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Homeward Bound


HISTORY OF THE 304th FIELD ARTILLERY
by
James M. Howard
1920


CHAPTER XIV

HOMEWARD BOUND


That was a frightful journey from Latrecy to the Le Mans area. The weather was horribly cold, and the men were packed closely in freight cars where, if they tried to have ventilation, they froze, and if they went without fresh air they coughed and sneezed in each other's faces. Influenza was rampant when the end of the journey was reached, and the ambulances were kept busy for some days taking men to the hospital, where several of them developed pneumonia and died. It seemed a shame to have to travel under such conditions, and yet every one knew that the transportation was the best available, and though they grumbled the men "bore it with a patient shrug," glad to endure almost anything so long as they were going toward home.

It had been fully expected that the 77th Division would embark early in March. In fact, it had been officially announced in New York that the date for sailing was fixed as March 5th. But necessary repairs to some of the largest transports, including our old friend Leviathan, had delayed the troop movements, and we were obliged to settle down to another trying period of uncertain waiting. February dragged by and March came on apace, but no news of departure was forthcoming. The divisions which were to proceed us were still awaiting their turn, and disconcerting rumors of further indefinite delays did their best to dampen the men's spirits.

Moreover, the regiment was now scattered as it had never been scattered before. The Colonel and his staff and Battery B were quartered in the Chateau Vauloge; about a mile away, in the village of Ferce, were Headquarters and Supply Companies and Battery F; a half a mile to the east was Battery D, in another chateau; Battery E was sent to a holding camp in La Suze, a mile or two farther on, to work on the roads; while in the opposite direction, four miles to the west of Ferce, were Batteries A and C in the village of Pirmil. There were no entertainment halls, no pianos, no anything, except that in Ferce and Pirmil were small rooms where the Y. M. C. A. had maintained canteens for the casual troops who had preceded us.

Nevertheless, with the prospect of a departure for America, which was eventual if not immediate, the men took things as they found them and, backed by their officers from Colonel Enos down, (not to mention the enthusiastic new brigade commander, General Glassford), they did their utmost to make the time pass as quickly and as happily as possible.

The schedule ordered by the division commander now provided for close order drills during, the morning hours and every form of movement was worked over in order that the units should make a good appearance on their return to the United States. The afternoons were devoted to athletics.

There were splendid fields available, and games of baseball, soccer, basketball, and all forms of outdoor sports were of daily occurrence. The question of entertainments was made a matter of military concern, with the idea of having something doing on every night to which the men could go. By hook or by crook, shacks, halls or tents were provided, and while the ideal of nightly shows was not attained, the men were amused and interested fairly well. General Glassford persuaded a French Count to open his chateau f or a brigade dance.

The Glee Club was worked overtime, and the band did more playing than it had ever done before. A piano was bought (this also from the "tobacco money" sent by the home Association), and the orchestra blossomed forth to help along the music of every show that was produced. B Battery's Minstrels were called upon at first, and with various modifications 'the show was repeated in whole or in part on several occasions. Battery A produced a two-act musical skit entitled "Here and There" which showed great originality and unearthed a lot of hitherto undiscovered talent. They gave several performances in Ferce, and another for the 306 F. A. in Noyen, where the show was enthusiastically received.

The most elaborate spectacle was "Major Sanders' Pageant." During the entire month of March Pirmil was the scene of extraordinary activity. Sheets of tin, salvaged from packing cases, were being cut into odd shapes for making coats of mail; women were sewing madly on fancy costumes of all colors; the battalion P. C. was transformed into a millinery shop where high conical hats were turned out by the dozen and wigs made of straw and mops were manufactured and dyed. When the great day arrived, the Division and Brigade Commanders and their staffs and a large crowd of other notables were on hand to attend the "Funeral of ye Noble Athelstane of Conningsburg," held on the grounds of an ancient and crumbly chateau. When it was time for the performance to begin, a drizzling rain set in which continued all the afternoon, but it was too late then to postpone the show.

A gorgeous procession of knights in real armor ladies-in-waiting, men-at-arms, heralds with long trumpets, archers in green doublets, serfs, monks, and all sorts of queer Norman and Saxon people wound out from Pirmil toward the chateau. There the visitors had an opportunity to view the corpse as it lay in state, guarded by knights in armor. Then, on a wet and muddy field, there was a tourney and various maneuvers by the men-at-arms which the visitors watched, shivering. Before the program could be completed the men who were taking part were so wet and bedraggled that the performance was cut short, and every one was invited to fall to at a great supper of "baked meates," pies and cakes, coffee and beer. A sunny day would have made this pageant one of the most beautiful spectacles imaginable. Even with the bad weather it was unusual and worth seeing, and General Alexander was enthusiastic in his appreciation of the originality and interest of the occasion.

About the middle of March, a series of minute inspections of the soldiers and their equipment made the day of departure seem very near. Regimental and brigade and divisional inspections were all but finished and we were slated for a final looking over by the authorities from the embarkation center, when suddenly word came that two divisions had been put ahead of us on the schedule and all preparations for departure were called off. The men were bitterly disappointed and loud in their resentment, but there was nothing to be done about it, so we settled down once more to the familiar task of waiting.

Colonel Enos who had tried several times already to have his regiment brought together into one place, now at last gained his point, and all the organizations were moved down to the Holding Camp at La Suze. Here the men lived in barracks along a single street, and were far more comfortable than they had been in billets. Almost two solid weeks of sunny days made an enormous difference in every one's spirits, and on ground, which was no longer muddy, we had a revival of interest in baseball games and all sorts of outdoor sports. Having the whole regiment together renewed old ties and built up the regimental spirit which had been tending more and more to give place to battery rivalries.

A large Y. M. C. A. hut, run by a live secretary, furnished a splendid place of amusement. Here the Second Battalion put on a show which a special detail of men, aided by some from Headquarters Company, had been working up f or several weeks. With scenery painted by Private Hedinus, of Battery E, printed programs, and all the paraphernalia of a Broadway show, these men produced a three-act musical comedy, written by Sergeant Hanft, of Battery E, and staged by Sergeants Grandin and Pons of Battery D. Corporal Hagan, of F Battery, and Musician Strange, of the band, were responsible for the music and lyrics of about a dozen new and original songs, from the chief of which the piece took its name: "Oh, Oh, Mademoiselle!" For three nights they played to crowded houses, and made such a success that it was decided to make a regimental affair of the show, and a number of new characters from the First Battalion were introduced. A special performance was given in honor of the Division Commander, at which General Alexander, as the Colonel's guest, sat in a box; and during the remainder of our stay in the Le Mans area the "Oh, Oh, Mademoiselle" Company was busy touring the
towns where 77th Division troops were quartered.

Plays and skits from other organizations came to La Suze to entertain us. Hardly an evening passed but what something was going on in the Y. M. C. A. A "wet canteen," serving hot chocolate, was started by the Y girls, who together with the secretary, Mr. Harvuot, did everything possible to promote the men's enjoyment and contentment. Our own regimental secretary, Mr. Newberry, after five months of continuous service to the soldiers, retired from sight to a back room in La Suze. Here he and the men who, under his direction, were making the illustrations for the Regimental History maintained a studio and worked on the pictures which adorn. this book, while the Y. M. C. A. people of La Suze and the Holding Camp looked after the more immediate needs of the men's welfare.

For several weeks we lived on the expectation that our sailing date was to be April 30th. It was therefore a glorious surprise when suddenly preparations for departure were begun ahead of schedule. Final delousings, equippings, and inspections were completed quickly. Early on the morning of the 17th the whole regiment was entrained, and, cheering and singing as the train pulled out, the men bade good-by to La Suze and to the friends from the Y. M. C. A. and Red Cross who had come to see them off.

The Journey was short and comparatively easy. Day break on the 18th found us in Brest, filing through the enormous mess halls for a hot breakfast before the up-hill hike to Camp Pontanezen. The name of our destination was the same as when we had landed the year before, but how different was the place! Instead of the old stone barracks where the men had found sleep so impossible in 1918, we found ourselves marching through a huge city of wooden barracks and tents - a camp so large that the coming and going of twelve or fifteen thousand troops in a single day was unnoticed. Board sidewalks led away from the main road into the streets between the tents. Board floors and iron cots made the sleeping quarters comfortable. Adequate kitchen facilities made it possible to feed the whole regiment in fifteen or twenty minutes. Glorious weather gave promise of a favorable voyage when we should embark.

There were more delousings and inspections on Friday and Saturday, and then came the glad news that we were to be ready to board a transport on the morning of Sunday, April 2oth.

That was an Easter Day, which the 304th will never forget. At eight in the morning we all marched to an open field where, with music by the band and an address by the Chaplain, a regimental service was held in the glorious April sunshine. By ten o'clock the First Battalion was on the road for Brest, and noon saw the last of the regiment swinging along under full packs', headed for the docks.

Arrived at the pier, we were crowded on to a lighter and ferried out to where lay the transport Agamemnon, a splendid four-funnel steamer which but a few months back had sailed the seas tinder the name of Kaiser Wilhelm II. A German ship had brought us over and a German ship was to take us back.

The Agamemnon was not so large nor so steady as the Leviathan but most of the sleeping quarters were more comfortable, and all the troops on board had access to the decks at all times. Besides our own regiment, there were oil board the 305th and 306th, several hundred convalescent sick and wounded men, some casual officers and about a hundred nurses.

It was a most congenial company. There were four bands-one from each artillery regiment and one from the ship's crew and they all played several times each day. There were dances on deck usually for officers and occasionally for enlisted men. Movies there were, too three shows for the men and two for the officers every day, with a daily change of program. A stage was rigged up on the after well deck where the Liberty Players, from the 306th F. A., put on two shows, and several vaudeville performances were given in the mess halls. All of the welfare organizations-Red Cross, Y. M. C. A., Knights of Columbus, American Library Association and Jewish Welfare Board-had representatives on the ship, and they kept its supplied with smokes, games, athletic supplies, books and magazines.

There was some difficulty with the men's mess, for these passenger steamships were never built to feed several thousand troops three times a day, and the men of Battery A, who had the thankless job of being kitchen police for the entire voyage, found themselves faced with a good many kicks. After a man had stood in line for an hour or two, mess kit in hand, waiting for his turn, and then is hustled past the servers as they dump the food on his plate, only to find that he must climb up one steep staircase and down another balancing his dinner as the ship sways, and then cat standing up at a table that swings from the ceiling on chains, he is in no mood to be easily pleased with the food set before him.

But with only one day of anything approaching rough weather, the men in general had a lazy and a happy enough time, and they were going home!

No bugle calls were needed to wake us up on the morning of the 29th, for we were due to reach New York before noon ' and every one was on tiptoe to get the first sight of "God's Country."

A beautiful April sun was shining as the men hung along the rail straining their eyes toward the west. Presently a vague shape was discernible on the horizon, and before long Atlantic Highlands loomed into view. Then Sandy Hook, and then Coney Island!

At Quarantine came the boats of the Mayor's Welcoming Committee, laden to the gunwales with eager wives, mothers, fathers and sweethearts. It was a wonderful sight to see one group after another recognize their boy on the deck and almost climb overboard in their eagerness to reach out to him. All the way up through the harbor they escorted us, waving and shouting, while bands played and flags waved their welcome.

At last the good ship docked in Hoboken, where thousands more of the relatives were crowded along the iron fence which held them back from the pier. There was little chance for visiting, however, for the regiment was soon marched to another pier for lunch, and then onto a ferry boat which took us around to Long Island City, where we boarded a train for Camp Mills.

It was hard to wait for passes with New York so near, but one more delousing (in the United States called by the more polite name of " sanitation process") was necessary before any one was allowed to leave camp. Then what a rush there was for the city! And how the streets and hostess houses about the entrance of the camp swarmed with visitors seeking those men who did not happen to have passes! It was a happy time, and the days passed quickly until, on May 5th, the entire division was brought to New York for the great parade of "New York's Own."

There had been some objection on the part of the men to having a parade, for they understood that it would necessitate their staying a few days longer in the service, and what they desired above all things now was to get back into civil life. Put their folks wanted a parade, the regimental and divisional Associations wanted it, New York City wanted it, and deep down in their hearts the soldiers wanted it. And why not? Never had the whole 77th Division been seen in public, and now that the troops had made for themselves a glorious record in the war there was not a man whose pride in his organization did not assert itself and demand public recognition. When the 304th assembled at the 69th Regiment Armory on the morning of May 6th and marched to Waverly Place to await its turn to start up Fifth Avenue, even some who had not been required to attend were present.

Promptly on the hour at ten o'clock, General Alexander and .his staff rode through Washington Arch and started up the Avenue. Instead of the usual open formation with platoon front, the order called for a massing of the troops. Four organizations abreast, each in column of squads, filled the broad street from curb to curb as regiment after regiment swung into line. The day was clear and cool, the pace was brisk, and the men marched with superb snap and swing. Sidewalks and grand stands which extended along the entire route were filled with proud relatives and friends who cheered lustily as the regiments tramped by with bands playing, the colors fluttering in the breeze and the artillery's guidons gleaming, in the sun. At each intersecting street could be seen eager throngs held back a block away by a cordon of bluecoats. So well had the police done their work that the way was absolutely clear. There was not a halt nor an interruption of any kind as the division proceeded through the great Victory Arch at Madison Square, under the Arch of Jewels at Fifty-ninth Street, past the reviewing stand, and straight up Fifth Avenue to One Hundred and Sixteenth Street.

It was an inspiring finish to a splendid career. The 77th Division, which had been the first of the National Army divisions to be sent to France and the first to engage in active work at the front, had made for itself a reputation worth having. It had done the work given it to do, and done it well. It had earned the praise of both French and American corps and army commanders for its achievements on the battlefield, no less than the unqualified approval of the inspectors and transportation officers through whose hands it passed on the way home. New York had learned the worth of the 77th Division, and New York opened her heart to these sons of hers on that memorable 6th of May.

Sitting in his quarters in Camp Upton, whither the troops were sent for demobilization after the parade, Colonel Enos remarked, "I suppose the proudest moment of my life was when I walked up Fifth Avenue at the head of the 304th Field Artillery." For Colonel Enos, who came to us after the fighting was over, caught, in a measure that few men could have equaled, the nature and spirit of the organization which he commanded. Very unobtrusively he had fitted into his place in the regiment, and almost without our knowing it he had become in a very real sense its leader. The men never knew him personally in the same way that they had known Colonel Briggs, but all through those weary months of waiting after the armistice was signed, the quiet but intense interest, the absolute squareness, the unfailing kindness of Colonel Enos made itself felt throughout the regiment, and went far toward keeping the morale up to its surprisingly high level. No man was more frankly proud of the organization than he, and, as he said to the assembled captains the day before the regiment was disbanded, his one great regret will always be that he was denied the privilege and the honor of serving at the front, even for a day, with the 304th F. A.

No one man or group of men can be said to be responsible for the character of the regiment. Undoubtedly the leadership of Colonel Briggs through the critical period in which he was in command exerted a tremendous influence; but the spirit which animated all the men from the top down and from the bottom up was born of a common experience in a great adventure. Potentially that spirit was present in the early days at Camp Upton, but actually its power was not felt until the members of the 304th found themselves sharing danger and hardship together as colaborers in a mighty task. Then, with few exceptions, officers, non-commissioned officers and privates discovered the secret of disregarding their own personal interests and conveniences and working together in common loyalty to a great cause.

Those who laid down their lives are but conspicuous examples of the selfless devotion which characterized the whole body of men. We honor them, not simply because of the great sacrifice they gladly made, but because they typify to us the spirit we all felt and saw day after day in the men about us, a spirit which shall live on in the soul of every loyal member of the regiment.

As a military organization the 304th F. A. ceased to exist when, on May 10, 1919, in a downpour of rain, the men marched to the Camp Upton quartermaster's to turn in their blankets and draw their final pay. Then, in a riot of joy at the final prospect of home, with scant farewell they swarmed aboard the train, which was to take them back to civil life. They left behind a splendid record of noble achievement, and they carried with them a host of memories, which cannot but enrich their lives in all the years to come.


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