- 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
“Sarge,” the corporal said, “I’m not stupid enough to commit suicide. When you sent us out that night, we went the other way. We didn’t stop running until we were five miles behind the lines. Then we found some aid men and said we were gassed. We put on a good act and that was all there was to it.”
“I bought him a drink,” my father said. “What the hell. I thought about doing the same thing a couple of times up there myself.”
But he kept going. So did most of the others. Why? Part of it was ethnic pride. In the Jersey City of my father’s boyhood, “No Irish Need Apply” signs were common. In the Argonne, he was proving his right to be an American. So were the 78th’s numerous Slovaks, Italians, Poles, and Germans.
My father loved to tell about the small, skinny Jewish private who came to him after St.-Mihiel and asked him for a transfer. He had a chance to become an assistant to the regiment’s Jewish chaplain. “I don’t belong in the lines with all you crazy Irishmen,” the private candidly admitted. “You like to fight. Let me go and maybe you’ll get a guy you can depend on if things get really tough.” The reasoning made sense, and my father agreed to the transfer. After the war, he saw the private in Paris wearing two wound stripes. “Hymie,” he said, “what the hell happened?”
“That rabbi was a madman,” Hymie said. “He wouldn’t stay out of the front lines. I ducked more shells than anybody in the whole damn division.”
Rabbi Saul Davidowitz, the 312th’s Jewish chaplain, did, in fact, win high praise in the regiment’s history for repeatedly exposing himself to help the wounded under fire.
For the idealistic, the war was a genuine crusade. One Elizabeth, New Jersey, soldier, writing home a vivid description of the dead and wounded around him, added: “But all this suffering is worth it, because it will make the world safe for democracy.” A few developed a savage hatred for the Germans, and killed as many as possible. Another Elizabeth man proudly told his parents of shooting Germans who had surrendered. I never heard my father, tough Mick though he was, speak a harsh word against the Germans. Once, when I was about twelve, I asked him, “Did you ever kill a German face to face?” I was surprised by how disturbed the question made him. “Maybe,” he said. “I don’t really remember. …” And he quickly changed the subject.
From their vantage points on the heights of the Bois de Bourgogne and the crest of the Talma Hill above Grandpré, the Germans were able to direct deadly artillery fire on the Lightning Division all along the line. The gun that the infantrymen hated the most was the Austrian 77 millimeter, which fired a shell they called the whiz-bang. It travelled at almost the speed of sound, so that it exploded before the man it hit even heard it. Yet by an odd twist, the German artillery helped the doughboys tolerate the Argonne’s continual rain. “The muddier it got,” my father told me, “the deeper the shells sank when they hit, and that cut down the shrapnel.” Sixty-five per cent of the casualties, most 78th men agree, came from artillery fire. That anyone survived the rain of metal seems miraculous. André Godart told me that after the battle they counted an average of 150 shell holes to an acre on his family’s farm.
On October 23, what was left of the ist Battalion made another try at Talma. It was part of a coordinated attack that the division launched, both there and in the town of Grandpré, after a night-long artillery preparation. All the artillery accomplished was to bring down on the exhausted infantry a fierce counterbarrage that caused heavy casualties among the 3rd Battalion, fighting in Grandpré. But they went forward nevertheless, and the remnants of one squad made it to the top of the Citadel.
With the ist Battalion, it was the same deadly story. A vicious crossfire of machine guns and artillery pinned them down on the reverse slope of Talma Hill.
They were in desperate need of artillery support, but there was no short-wave radio to get the message back to the gunners. In the A.E.F. the men in the front lines depended on runners to carry such messages. At the 78th reunion I had met a thin, wiry old man who told me proudly that he had been a runner in the 311th Regiment. My first reaction had been puzzlement at his pride. Being a runner did not sound like a very glorious assignment. But he went on to tell me how one night, when the going was especially rough in Grandpré, his captain had sent eight runners back to regimental headquarters, begging for reinforcements and ammunition. All eight had been killed. He volunteered to go, and made it, crawling the last half mile with a bullet in his leg.
If that was the runner’s percentage at night, his chances in broad daylight, on that terrible October twenty-third in Talma Valley, were close to zero. Yet Parker Dunn, a tough little Irish-American from Albany, New York, volunteered to risk that impossible curtain of fire. The battalion commander told him it was suicide. But Dunn, without waiting for an order, took off. He was hit once, sprang to his feet, and kept running. All around him the earth churned with shellfire and machine-gun bullets. He went down a second time. Everyone was sure he was finished. But Dunn staggered to his feet and made another few yards. A geyser of earth exploded in front of him. Dunn did not get up again. His Medal of Honor went to his stepmother.