Thursday, October 8, 2009

91 Years Ago Tonight Part Two

It has been said the more you learn, the more you find out you don’t know. This has certainly been true in the case of the Lost Battalion. Some elements of this story have an eerie resemblance to the besieged paratroopers a generation later at Bastogne.

In a wild part of the Argonne Forest is a deep almost rectangular ravine surrounded by steep wooded slopes. The terrain is unsuitable for crops or grazing. The result is a thick tangle of trees, vines and undergrowth of a sort that can only be the product of undisturbed centuries.
The U.S. 77 Division had been advancing against heavy German resistance in the Argonne Forest for several days. When Major Charles Whittlesey, the commander of the 308th. Infantry, advanced into a valley known today as The Pocket, flanking units were not able to keep pace. By October 3, 1918 the 308th and elements of other American units were surrounded.

Whittlesey’s command was subjected to constant machine gun, mortar and artillery fire for several days. At one point inaccurate coordinates resulted in “friendly fire” striking their positions. Thankfully correct coordinates were delivered by the unit’s last homing pigeon and the barrage was lifted.

The shelling and rifle fire added to an already miserable situation. The troops had advanced with one day’s rations and were not carrying blankets or overcoats. For more than 100 hours Officers and men of The Pocket were without food. Their ammunition supplies were low. Constant rain and cold weather compounded their misery. Water was the worst torture of all. A stream ran through the ravine where the men could see, hear and smell water but snipers made sure no one got to it. Even in the darkness machine guns trained on the stream bed would spit death at the slightest sound.

After several days, planes from the 50th Aero Squadron, A.E.F. located the Lost Battalion. On October 6, 1918 De Havilland D.H. 4s from their unit made history air-dropping supplies to the trapped men. Fifteen missions were flown that day to deliver food. German machine gun fire brought down one of the planes, killing the two man crew. To add insult to injury only a small part of the supplies got to the besieged Americans. Several soldiers were captured trying to retrieve the air-dropped packages.

Early morning on October 7, 1918 the German Commanding Officer sent one of the captured Americans back with a letter to Major Whittlesey asking for his surrender. Whittlesey declined to even answer.

As it turned out the siege was almost over. That evening advancing troops broke through to The Pocket. Of the estimated 550 men Whittlesey started with 194 Officers and Men were able to walk out under their own power. Only 107 could be officially listed Killed in Action. That leaves 249 un-accounted for.

How can that be you might ask? Some of it can be in record keeping. Many of the soldiers from The Pocket went strait to hospitals. Even men who and not received battle wounds were weak from lack of food and water and prone to illness. Some soldiers returned to their units, or were transferred to other units, and were never recorded as having served in The Pocket.

With the confusion of an army on the ropes (the war ended 35 days later) even the Germans don’t know how many prisoners they took from The Pocket.

Then there are the dead.

Mortars, artillery and grenades can mangle remains to a point I can’t describe. There are accounts of grave digging crews not even being sure how many bodies they were dealing with from an explosion. Forget knowing who they are.

Bodies of World War one soldiers are still being found today.

So why do I take such pride in this story? These men were in their actions the best kind of soldiers any nation can hope to have. This was not a suicide mission. None of them wanted to die gloriously for the cause. They wanted to live to go home and get back to their lives.
But they didn’t give up. When surrounded without adequate food or ammunition they dug in and fought. When word got around that the Germans had demanded their surrender the soldiers answered in words…I can’t use here.

Tomorrow I will conclude with the after math and legacy of the Lost Battalion.


  1. Women don't understand war...and don't want to understand it. But the story is interesting. Definitely a different time and place than where we are now with embedded media, etc.

    Sorry I can't make it to the pumpkin shoot. I'm at MDAnderson two days that week. Trade ya places!!!


  2. Thank you for your feedback Cher. Would you under stand if I say I can admire the men who made the tough choices at the same time I thank God I wasn't there?
    As for the Pumpkin Shoot, I got a deal for you. You take care of business and get to feeling better. When your ready wo will have CHER'S GREAT PUMPKIN SHOOT. Just tell us when.