The Lost Battalion


As darkness fell that night, Whittlesey and McMurtry wondered how they could survive through another day. Ammunition had almost run out, and the men in the pocket were too weak and tired to dig any more graves.

Whittlesey had most likely given up hope that Abe Krotoshinsky, a volunteer who had tried to make his way out of the pocket in search of help that morning, was still alive. Two other men who had gone off with Krotoshinsky came back reporting that they had been spotted and pinned down by enemy machine gun fire. Both thought Krotoshinsky had been killed.

But shortly after 7 o’clock that evening Lieutenant Richard Tillman and a patrol of riflemen from the Seventy-seventh Division’s nearby 307th Infantry walked into the pocket without firing a shot.

After Whittlesey’s small force had been trapped, Pershing had rushed the experienced veterans of the First Infantry Division, “The Big Red One,” into action in the Aire River valley on the east side of the forest. There they scored a major break-through in the German line of defense. That staggering blow weakened the enemy’s hold on the Argonne sector and finally enabled the Americans behind Whittlesey and the French on his left to move forward. Now the Germans who had asked Whittlesey to surrender a few hours earlier found themselves in danger of being surrounded. Unknown to Whittlesey and McMurtry, their besiegers had silently pulled back and retreated to the north shortly after sundown.

Some reports say that Tillman’s patrol was guided to the pocket by Abe Krotoshinsky, who was in fact awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery. Other survivors recalled that Tillman’s men were already handing out cans of corned beef by the time Krotoshinsky returned with another patrol of Americans. Anyway, by then the Germans were gone and the five-day siege had ended with no surrender.

The next morning 190 of the 500 Americans who had been trapped in the pocket earlier in the week were able to walk back through the valley to their regimental headquarters. Another 190 were seriously wounded, 107 were dead, and 63 were missing. Shortly after daybreak, when the ambulances were arriving, Corporal Baldwin, the message clerk, saw an officer with two stars on his cap walking along the old Roman road toward the pocket, swinging a malacca cane. It was Major General Alexander, the Seventy-seventh Division’s commander.

“Where’s Whittlesey?” he wanted to know.

“Down at the foot of the hill, sir,” said Baldwin, pointing toward where the major was personally passing out food to his men. “Shall I get him for you?”

“By no means,” said the general. “I’ll go to him.”

Whittlesey, McMurtry, and Holderman were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In later years, the jovial McMurtry enjoyed attending the Lost Battalion’s reunion dinners and picked up the check for most of them until he died in 1958 at the age of eighty-two. Whittlesey came home tense and uncomfortable as an acclaimed war hero, besieged by invitations to civic and charitable banquets that he found almost as strenuous as the Argonne siege. A bachelor, engrossed in his work as a lawyer on Wall Street, he wanted to forget the war. A friend remembered him complaining, “Not a day goes by but I hear from some of my old outfit, usually about some sorrow or misfortune. I cannot bear much more. I want to be left in peace.”

On Armistice Day in 1921, Whittlesey, McMurtry, and other Medal of Honor winners attended the dedication of the new Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Whittlesey had little to say to anybody and seemed ill at ease. Two weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, he boarded a ship that was sailing on a holiday cruise to Havana. That evening, when liquor was served outside the three-mile limit, he sat up late in the saloon drinking with another passenger. Then, announcing that he was going to bed, he went on deck and jumped overboard.