the afternoon, and the vicious attack late in the
day had taken a toll on the supply of ammunition. Fortunately his men had
repulsed the enemy on all sides, despite heavy casualties. Over the days
to follow the enemy would keep the Lost Battalion under his guns, but did not
again mount as heavy an infantry assault on the position. Perhaps the
German commander understood that, for the American soldiers trapped in the
pocket above Charlevaux Creek, time was the German army's best ally.
The weary men of the Lost Battalion
welcomed the first rays of sunshine after their second frigid night in The
Pocket. There had been little enemy action during the preceding hours of
darkness, but to say the night had been a quiet one would have been to deny the
cries of anguish from the many wounded. These put forth a heroic effort to
maintain silence. Captain McMurtry had passed one private who had been
shot through the stomach and paused to ask how he was doing.
Gritting his teeth against excruciating
agony, the young doughboy replied, "It pains like hell, Captain, but I'll
keep as quiet as I can."
Under cover of darkness, Major Whittlesey
had dispatched several scouts with orders to try and break through the enemy
cordon and reach the regimental headquarters. As daylight dawned a few of
these scouts returned to the pocket, wounded. Those who did not return
were not heard from again, and were counted among the missing.
False hopes were raised early on when a
dawn scout patrol crawled through the marsh south of the pocket, only to be
turned back by heavy enemy fire from the high ground. Though deterred from
their mission, these reported that enemy activity seemed to be
diminishing. Major Whittlesey appraised regimental command as such with
his first pigeon of the morning, released at 7:25 with the message:
quiet during the night. Our patrols indicate Germans withdrew
during the night. Sending further patrols now to verify this
"At 12:30 and 1:10 a.m. six
shells from our own light artillery fell on us.
"Many wounded here whom we
"Need rations badly.
"No word from D or F Companies.
"Whittlesey, Major, 308th Inf."
There was no mess call on this morning, all
rations having been consumed the previous day. The wounded were suffering
the most among the men, but even those still unscathed by the intense enemy fire
of previous actions were succumbing to the stress of more than 48 hours of
continuous activity that precluded rest or sleep, the numbing effects of the
cold nights without shelter, and the gnawing agony of their empty stomachs.
Rising above their hunger and fatigue, those who could still walk turned to the
sad task of burying their dead before the afternoon sun could begin its own
morbid work on the bodies that littered The Pocket.
The burial detail was soon halted by an
enemy trench mortar to the northwest, and Whittlesey sent out a large patrol
which succeeded in climbing to the top of the ridge just in time to repulse an
enemy force that was positioning itself to lob grenades into the pocket
below. At 10:55 Whittlesey released one of his two remaining pigeons to
are still around us, though in smaller numbers. We have been
heavily shelled by mortar this morning. Present effective strength
(A, B, C, E, G, H, COS.)-175; K CO. 307-45; Machine Gun detachment-17;
Total here about 235.
"Officers wounded: Lt.
Harrington, Co. A; Captain Stromme, Company C; Lts. Peabody and Revnes,
M.G. Battalion, Lt. Wilhelm, E Co., missing.
"Cover bad if we advance up
the hill and very difficult to move the wounded if we change position.
"Situation is cutting into
our strength rapidly. Men are suffering from hunger and exposure;
the wounded are in very bad condition.
"Cannot support be sent at
Support was indeed being sent, had been
struggling to reach the Lost Battalion almost from the moment it entered The
Pocket, only to be turned back by the heavy German concentration around the
ravine. The 3rd Battalion which had been held in reserve and constituted
almost all that remained of the 308th Infantry Regiment had repeatedly thrown
itself against the German defensive line. On the morning of October 4 the
battalion's K Company had seen its advance halted by a well placed enemy machine
Sergeant Benjamin Kaufman gathered a small patrol to locate and destroy the well
concealed position. Moving in the direction from which the enemy fire
emanated, he was separated from his patrol, and proceeded alone until a bullet
shattered his right arm.
The line of fire that had severely wounded
him had also marked the enemy position. Despite his pain, First Sergeant
Kaufman advanced alone, throwing grenades with his left arm and then charging
into the enemy with an empty pistol until he had scattered all of the enemy gun
crew but one man, a prisoner with whom he returned to friendly lines along with
the enemy gun. For his valiant action he was subsequently awarded the
Medal of Honor.
The inability of the regiment, or for that
matter the entire division, to reach the Lost Battalion with direct support left
only one alternative...indirect support. This began arriving on the
afternoon of Day 2 in The Pocket, when American artillery shells began to fall
across the enemy infested ridge to the southeast. The trapped Americans
welcomed the boom of the heavy shells at first, then became concerned as the
rounds began to creep slowly down the slope. Then, as if to add insult to
injury, one of the rounds landed in the pocket, to be followed by another...and
another. The men of the Lost Battalion took shelter in their funk holes,
only to find the intense friendly fire bury some men alive as the holes collapse
under the explosive might of American artillery. Of equal concern was the
devastating manner in which the explosions destroyed the trees and dense brush
that had afforded the pocket camouflage from the enemy gunners. Across the
small perimeter, hot shards of shrapnel flew to inflict even more casualties
among the badly weakened composite battalion.
An Unlikely Hero
Major Whittlesey's last carrier pigeon was
a true war veteran named Cher Ami, French words meaning "dear
friend". The Black Check Cock carrier pigeon was one of 600 birds
owned and flown by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France to carry important
messages from the front lines. Already the pigeon had flown 11 important
missions in the American sector around Verdun. Now Major Whittlesey
scribbled out what might well be the most important mission Cher Ami would ever
carry. It was brief and to the point:
along the road parallel to 276.4.
"Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us.
"For heaven's sake, stop it."
American artillery rounds continued to fill
the air in and above The Pocket, and had been joined by a German trench
mortar. Into this beehive of deadly missiles, Major Whittlesey released
Cher Ami and the last hope of his battalion. Stunned by the concussions
around him, Cher Ami flew erratically, then lighted in the lower branches of a
tree. With hope fading, the doughboys yelled encouragement to the small
bird, then urged him to flight with some well-placed rocks.
Alas the pigeon spread his wings and began
to rise from the ravine. From hidden positions along the slope the German machine gunners
realized the small bird would be carrying important communications from the
American commander below, and directed a fearsome volley towards Cher Ami.
Below, the doughboys held their breath,
then groaned in despair as they watched their important messenger take a deadly
hit, then begin a slow spiral towards the ground. Amazingly, somehow the
little bird managed to spread his wings and level out, then rise again to fly
over the rim of the valley and beyond the range of enemy bullets. All they
could do was hope and pray.
Twenty-five minutes later the buzzer
sounded at the pigeon loft at Division Headquarters. An American Signal
Corps officer peered in to see which of the birds had arrived. There,
lying on his back and covered with blood, lay Cher Ami. The badly wounded
pigeon had been blinded in one eye and shot in the breast leaving a hole the
size of a quarter in his breastbone, from which dangled the few remaining
tendons of his leg. Still attached to the nearly severed appendage was the
silver capsule containing Major Whittlesey's message, which was promptly
forwarded on to headquarters. Minutes later the deadly artillery barrage
halted. Cher Ami had somehow survived to fly, badly wounded, through the
hail of enemy fire. In less than half-an-hour he had covered 40 kilometers
to save the lives of more than 200 Americans. For his final mission of
World War I, Cher Ami was awarded one of France's most honored medals, the
French Croix de Guerre with palm.
(See the link at the bottom of this page for a special
page about Cher Ami.)
Back in The Pocket, Major Whittlesey
breathed a sigh of relief. His men were exhausted, starving, and many had
been badly wounded. The loss of 30 more Americans to the errant fire from
their own artillery had been as demoralizing as it had been deadly. A
flicker of hope was ignited late in the afternoon when the sound of an American
airplane was heard high over the ravine. Whittlesey instructed his men to
set out two large, white marking panels so that the pilot could note the exact
location of the pocket. The boost in spirit renewed the fighting vigor of
the Lost Battalion, enabling them to turn back a determined enemy grenade attack
before darkness fell.
By now ammunition was sorely depleted, and
the three medical aidmen had run out of bandages for the wounded. Despite
the knowledge that with the advent of night the cold would again set in, the
healthier doughboys removed their leggings so that bullet holes, shrapnel tears,
and amputations could be bound up. Among the wounded was Lieutenant
Holderman, suffering the first of what would eventually be three wounds in three
There were no rations and it had been at
least 30 hours since any of the men in The Pocket had eaten even the most basic
sustenance. Water too, was running out. Under cover of night
Whittlesey dispatched patrols with canteens to draw water from a small pond
below The Pocket. In the darkness the thirsty doughboys occasionally heard
a tinkering sound like a bell, indication that a German bullet had struck the
canteens and probably the brave soul who bore it. A few made it back with
fresh water, but most were never seen again. What little water was obtained, was
given to the wounded.
Burial of the dead commenced with dawn on
the third day. It was a slow, laborious task by men so weakened by hunger
and lack of food or water they could barely walk, but with grim determination
they bent to the duty of at least providing their comrades some dignity in
Throughout the day the sound of additional
airplane motors could be heard, and occasionally the men would catch fleeting
glimpses of the American bi-planes circling high above the ravine. From
time to time a small bundle attached to a long streamer would be tossed from the
open cockpits, messages of hope for the beleaguered men of the Lost
Battalion. All of them fell far afield of The Pocket, many of them
dropping among the Germans. Major Whittlesey had chosen his defensive
position well, hidden deep in the side of the sheer slope and protected from
enemy artillery by the reverse slope. The terrain that sheltered him from
the enemy however, also hid him and his men from the eyes of the American
At 10 a.m. an American artillery barrage
was launched against German positions, creeping across the ravine and then
settling with effective determination on the ridge to the north from which the
enemy had launched daily attacks. The implied message for the Americans
under Whittlesey and McMurtry was: "We know where YOU are, and we
know where the Germans are." To the optimistic few remaining in
the command, it was proof positive that Cher Ami had somehow made it through the
enemy fusillade the previous day to deliver his important message.
Germans had placed a machine gun to cover the drinking hole below The Pocket,
from which they quickly rained deadly fire on anyone approaching to fill the
canteens. Reluctantly, Major Whittlesey sent orders that no more efforts
would be mounted to recover water from the hole. It was futile, and it was
After more than 48 hours without food, men
foraged among the brush for leaves, roots, anything to take the edge from their
now aching stomachs. Lieutenant Holderman received a painful leg wound,
and Captain McMurtry carried the stick from a potato masher (grenade) in his
back. Both leaders ignored their pain to continue rounds among their
survivors, giving words of hope and encouragement, and urging them to continue
resistance against periodic sniper fire and occasional attacks throughout the
When the wounded finally succumbed, before
they were buried the bandages were stripped from their broken flesh to be reused
on other wounded who still clung to life. The filthy blood-and-puss soaked
bandages were a certain shortcut to deadly gangrene, but there was little
All along the American front line, the
plight of the Lost Battalion was well known, though the details were certainly
not understood. They had been the only American unit along the Argonne to
breach the German defenses, and now they were paying the price for their
success. Colonel Stacey had repeatedly thrown his 3rd Battalion against
the enemy in an effort to reach Whittlesey, only to see the one remaining
battalion of the 308th Regiment nearly decimated. He requested to be
relieved rather than order them back into the morass, and was replaced on
October 5th by Brigadier General Evan Johnson and then Captain
Breckenridge. All along the front, other American units of the 1st Army
fought fiercely against the enemy defensive line in hopes of breaking the
stalemate and somehow relieving the pressure on the Lost Battalion.
Responding to telegraphed news reports of
the battalion of Americans in the Argonne Forest, a copy editor back in the
United States penciled in the word "lost", and the erroneous title was
born. Spanish-American War veteran and former Pueblo (Colorado) Chieftain
reporter Damon Runyon picked up on the title and began using it in his own
news stories wired back home. By now a leading American War Correspondent,
his stories perpetuated the label and thus ensured that it would stick for
Struggling to survive in a small pocket in
the Argonne Forest, the "Lost Battalion" was becoming a sensational
story. Needless to say, reports of their situation were read and well
known to the German forces that surrounded them. Major Whittlesey was
writing a new chapter in World War I history. On the cold, rainy night of
October 5 the new United States Army Air Service was poised to write a new
chapter in history as well.
Help From Above:
50th Aero Squadron
Not all of
the pilots of World War I aviation were flamboyant, one-man fighting
forces. The glamour boys were certainly the men who
took to the clouds to dogfight with enemy airplanes, record a tally of
victories, and claim the title "Ace". Of no lesser
importance however, despite the rather mundane nature of their work,
were the pilots who flew to watch friendly troop movements, observe and
report on enemy positions, and map terrain for those planning the
tactics of ground warfare.
One of these
observation units was the 50th Aero Squadron. Mustered at Kelly
Field on August 6, 1917, the squadron was working under the 130th Field
Artillery and flying out of its aerodrome at Remicourt near
Verdun. The squadron adopted the image of a Dutch girl, painting
it on the sides of their DH-4 airplanes.
The squadron conducted
its missions from two-seat bi-planes designed by British Captain
Geoffrey de Haviland and designated as the DH-4. The American
version was a hardy airplane, well constructed behind a powerful 400-hp
Liberty engine with a top speed of 128 miles per hour. Two forward
firing, synchronized Marlin machine guns and two swivel mounted Lewis
machine guns provided both offensive and defensive fire power. The
pilot flew in the forward cockpit with his observer behind.
Between the two open cockpits, directly in the line of fire from
attacking airplanes or ground fire, lay the fuel tank. It was
perhaps, the only major design flaw in the sturdy airplane, but so fatal
a flaw that the DH-4 was labeled the Flaming Coffin by the men
who flew it.
The tenuous situation
of the Lost Battalion resulted in requests for support from the 50th
Aero Squadron. Initially the aircraft flew observation or dropped
messages, but on the morning of October 6 the squadron's DH-4 engines
warmed for something previously unheard of in military aviation.
On this day pilots of the 50th Aero Squadron would attempt the first
air-drop in the history of U.S. military aviation, in efforts to
resupply the battered and starving men tucked helplessly into a pocket
of the slope above Charlevaux Creek.
Lt. Erwin Bleckley
Harold Goettler banked the wings of his DH-4 and pointed it towards the foreboding
terrain of the Argonne Forest. The 28-year old Chicago native had
enlisted in the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army fourteen months
earlier, earning his wings and joining the 50th Aero Squadron in France
less than two months earlier. Behind him sat Second Lieutenant
Erwin Bleckley. During the same month in 1917 that Goettler had
enlisted in the Army, Bleckley had been commissioned a second lieutenant
in the National Guard of his own home state of Kansas.
had arrived in France in March of 1918 as a member of the 130th Field
Artillery. When the new US Army Air Service sent out a call for
artillery officers willing to volunteer for observer's school at Tours,
Bleckley had raised his hand, earned the single right wing of an
aircraft observer, and joined the 50th Aero Squadron on August 14th.
piloted his first combat mission during the opening of the St. Mihiel
Offensive on September 12th with Bleckley seated behind him. Over
the following weeks, the two men operated as a team in the air,
performing their usually mundane observation missions in the
region. Today, things were different. The DH-4 carried a
number of small, tightly bound parcels. The mission was to fly
into the enemy's lair within the Argonne forest, drop low across the
ravine bisected by Charlevaux Creek, and drop the badly needed supplies
to the waiting arms of a lost battalion of doughboys below.
From the heights of
the heavens, the rugged mountains and valleys of the Argonne Forest
began to loom ahead. Goettler eased up on the stick and
dropped the nose of his airplane to descend lower. Soon small
white clouds could be seen coming from the trees as the enemy turned his
weapons on the advancing DH-4. With a sharp eye, Goettler located
the ravine through which the Charlevaux Creek wended its way, parallel a
dirt road and railroad track. Enemy bullets swarmed past his head
and tore through the canvas and plywood body of his airplane, but
Lieutenant Goettler ignored the danger to reduce airspeed as he dropped
even lower into the Argonne. Behind him Lieutenant Bleckley
scanned the broken forest for some sign of the Lost Battalion.
Though the general
location of Whittlesey's pocket was known because of the messages sent
out by carrier pigeon, the forest and the terrain hid the desperate
doughboys from view. In moments the DH-4 was climbing out the
other side of the ravine, and no sign of the American force had been
Glancing to either
side, Goettler noted the torn canvas of his airplane's wings. He
had taken a brutal beating on the first pass, but the sturdy de Haviland
had weathered the storm, and no rounds had found the airplane's Achilles
heel between the two cockpits. Determined to deliver the badly
needed food and ammunition, the intrepid pilot banked for a second
pass. Coming in even lower this time, he was dangerously exposed
to not only ground fire below, but to ground fire from the high sides of
the ravine towering above him. He was virtually caught in a deadly
cross fire from three directions: from both sides of the ravine as well
as from overhead. Still he ignored the threat, reducing airspeed
and flying at nearly tree-top level while Lieutenant Bleckley leaned
from his exposed rear cockpit to drop the neatly tied parcels in the
general vicinity of the dirt road, where they knew Whittlesey's men
The first pass of
Goettler's DH-4 had been five hundred feet above the valley floor.
On the second pass he had dropped to a dangerous 300 feet, while enemy
fire literally ripped his airplane to shreds. Having dropped
parcels but not having located Whittlesey's pocket, he banked for a
third pass, this time skimming tree-tops at less than two hundred
feet. Bleckley continued to drop parcels until the last of them
had fallen into what he hoped was the range of Whittlesey's men.
With wind whipping through the thin wires that held their DH-4 together,
the two men returned to the aerodrome. There were more than 40
holes in the airplane, two of them large gashes ripped by large pieces
of enemy shrapnel. While mechanics worked feverishly to repair the
aircraft, other pilots of the 50th Aero Squadron flew out on similar
afternoon the ravine was filled with the roar of the big 400-hp Liberty
engines and the crash of small arms and machinegun fire. Fourteen
missions were flown before the afternoon was spent. Two DH-4s were
shot down and crashed in no-man's land, and a third limped back to the
aerodrome with its bloody pilot struggling to keep his airplane aloft
long enough to reach safety. As shadows began to creep across the
eastern horizon, dozens of small bundles lay scattered across the
ravine, but no pilot had as yet made visual contact with the Lost
Battalion. They could only hope that their best guesses had placed
the bundles near enough that some could be recovered.
The mechanics had
finished making temporary repairs to the battered DH-4 of Lieutenants
Goettler and Bleckley, and the two men volunteered to make one more trip
to the ravine before darkness fell. Lieutenant Goetler planned to
fly even lower than before, intentionally drawing enemy fire in hopes of
locating the hidden pocket by simple process of elimination. Then
Bleckley would be able to drop the packages directly into the midst of
the starving soldiers. "Sir," Goettler
informed Lieutenant Dan Morse before taking off on the final flight of
the day, "Erv and I have decided we're going to find that bunch of
doughboys or die trying."
Half an hour later,
Major Whittlesey, Captain McMurtry, Lieutenant Holderman, and the
demoralized men of the Lost Battalion witnessed one of the most amazing
air shows in history. From a distance they heard the roar of yet
another Liberty engine as the DH-4 approached. Slowly the roar
grew louder, drowning out even the crash of the heavy enemy
barrage. Wings vibrating against the laws of aerodynamics, struts
whining against the whipping wind, Lieutenant Goettler was running the
gauntlet so low at times it seemed the large DH-4 would actually touch
ground. Fighting the stick, the airplane would rise just in time
to clear a tall tree, then drop on the other side to scour the terrain
for any signs of the Americans. From time to time as he skillfully
navigated the ravine, Goettler strafed enemy positions with his forward
Marlin machine guns. Behind him, Lieutenant Bleckley ignored the
whine of enemy fire zipping past his exposed torso to carefully sketch
out the enemy positions. By mapping these, it was becoming much
easier to locate the one spot in the ravine devoid of incoming
fire. That had to be location of The Pocket.
Nearing the far
side of the ravine, Goettler pulled back sharply on the stick to clear
the slopes, then banked for a second pass. To run the gauntlet
again seemed sheer suicide, but perhaps with one more pass he could
enable Bleckley to finish his map and pinpoint the Lost Battalion.
Shadows were starting to creep across the floor of the ravine and the
DH-4 dropped into the valley of death one more time. The forest
literally blinked with the flashes of tracer rounds, and a pall of spent
gun powder hung low to obscure the terrain. Still Lieutenant
Goettler stayed his course.
Enemy machine gun
fire shattered the windscreen, and then the instrument panel
disintegrated before Lieutenant Goettler's eyes in a hail of incoming
bullets. Behind him Lieutenant Bleckley's Lewis gun fell silent
and the young soldier, formerly of the Kansas National Guard, slumped in
his seat. With blood flowing unchecked from his own ruptured body,
Goettler pulled back on the stick, gripping it tightly lest it slip from
his bloody hands, and headed over the ridge to the west. Moments
later the battered airship pancaked with a loud crash in front of the
French lines, and slid sideways to a halt.
infantrymen raced to the scene of the crash. "Ces
aviateurs--ils sont morts!" shouted the first to
arrive..."Both aviators are dead!" Quickly they set
about removing the bodies for fear the airplane would burst into
flames. The pilot was indeed dead, yet somehow the airplane had
"landed itself". The legend of the Lost Battalion was
soon supplemented by the legend of the Ghost Plane.
As the French
pulled the body of Lieutenant Bleckley from the rear cockpit, they found
he was still breathing, though quite shallowly. Somehow the
intrepid observer mustered the strength to press a piece of paper into a
nearby hand before he died. When the paper was neatly pressed out
it contained the detailed map of enemy positions in the ravine, and the
most accurate estimate of the Lost Battalion's location since they had
entered the ravine.
For the incredible
courage demonstrated that day by the pilot of a lumbering DH-4 and his
back-seat observer, Lieutenants Bleckley and Goettler were awarded
posthumous Medals of Honor, joining the ranks of World War I's two
greatest American Aces, Frank Luke and Eddie Rickenbacker. In the
air, no mission was ever routine, and no aerial specialty mundane.
To the doughboys in The Pocket, the
spectacle of multiple American airplane missions over the ravine on this fourth day
of isolation brought a much-needed boost in morale. The sight of the
falling bundles, which all knew would contain food, ammunition and medical
supplies, was greeted with great hope by men who had been without food for three
days and had almost passed the point of further hope.
So exhausted and weak from hunger were the
survivors still remaining, that they could no longer muster the strength to bury
their dead. From time to time the men would attempt to toss a few handfuls
of dirt over an exposed corpse, or cover it with brush, but for the most part
the bodies remained exposed where they fell.
Despite the glazed eyes and blank
expressions that marked soldiers beyond further endurance, patrols had to be
dispatched to reconnoiter the immediate area and report back on enemy troops
movements and positions. Whittlesey selected some of his healthier
soldiers and sent them in small groups to attempt to break through the enemy in
an effort to reach headquarters. Three soldiers finally succeeded, the
first men to leave the pocket since the morning of October 3. The rest of
the scouts sent out were never heard from again.
The hope inspired by the sight of packages
falling from the American DH-4s likewise quickly vanished. Virtually all
of the bundles bearing the badly needed rations, ammunition and bandages fell
beyond The Pocket, some tantalizingly close, but still within the area
controlled by the Germans. From time to time a hunger-crazed soldier would
try to reach one of the nearest bundles, only to be shredded by enemy machine
gun fire as his comrades watched helplessly.
At 5 p.m. that evening the Germans mounted
another heavy attack on the position. Over twenty minutes the doughboys
expended what was nearly the last of their ammunition to repulse the
drive. On the battalion's right flank Lieutenant Holderman watched as two
men from the machine gun company in his sector fell to the enemy fire.
Though twice wounded and suffering intense pain, he braved the frenzy of
incoming grenades and rifle fire to move forward and carry the two back to
safety. Then he went back to recover the gun lest it fall into the hands
of the enemy. Holderman was himself wounded yet again.
The indomitable Captain McMurtry was now
twice-wounded himself, and fashioned a crutch from a tree branch to enable him
to move from funk hole to funk hole to direct the fire of his men, distribute
what little ammunition remained, and to shout words of encouragement. Two
officers from the machine gun companies were killed, and only two of the
machineguns remained of the original nine. It mattered little that these
two were operational, no crews remained alive or unwounded to man them, and
between the two guns there remained only five boxes of ammunition.
Somehow the battered unit rose to the level
inspired by its intrepid leadership, and turned back the enemy attack after
nearly a half-hour of intense fighting. In the fading twilight some of the
men crept to nearer German bodies to strip them of rifles and bullets to
replenish the nearly depleted American armory. Then darkness again
settled in. It was the battalion's fifth night in the 4-acre pocket, and
the fourth without food, shelter, or even overcoats. In the cold the
wounded cried out in moans of agony they could no longer suppress. Beyond,
in the dense forest, the weary men of the Liberty Division could hear the
laughter of their enemy. The Germans had recovered many of the dropped
parcels and dined heartily on bacon, bread, and even chocolate. The taunts
and laughs of the enemy as they gorged themselves on the rations so sorely
needed by the Americans cause hope and morale to sink to new lows.
Dehydrated soldiers, now crazed for lack of
water, occasionally ventured back towards the stream beneath the pocket.
Each was met with a hail of enemy gunfire, and the ranks of the living were
reduced again. The situation had become so bad Captain McMurtry passed
orders among the men that, "I'm going to shoot the next man that leaves
his position to get water."
No longer did Major Whittlesey measure the
degeneration of his command in terms of days. Each hour wounded men died
and unwounded men grew weaker. For the Lost Battalion, the end was more
than near...it was imminent!
Under orders from Major Whittlesey, no
attempt was made to bury the dead on the fifth day. It was critical fore
every man to conserve what little strength remained in order just to defend the
position. Patrols were again sent out, but these returned quickly after
meeting intense enemy fire. Earlier reports during the night that the
Germans had started pulling back appeared to be totally false.
Near 10 a.m. that morning, another patrol
of eight soldiers left the pocket. Eighteen year old Private Lowell Hollingshead later wrote
that the patrol left after a sergeant indicated that Major Whittlesey had
requested eight volunteers to try and break through enemy lines and reach
battalion headquarters. Other reports later stated the eight men had left
their funk holes in the early morning darkness, and on their own initiative, in
a desperate effort to recover some of the food bundles that had fallen the
previous day. Whatever the reason, eight weary doughboys found themselves
slowly picking their way through the forest behind a full-blooded Indian from
Montana that they had delegated to guide them out. Later Private
Hollingshead marveled at how the young Native-American had picked their route,
avoiding the most dangerous trails and carefully guiding them towards
safety. But there was to be no safe route; the entire ravine was
surrounded by Germans.
Private Hollingshead dropped to he ground
and pressed his body as low into the dirt as humanly possible at the first
sounds of incoming machine gun fire. Bullets kicked up dirt all around
him, and ahead he watched as bullets ripped apart the head of the soldier ahead
of him. "This is the last," he thought as the fusillade
continued to rake the position, and fell into what he later described as "a
sort of coma or daze". His mind had literally shut down.
Reality returned when a German soldier
walked within six feet of the prostrate doughboy, leveling his Luger at the
American's head. "Kamerad," the haggard young American
shouted. It was the only German word he knew.
"He slowly lowered his gun, but
it seemed several lifetimes to me and I can never tell you all the thoughts
that passed through my mind in that brief space of time. I do however,
distinctly remember that my first thoughts were of my Mother, Dad and home and
then a review of my kid days and a multitude of thoughts too numerous to
mention flooded through my mind....The German lowered his gun (and) he smiled
a great big smile, and what a lovely German he was. As he stood there in
his gray uniform fully six feet tall, his smile seemed to broaden and broaden
then he started walking toward me. I suppose the reason his smile is
still in my mind is because it was so unexpected, as I had been taught to hate
and expect fearful things from the Germans should they ever capture me.
"The German stepped over to me
and started talking in his own language and pointed at my leg. I half
turned and looked to where he was pointing and saw blood spouting from my leg
near the knee. For the first time I realized I had been hit. Then
the other Germans appeared and began looking at my comrades and I knew then
how they had fared. Of my seven Buddies I found four had been killed
outright and all the rest wounded. Our Indian guide was one of those who
had been killed. With this realization a sickening sensation came over
me and I thought to myself, 'this is not real, it is just a dream'."
After sending a runner to German
headquarters to advise their commanders that four Americans had been captured,
instructions arrived detailing a guard detail to bring the Americans to the
HQ. Three of the wounded doughboys were wounded so badly they were carried
out on stretchers. With his arm around the shoulders of one of his
captors, Private Hollingshead was the only prisoner able to walk, or at least
limp, to the unknown destination.
As they group neared the enemy
headquarters, the prisoners were blindfolded for the last few hundred yards of
the journey. When the blindfold was removed, Private Hollingshead found
himself inside an enormous dug-out in the side of a hill. The command
bunker was completely furnished, divided into small rooms, and had wooden
floors. The most elaborate room had a modern sofa, several chairs, a
phonograph record player, and an elaborate carved wooden table on which sat a
typewriter. There he was greeted by a well dressed German officer.
In contrast to the condition under which he and his fellow soldiers had lived
over the previous week, Private Hollingshead was stunned. "For the
first time," he later wrote, "I had a deep feeling of
"How long since you have
eaten?" the German officer inquired in perfect English.
"Five days," Hollingshead replied.
"Poor devil, you must be starved," the enemy commander stated.
"I certainly am!" came the response.
The German officer ordered food for his
starving prisoner and proffered a cigarette from the case on his table, and had
a doctor treat the man's leg wound. While Hollingshead wolfed down the
first food he had tasted in five days. "While I was eating," he
recalled, "Prinz (the German commander) and two other officers started
asking me questions about our outfit, but finding it of no avail as I was still
hungrily gulping down the food and between bites told them I was too busy to
talk to them."
While the young private was eating, his leg
wound began bleeding again, and the surgeon returned to stop the bleeding.
Then the interrogation, if one could call it that, began in earnest. There
was no torture, no electrical shock treatment, none of the dramatic sparring of
warring factions the term "interrogation" implies.
"What state are you from,
"Ohio," Hollingshead answered.
"Oh yes," stated Prinz, "I have been there to
The German commander took his field glasses
and walked to the doorway, motioning for Hollingshead to follow. "Look
out there along the ravine. Can you see the rest of the men from your
Peering through the powerful binoculars,
Hollingshead was surprised at how easily the American position could be seen
through the glasses. "I'm sorry sir," he lied. "I
can't see much of anything over there. I guess I'm just a little mixed up
in my directions."
Lieutenant Prinz laughed, then instructed
the weary American soldier to lay down on the couch and rest. It was an
hour or two past noon, and as Hollingshead tried to relax, he could hear the
sound of the typewrite on the table as the German commander began typing.
Lieutenant Prinz paused at the typewriter
from time to
time as he contemplated his composition. It was carefully drafted in
perfect English. The man who commanded the German 76th Infantry Reserve
Division that had so effectively maintained the gauntlet around the "Lost
Battalion", had in fact, lived in the United States before the war.
For six years he had operated his own business in Seattle, Washington, returning
to Germany when World War I broke out.
By mid-afternoon the message had been
completed, and Prinz awakened Private Hollingshead and asked him if he would
deliver the message to the American commander in the ravine. Hollingshead
asked to read the letter first, which was allowed. Throughout the earlier
questioning he had been careful to reveal nothing that would harm his comrades,
and had conducted himself honorably as a prisoner. Realizing he was now
being asked to deliver a request for surrender, he at first balked. Only
when the letter had been redrafted to reflect the reluctance of the private to
comply, did Hollingshead finally acquiesce.
Back in The Pocket the men that remained
had miraculously weathered another day of nearly constant enemy sniper and
machine gun fire. It was nearing 4 p.m. when mysteriously the hillside
grew quiet. The men holding the left flank strained their eyes against the
dense brush, wondering if the sudden cease-fire was the calm before a
storm...prelude to an attack that would finally overwhelm their position.
Something moved in the tree line. Tired eyes did their best to focus as
something white appeared to move slowly towards the pocket. Finally at the
edge of the clearing they could see a soldier in an American uniform, limping on
the cane that enabled him to hobble slowly towards them, while holding high a
stick to which was tied a white cloth of truce. (After the war Private
Hollingshead wrote of the cane he had been given by Lieutenant Prinze, "That
cane is still one of my dearest treasures."
When at last Private Hollingshead reached
the perimeter of The Pocket, he was passed down the line to the funk hole Major
Whittlesey shared at the center with Captain McMurtry. Lieutenant
Holderman was summoned to join the other two commanders for this new
development. Reaching into his pocket, Hollingshead withdrew a neatly
folded, white sheet of paper and handed it to McMurtry, then came to attention
before his commanders. McMurtry read the letter, then passed it over to
Major Whittlesey. The neatly typed surrender demand was addressed to:
Second Battalion, 308th Infantry
The bearer of this present, Private Lowell
R. Hollingshead has been taken by us. He refused to give the
German Intelligence Officer any answer to his questions, and is
quite an honorable fellow, doing honor to his Fatherland in the
strictest sense of the word.
He has been charged against his will,
believing that he is doing wrong to his country to carry forward
this present letter to the officer in charge of the battalion of
the 77th Division, with the purpose to recommend this commander to
surrender with his forces, as it would be quite useless to resist
any more, in view of the present conditions.
The suffering of your wounded men can be
heard over here in the German lines, and we are appealing to your
humane sentiments to stop. A white flag shown by one of your
men will tell us that you agree with these conditions.
Please treat Private Hollingshead as an honorable man. He is quite
a soldier. We envy you.
The German Commanding Officer
The offer was difficult to refuse, worded
with polite reasoning and couched in praise for the American effort. The
legend of the Lost Battalion as written in the media and retold in the years
after the war was sensationalized with Major Whittlesey's purportedly defiant
response: "Go To Hell!" Such is the way with a
legend, it grows with the telling and retelling. The story of the Lost
Battalion was so incredible, the facts really needed no embellishment.
Such a response from the quiet mannered scholarly lawyer from New York would
have been quite out of character. The fact of that moment is that NO
response, either verbal or written, was made. No response was necessary.
Major Whittlesey DID immediately order the white panels
that had been set out to mark his position for American aircraft removed, so as
not to be mistaken for a sign of surrender by the Germans. Some later
reports quoted Captain McMurtry as responding: "We've got them
licked or they wouldn't have sent this." It is doubtful that this
account is any more accurate than the erroneous reports of Whittlesey's own
defiant response, though such a statement would certainly been quite in keeping
with McMurtry's personality and character.
Perhaps the most accurate record of the
Lost Battalion's days in The Pocket was the unit history written shortly after
the war by L. Wardlaw Miles and based upon reports from Major Whittlesey and
Captain McMurtry, among others who were present. Wardlaw recounted:
A private expressed, in one
exclamation, the answer of the entire command to the German letter. He
asked one of the officers if it was true that they had been called upon to
surrender. He was told that the rumor was correct.
"Why, the sons of
_______!" he said as he pushed back his helmet.
In the trenches and funk holes, men who
had been too emotionally drained and physically exhausted for five days, spoke
for the first time. Into the forest they hurled a chorus of
defiance...."If you Germans want us, then come and get us!"
The lack of an answer from the American
commanders was an answer in and of its self, perhaps more profound even than
the fabled "Go To Hell!" Within half an hour the Germans
launched their heaviest attack yet. Grenades fell from above with
greater accuracy than the bundles dropped by American aircraft the previous
day. Driven only by their anger at the surrender demand, and perhaps by
the knowledge that they were doomed and had nothing left but to take as many
enemy as possible with them to their grave in The Pocket, the doughboys fiercely
repulsed the enemy for more than 20 minutes. Then, as the shadows
deepened over the ravine, the enemy fire halted. Stillness fell across
the Argonne, broken only by the mournful cries of the wounded.
In their funk hole at the center of the
American position, Major Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry looked at each other
apprehensively. The sudden stillness on the heels of the vicious attack
was as ominous as it was eerie. It was a few minutes after 7 p.m. that a
shadow moved swiftly towards them. The two officers gripped their
weapons tightly as they watched the quick moving shape approach. It was
a breathless runner with a stunning message. An American officer and a
few doughboys had just entered The Pocket from the right flank. They
were men of the 307th Infantry, Lieutenant Holderman's regiment.
"The officer wants to see the commanding officer," the runner
Quickly Major Whittlesey followed the
runner back to the right flank. Before him stood Lieutenant Richard
Tillman and a few of his men. The officer informed Major Whittlesey that
Companies A, B, and M of the 307th Infantry Regiment had entered the ravine
and waited in the trees only a few yards distance.
At last, the Lost Battalion had been
After Lieutenant Tillman met with Major
Whittlesey, the three companies from the 307th Infantry Regiment were guided
into The Pocket to reinforce the Lost Battalion. The enemy forces, now
aware of the successful breach of their defensive line by other American units,
began withdrawing throughout the night. Within an hour of the relief,
rations were passed through the lines and to the starving men who ate for the
first time in five days. Along with the rations came medical supplies and
improved medical attention to the wounded.
At dawn more rations arrived along with new
reinforcements. Under Lieutenant James Halligan, the units senior
Chaplain, the incoming soldiers buried the dead. Ambulances arrived along
the Charlevaux road above The Pocket, and the wounded were quickly transported
to field hospitals. By mid-afternoon Major Whittlesey assembled all those
who remained alive and able to function, and the remnants of the composite unit
marched slowly back to Regimental Headquarters. Their ranks numbered only
194 men from the more than 700 men who had started the assault, and the 554 men
who had been trapped in The Pocket five days earlier.
Upon being relieved after the 5-day ordeal above
Charlevaux Brook, Major Whittlesey was promoted to Lieutenant
Colonel. He was promptly submitted for the Medal of Honor, and in
turn recommended both Captain McMurtry and Lieutenant Holderman for
Medals of Honor as well. Whittlesey and McMurtry's awards were
announced on December 2, 1918.
the November 11th Armistice, many of the doughboys returned home in time
for Christmas, Lietuenant Colonel Whittlesey himself arriving back in
his home state for the holidays. On Christmas Day a ceremony was
held on Boston Common, and the Medal of Honor pinned to the tunic of the
mild-mannered, New York attorney. It was the first Medal of Honor
of World War I to be presented to a member of the United States
Army. Lieutenant Holderman's Medal of Honor was announced in War
Department Orders two years later.
The story of the Lost Battalion became perhaps the
most talked about and written about event of World War I, growing more
sensational with each retelling. Sadly, the bare facts alone were
sufficient to inspire. Americans have always sought for heroes,
and Charles Whittlesey was hesitantly thrust into that role. But,
as surely as we need heroes to inspire us, a sad fact of human nature is
that heroes also inspire jealousy and often resentment.
Yesterday's hero, all too often becomes today's whipping boy.
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey was
honorably discharged from the United States Army the day before his
Medal of Honor was announced. He attempted to return to the
practice of law, but the legend of the Lost Battalion would not let him
go. There were rumors and innuendo that Whittlesey was himself,
personally responsible for the tragedy. Some pointed to the minor
error in the map coordinates he had sent back by carrier pigeon, others
claimed the unit had been trapped only because the Major had
overzealously pushed his soldiers ahead of all others. The fact
that Major Whittlesey had simply followed orders to the letter, no more
and no less, or that the general location of The Pocket was well known
in headquarters, could not stop these sad rumors.
In 1921 the reluctant hero boarded the S.S.
Toloa, a vacation liner to Cuba, to escape the war that wouldn't end
from him. During the voyage he penned a letter bequeathing the
original copy of the German surrender request written by Lieutenant
Prinz to his friend, George McMurtry. He left his Cross of the
Legion of Honor to his closest friend, former classmate at Harvard, and
law partner J. Bayard Pruyn. On November 27, 1921 Charles
Whittlesey finally completed his escape from The Pocket of a steep slope
in the Argonne Forest when he leaped from the rail of the S.S. Toloa
and vanished forever in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.
George McMurtry also returned to civilian
life, becoming a solid rock of hope for the men of the Lost
Battalion as they attempted to put the war behind them and get
on with their lives. Until his death on November 22, 1958
he personally funded regular reunions for survivors of the Lost
Lieutenant Nelson Miles Holderman returned to
his home state of California, rejoined the National Guard, and
was appointed a colonel. In 1926 California's governor
appointed Holderman Commandant of the California Yountville
Soldier's Home, where he continued to serve veterans until his
death on September 3, 1953.
In 1919 Cher Ami, the carrier pigeon that had
carried the last message out of the pocket, died from his own
war wounds. Over the next two decades, the bird became a
legend in his own right, taught and remembered by school
children throughout the United States, his name as familiar as
the names of Eddie Rickenbacker and Sergeant York.
Last year (2001), nearly a century after the
men of the 307th and 308th Infantry Regiment made their heroic
stand in The Pocket, the most written about battle of World War
I was recreated for a new generation of Americans by the Arts
& Entertainment. From Major Whittlesey to Lieutenant
Prinz, these heroes of American history are still remembered in
the made-for-TV movie...as is Cher Ami.
The American Ace of Aces
A Special Page for Kids
Cooke, Donald E., For Conspicuous Gallantry, C.S.
Hammond and Co., 1966
Hartney, Harold E., Up and at 'Em, Ayer Company
Hopper, James, Medals of Honor, John Day Company, New York, 1929
Johnson, Thomas M. and Pratt, Fletcher, The Lost Battalion, 1927
McCollum, Lee Charles (Buck Private), History and Rhymes of the Lost
Miles, Capt. L. Wardlaw, History of the 308th Infantry 1917-1919, G. P.
Putnam's Sons, New York and London, 1927
Schott, Joseph L., Above and Beyond, The Story of the Congressional Medal
of Honor, G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1963
Shirreffs, Captain Gordon D., They Met Danger, Whitman Publishing
Company, Racine, WI, 1960
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