Due to the magnitude of America's last offensive action in WW I, called the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, many memorable things happened.
One of these became known as "The Lost Battalion." But that headline was coined by a magazine journalist and was not accurate. A battalion of the 77th Division got separated from its sister units and was all alone behind German lines, but was not actually "lost."
And it was more than just one battalion. There were men from the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 308th Infantry, and elements of the 306th Machine Gun Battalion. Maj. Charles W. Whittlesey commanded one of the battalions, and was the senior commander for the some 550 Americans who were cut off from the rest of the 77th Division.
When darkness fell the men could hear German soldiers talking all around them. Whittlesey sent out probing patrols and also dispatched runners to try and reach the main body. The result of both endeavors was to lose even more men.
The Germans surrounding the men threw grenades and fired artillery into the American positions, and raked the position with machinegun fire. Although the unit had radios, viable contact with higher headquarters could not be made.
The unit had gotten "lost" on Oct. 2. After two days and nights under almost constant shelling from the Germans, when the men thought their situation could not get worse, it got worse. The strangely named occurrence called "friendly fire" rained artillery rounds down on top of the men's position from the 77th Division's artillery units.
In desperation, Whittlesey sent the unit's last carrier pigeon, named Cher Ami, toward where he thought the division was. The other pigeons had all been shot out of the sky. Amazingly, Cher Ami made it through the artillery barrage and ground fire from the Germans. The shelling stopped, and after a lull, it began again, falling this time where it should have fallen, into German positions.
Allied planes tried to drop supplies but every attempt landed instead in German hands. On Oct. 7, five days after the ordeal began, an American soldier approached the American defenders waving a white flag. He had tried to bring food baskets the planes had dropped, but had been captured instead.
He had a note from the German commander imploring the American commander to surrender his men "in the name of humanity" before all were killed. After the ordeal had ended, the press told the public his reply had been three words: "Go to hell."
This, too, was a press fantasy. In fact, Whittlesey made no reply. Instead he kept the message bearer with the other Americans and did not send him back with any reply.
With nightfall the Germans resumed shelling the Americans, who had lost about 50 percent killed and wounded. It appeared to be only a matter of time before the unit was totally wiped out, or forced to surrender.
Page 2 of 2 - But during the night other American units began to arrive. With American re-enforcements, the Germans were forced to withdraw, and the "Lost Battalion" was lost no more.
In the aftermath Whittlesey was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery and leadership in keeping the small unit from being overrun or wiped out totally. The men had endured five days of as brutal combat as any American unit in The Great War.
Several shifts ago as I was volunteering at the National WW I Museum, a woman in a group said her grandfather had been in The Lost Battalion and she had some papers and photos of his. I gave her the archivist's card and hope she contacted him about donating them.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.