The Lost Battalion

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Whittlesey sent a carrier pigeon to his division’s headquarters with a message stating his exact position and his isolation, and asking for reinforcements and artillery support. The pigeon delivered the message, but Major General Alexander, who already knew that Whittlesey had been cut off, could do nothing for him. All of the division’s reserve troops were in combat on the front line, some of them supporting the embattled French on Whittlesey’s left and others with the hard-pressed Seventy-seventh Division’s 153rd Brigade on his right. The general’s big hopes of the night before for using Whittlesey’s gap as the doorway for a smashing drive against the Giselher-Stellung line had dissolved during the discouraging morning.

That afternoon, after the men in the pocket had eaten their last scraps of food, the Germans blasted them with mortar fire and grenades and made the first of many attempts to send riflemen crawling into the enclosure. The attackers were turned back by machine gun and automatic rifle fire, but at nightfall Whittlesey reported by carrier pigeon that one third of the men in his force had been killed or seriously wounded and all of his bandages and medical supplies had been used up. He asked for food and ammunition to be dropped from the air and again pleaded for artillery support.

During that night’s darkness, any sound of movement or a groan of pain from a wounded man would draw a burst of machine gun fire from the Germans. The men in the pocket tried to be as quiet as possible while they struggled to dig burial holes for their dead. The burly George McMurtry crawled from one company to another, whispering the words of encouragement that he repeated over and over again that week, “Everything is practically okay.” He pleaded with one soldier, who had been shot through his stomach, to be silent. “It pains like hell, Captain,” the man said, “but I’ll keep as quiet as I can.” He died a half hour later without uttering another sound.

The next morning, Friday, October 4, one of Holderman’s patrols reported a gap in the German line on the pocket’s rear right flank. Whittlesey and McMurtry debated about retreating through that opening, but quickly decided against it when they realized that they would have to leave their wounded men behind. During the morning, Whittlesey used two of his remaining four carrier pigeons to remind the division headquarters that he needed medical supplies and food and to report that his D and F companies were still missing on the left side of the ravine behind him. He did not know that about one hundred men from the two companies still in action had made an attempt to reach him the previous day but had been beaten back under fire from La Palette and Hill 198.

Early that afternoon an Allied plane swooped low over the pocket, turned, and flew back to the rear. The officers felt encouraged; it was the first plane they had seen since they had been trapped. Now maybe supplies would be dropped to them. A few minutes later a barrage of artillery fire exploded behind the pocket to the southeast. “It’s ours!” somebody yelled.

A few men stood up and cheered. Then the exploding bursts of fire moved slowly toward the pocket and into the middle of the American position, knocking down trees and throwing up showers of turf and foliage. The officers, assuming that the barrage would soon move on to the German lines, tried to quiet their panic-stricken men. Whittlesey left his command post hole to walk around in the open, trying to put on a show of calm. McMurtry shouted, “Take it easy! This won’t last long!”

But the heavy downpour of American shellfire kept on smashing and roaring all over the pocket. Walter Baldwin, trying to lead a wounded friend to cover, was joined by Private Robert Manson, Whittlesey’s orderly, and the First Battalion’s sergeant major, Ben Gaedeke. A shell exploded on them, tearing out the wounded man’s chest. Gaedeke’s body disappeared completely. “We could only find his helmet and his pistol,” Manson said later. Baldwin was picked up and hurled away, deafened and half unconscious.

There were only two pigeons left in Omer Richards’ cage. Whittlesey wrote a message and handed it to Richards: “We are along the road parallel 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.”

While Richards was nervously taking one of the pigeons out of the cage, the bird fluttered out of his hands and flew away. That left only one pigeon, a favorite named Cher Ami, or Dear Friend. Richards clipped the message to Cher Ami’s leg, cupped the bird in his hands, and tossed it up into the sky. The pigeon flew in a circle or two, them calmly came to rest on a branch of a nearby tree.

Whittlesey and Richards shouted at Cher Ami, clapped their hands, and waved their helmets. The bird eyed them and refused to move. They picked up stones and threw them at the pigeon. Richards shinnied up the trunk of the tree and shook the branch where the bird was sitting. At last, Cher Ami fluttered his wings and flew away through a storm of German rifle fire and a shower of shrapnel from the distant American guns.

The barrage thundered on for another two hours, until Cher Ami reached the pigeon loft and a telephone message from the division headquarters finally put a stop to it.