- Historic Sites
Half a century later, an American writer in France tries to recapture the unforgettable experience of his father in the greatest battle fought by the doughboys “over there”
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
We were close to personal history now. The y8th Division had marched up through the Argonne’s blasted, shell-stripped trees in the wake of the 77th. The Jerseyans had spent the two weeks preceding the Argonne buildup, and the first week of the battle itself, holding a sector of the St.-Mihiel line, about thirty miles to the southeast. To confuse the Germans about American intentions during the build-up, they had orders to keep the sector boiling, and they obeyed them with enthusiasm. Their days and nights were devoted to aggressive patrolling and limited attacks. The Germans retaliated with intense bombardments. In the history of my father’s giath Regiment, the unnamed historian tells how one of these barrages fell with special fury on my father’s Company C, killing Lieutenant Donat G. O’Brien and several other men.
My father was a tough, cocky Irishman from the downtown slums of Jersey City. When the chaplain urged everyone to take the full $10,000 insurance policy the government was offering at rock-bottom rates, Sergeant Fleming had sneered: “I can take care of myself,” and opted for only $3,000. After a night spent with his face in the shuddering St.-Mihiel mud with chunks of deadly metal humming around him, he signed up for the full $10,000. “I never thought I’d come out of it in one piece, after that night,” he said.
At the same time, my father retained his faith in something he called “Irish luck.” Those who scoffed at this superstitious philosophy must have wondered, after the death of Lieutenant O’Brien. As my father told it in later years, that first barrage caught them in the open. “You never saw anyone dig holes faster in your life,” he said. “I was down about three feet when the Lieutenant crawled over to me and told me to get out, he was taking over my hole as a command post. I told him to go dig his own goddam hole. Finally he ordered me out, and it was go or get court-martialled.” Fifteen minutes later, while Sergeant Fleming, still cursing fluently, was digging himself a new hole a few dozen yards away, a shell made a direct hit on O’Brien’s command post. “All we ever found of the poor guy,” my father said, “was a piece of his raincoat.”
Over 2,000 Lightning men had been killed, wounded, or were missing by the time Pershing ordered the division withdrawn from St.-Mihiel for service in the Argonne. They made some of the sixty-mile journey in trucks, but most of it they covered in traditional infantry fashion, “picking up one brogan and putting the other one down,” as my father liked to describe it. While they marched, they sang. The siith Regiment’s favorite was “Smile, Smile, Smile.” Others preferred “K-K-K-Katy,” “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” or “Madelon.” It was a singing war.
But this sentimental streak (on the wall of his bedroom, my father had framed the words of that saccharine song “My Buddy”) was strangely combined with an almost primitive toughness. Frank Mueller, a member of Company C, told me, “The first time I saw your father, he was a bayonet instructor at Fort Dix. He made my hair stand on end, the way he’d snarl, ‘Stick it into his guts and pull it out the same way!’ ” Going into the Argonne, Mueller recalls my father getting into an argument with one of his best friends. “We were marching along, and all of a sudden, Red just flattened him. Right there in the road. Out cold, with one punch. Nobody talked back to your old man.”
Ahead were Argonne days and nights when both the sentiment and the toughness would be tested to their utmost limits.
I drove out of the Argonne Forest along a road that runs through the towns of Lançon and Senuc. My father’s regiment had marched up this road on the night of October 15-16, 1918. The rain, by then a standard feature of the battle, came down in relentless sheets, and darkness was total. No one had the slightest notion where he was going. Guides who supposedly knew the way were as lost as everyone else. The confusion was par for the Argonne course. As they had moved up through the forest, the commanders of the 78th Division had been told that they would relieve the Sand Division. They had rushed their best young officers forward, to spend days mapping and patrolling the Sand’s front. Then, without so much as a whisper of explanation, they were told to relieve the 77th, along a front about which they knew no more than they could read on their maps.
The 78th division was split into two brigades of two regiments each. Except for battalions held in reserve, both brigades were supposed to be in line at 5:30 A.M. on the morning of the sixteenth of October, to launch an all-out attack on the town of Grandpré, on the Bois de Bourgogne beyond it to the left, and on a smaller woods known as the Bois des Loges, to the right. Because of the total confusion in which they marched, both wings of the division arrived late. The second battalion of the gioth Regiment, for example, marched all night in the rain and got nowhere. At 10:30 A.M. , under direct orders, they had to leave the shelter of the Argonne’s trees and move across the Aire River and an open field 500 yards wide, through an enemy barrage that cost them, one veteran remembers bitterly, “more casualties than we took in two whole weeks at St.-Mihiel.”