A Memorial Day story

On July 15, 1917, a young man I’ll call W. reported for duty with the 4th Ohio National Guard. He was an executive with a bright future in the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company; he had gotten married only two months earlier. But the Allies were desperate for help against Germany, and the United States was mobilizing as quickly as it could. W., a veteran of the 4th Ohio’s campaign against Pancho Villa the previous year, was a Second Lieutenant.

At the time, the U.S. had the merest shadow of a standing military, so the Guard troops were pressed into service. The 4th Ohio was folded into the new 42nd (Rainbow) Division of the U.S. Army, which included Guard troops from several states. (Hence “Rainbow.”) After training in Ohio and New York, the men shipped out to Europe in mid-October. They suffered a very rough two-week crossing in a hastily refitted cargo ship that had formerly carried fruit from South America. It was only the first of many privations they would endure.

The war was not going well. After three years of stalemate on the Western Front, Germany was winning elsewhere. Russia was collapsing, and Italy was in retreat. Soon, Germany would be able to concentrate its forces in the West. The poorly trained and outfitted Americans were desperately needed to prevent the Germans from overrunning the battered French and British forces.

The winter of 1917-18 was one of the coldest on record. The men of the 42nd trained, marched, and bivouacked in extreme discomfort. But that would seem mild in comparison to the harsh fighting of the spring and summer, as the Germans mounted an all-out offensive and the Allies desperately fought to turn the tide.

In mid-February, the 42nd was ordered into the front lines. On the transport train, Lieutenant W. began to suffer intense pain. From his diary:

“Rt. upper bicuspid which had nerve killed, formed abscess. Grew extremely painful so had Bill Seamans our dentist try to yank it out. He pulled and hauled and then broke it off. Wow! But that relieved the pressure on the abscess, and I was able to sleep a bit.”

His stoicism would serve him well. From late February to late June, Lieutenant W. and his men served in the trenches of the Western Front, a scene of unimaginable devastation.

The food was bad, the sanitation nonexistent; the troops existed in a state of tedium punctuated by moments of mortal danger. As Rainbow historian R.L. Cheseldine recalled it:

“The trenches… were old and out of repair. The water and mud was knee deep in places and in many places ‘duck boards’ or trench walks were conspicuous by their absence. The dugouts were poor and inadequate in number and swarmed with rats and vermin.”

The 42nd’s numbers slowly diminished from battle and illness — the latter more than the former. On April 21, while W. was trying to stay alive in the trenches, he received a telegram from back home saying that his wife had given birth to a son, who was named after him.

As spring turned to summer, the Allies finally managed to forestall the German onslaught. The 42nd was, more often than not, in the middle of the action. It had quickly become one of the most experienced divisions in the American military, so it was often sent into the toughest situations. Their reward for a job well done.

Even after the tide began to turn, the Germans held well-fortified, deeply-held positions inside France. It would take months of extreme effort to force them back.

At one point during this time, W. was offered the chance to return stateside to serve as a military trainer; he was held in high regard by his superiors, who were hoping he would pursue a military career after the war. (Goodyear also wanted him back, as he was considered a rising star in the company.) He could have escaped the dangers and privations of the battlefield; he could have been reunited with his brand-new family; he could have set himself up for a prosperous life. He turned down the offer, feeling that he could not abandon his men.

The Allies began their first offensive in mid-July. Progress was slow and costly. The 42nd, after only about three weeks in reserve, was pressed into duty once again. The men were transported to Chateau-Thierry, 60 miles northeast of Paris. (The Germans were so close to Paris that their biggest gun could send shells hurtling into the city.) Within a few days, they were sent to the front lines in an area of farms and forests to the north.

The Germans were being beaten, but progress was slow and costly. The pattern was consistent: the Germans resisted stoutly, incurring and inflicting numerous casualties; then they would fall back to pre-established positions, where they would again put up feverish resistance. They knew that losing these battles would almost certainly mean losing the war.

Other elements of the 42nd mounted the initial assaults north of Chateau-Thierry. Lieutenant W. and his men joined the fight on July 28; in addition to all the other privations of combat, he was suffering a bad cold.

The advance continued, almost foot by foot. Soldiers and officers alike were falling all around; W. received a battlefield promotion to First Lieutenant, which put him in charge of his company. They fought across a tiny river that proved an almost insurmountable obstacle because it flowed through a field with no cover to be found, and the Germans had the higher ground on the north bank. They fought furiously through a small farm village called Seringes-et-Nesles, and northward through wheat fields. The advance was tortuously slow, and often ground to a halt under German fire.

On August 2, Lieutenant W. led his men through a field between Seringes and the next village, Mareuil-en-Dole, where the Germans were dug in with troops and artillery. The field went up a shallow incline to a ridge, beyond which there was a long, open stretch of field all the way to Mareuil.

As he led his men over the ridge, the German artillery fired. Lieutenant W. was killed instantly.

His body was temporarily buried in a nearby forest. His men carried on into Mareuil, forcing another German retreat; they were then taken out of the front lines for badly-needed rest and recuperation.

In those six days from entering the assault to his death, Lieutenant W. had led his men on an advance that covered about three miles. Every step of the way was bitterly contested. W. was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his valor; his body was buried in a military cemetery a few miles away.

Back home, his widow was teaching kindergarten and raising a son. She would never remarry.

His son, now in his late 90s, is my father-in-law.

Rest in peace, W. And all the Americans who have died serving their country.

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