16. Rough Going


Chapter 16
Rough Going


AS WE understood it, the part to be played by the Platoon was that of liaison machine gun patrol between the 77th and 35th Divisions but there we sat with no one in sight and unable to reach anybody by runner. We later learned that Germans in the woods back from the brow of the hill could have cleaned us out if they had come forward and poked a gun down at us. We commenced to dip into iron rations and it looked like a long stay. Late the next afternoon an infantry officer, followed by his men, came up the ravine. He said they were the attacking battalion of the 305th Infantry and were just getting through. Where had we been and how in hell did we get there so fast? Evidently, we were ahead of the infantry. The infantry officer was able to be of assistance to Parker and we soon were retracing our steps. We swung over to the right and, no doubt, got somewhere near where we were supposed to be but we couldn't prove it. What we were sure of, was that we were in an awful mess, facing an enemy we could not see and, at times, we could not be positive that we were facing the enemy. He sometimes seemed to be behind us but, at any rate, we were heading in the right direction. The enemy was now putting up stiff resistance, all was confusion and everybody seemed to have no idea where we were. Lieut. Gorham's platoon was practically cut to pieces about the second day and the exasperating part of it was that there were no real targets for us in the dense woods but, on the other hand, we were always fine targets for the Jerry machine gunners. On Friday, September twenty-sixth, Lieut. Floyd Smith held a position on a hill near Camp Bismarck with heavy shelling all day. Machine guns were holding up the advance, the infantry losing a good many. Sergeant Lewis, Pierson, Wicht and Morris of A Company were wounded.

At all points the Battalion was faced with difficult situations but they were met with determination and fortitude and obstacles were swept aside. On September twenty-seventh Fred Harris, of B Company, had the harrowing experience of seeing the rest of the men of his gun crew make the supreme sacrifice, leaving him to carry on alone. Lieut. H. 1. Duff, who was assigned to the Company just prior to the start of the advance on September twenty-sixth, was in command of the crew which, in addition to Harris, consisted of Lloyd 0. Jackson, Frick and two ammunition carriers whose names are not recalled. They had pushed on into a ravine in the face of a devastating fire by the enemy. As Harris says, "They were giving us everything they had". It was hell on earth as they started up the hi in the face of machine gun fire, German hand grenades, known as potato mashers, trench mortars and snipers. The screeching of the men who were hit was blood curdling. When the brow of the hill was attained, the enemy, as usual, could not be seen because of the thick underbrush and trees. Every man flattened himself against the ground taking advantage of any depression in the ground. Lieut. Duff ordered Harris to set up the gun and, with Jackson doing the loading, a sweeping fire was directed at the tree-tops hoping to stop the snipers. The gun had not been in operation more than a few moments when the two ammunition carriers were killed and a shift in position was ordered by Lieut. Duff. It proved to be- a very disastrous move as Frick was wounded and Jackson and the Lieutenant were killed instantly. Harris was alone. Alone, not only with a cumbersome machine gun, but with thoughts of his buddies racing through his brain and wondering when his turn would come "to join the innumerable caravan". He dragged the gun and tripod into a clump of bushes and waited with grim determination to avenge his comrades but there was no one in sight. Another officer, going for-ward, directed Harris to B Company Headquarters and a report was made to Capt. Turnbull.

On Saturday, the twenty-eighth, Lieut. Smith was still on the hill but on the twenty-ninth it was over the top again. The enemy was reported as running but they checked the advance at Abri-Du

Crochet. That was probably a clump of bushes and, no doubt, similar to Binarville which was simply a name painted on a board nailed to a tree. It was indeed a tedious task struggling through that tangled undergrowth day in and day out, cautiously feeling out the unseen enemy. At times stubborn resistance would hold the advance for several days until flank movements would, eventually, dislodge the machine gun nests doing the damage.

October first found A Company in a very hot place. Kennedy and McAuliffe were killed and Sgt. Duffy was wounded and lay out in the woods all night. We can still recall Major Harris, of the infantry, with his broken arm in a sling and carrying on, refusing to go back. Lieutenant Stockton, of A Company, with a head wound, insisted on staying in the game. Well, as we have said before, day in and day out we kept at it and the rain, which had set in, made matters worse. Then, too, we were encountering those deep ravines that gave us plenty of trouble going down but infinitely more trouble coming up. All this time we were carrying, carrying, carrying machine guns, tripods, ammunition, spare parts, rations, not to mention our packs, side arms, gas-masks and, last but by no means least, a few pounds of mud on each foot. The men in the infantry regiments had started with combat packs and how they shivered and shook in the wet woods without blankets. However, there was not much chance for any comfort for, although we had full packs, they were not always opened. At times the best one could do was to draw feet and legs up under the slicker and with the steel helmet pulled down over one's face, lay there in the rain all night and take it.

On one occasion, when the resistance was particularly stubborn, the gun section to which the writer belonged together with the infantrymen we were supporting, were ordered to draw back about a hundred yards to enable an artillery battery to put on a point blank barrage to dislodge some machine gun nests. When the infantry petty posts out ahead received the word, they simply slung rifles over their shoulders and got back. The messenger bringing the word was late so that before we could get our thousand and one things together, the barrage started. We managed to get the gun and tripod dismounted and were running back when it was discovered that our number three man did not have the ammunition. Corporal Kelly roared through the woods, "Wanner, go back and get that ammunition." To which Wanner very politely yelled back, "To hell with it, there's more where that came from." Wanner was a cheerful soul in a sour sort of way and many a funk hole we dug together. One night he woke me up to do my trick of the guard and his greeting was, "Smitty, we're surrounded!" "The hell you say," said 1. "Well, listen, boy," said he, "I'll sit here with you and wait and see what happens." Soon there was the plop of a rifle and it wasn't up ahead but behind us. "Did ya hear it?" "Yep! What do we do now?" "I dunno," said he, "it's your job, I'm going to sleep." Well I sat there and listened to that occasional crack and could visualize a crowd of Jerries standing around looking down at us but in the morning everything was lovely and just as we had left it. Just the same, it was good to see the daylight. Old boy Wanner sitting in the hole said he was tired carrying his gas-mask on his chest so he reached up and hung it on a twig growing a couple of feet out of the .ground. In a few minutes the gas-mask fell into the hole. "That's damn funny," he said, but when he looked at the strap he found that a sniper had picked it off the twig for him. Lucky the shot wasn't through the box respirator.

Slowly but surely we inched our way forward, but we paid dearly for it at every thrust. On one occasion when we were held up by the murderous fire of the enemy guns, there appeared among us none other than General Wittenmeyer, commander of the brigade. "Old Silver King", as he was called by the boys in the Infantry. Without helmet or gas mask he stood bolt upright in that entangled under-brush and ordered the Infantry to take more interval in the skirmish line and called upon the machine gunners to go forward with the attack. The old general must have had a charmed life or the left hind paw of a rabbit under his belt, the way he stood there and practically invited the entire German army to take a pot-shot at him. Nothing happened to him and it was just sheer good luck. The line started forward but that was as far as it went. Machine guns opened at us at such a short distance ahead that it was, to use a homey expression, almost as though they were spitting in our faces. There was barely time to throw ourselves to the ground and we did so with such speed and dispatch we fairly bounced. Once down we stayed down while that withering fire sizzled over us. Things quieted eventually and the slow process of feeling out the enemy again started.

On one occasion the Second Platoon of C Company had taken up positions to fire a barrage over the heads of our Infantry so that they could advance. The time had almost arrived for the firing to start when Harry O'Beirne rushed up breathless with a message to get to the platoon to stop the barrage, as the latest information received was to the effect that the enemy was falling back and the firing would have been right into our own infantry making the follow-up.

Later we got the story when O'Beirne had enough breath to talk. It seems that he had been coming up with the ration cart when a colonel asked him what outfit he was going to. When it was learned that he was a 305th Machine Gun man the colonel said that he would guard the ration cart and for Harry to get up as fast as he could to stop the barrage. Harry went back and got the chow wagon-all in the day's work.

There is another incident that might be called the story of the disappearing logs. Wanner and I had dug a funk hole and as there was a pile of nicely quartered logs the Germans had left behind, we decided to use them to cover the hole as protection against our old enemy-shrapnel. We carried logs from the pile to the hole, but we did not seem to be getting anywhere. Wanner wanted to know where I was putting the logs and I asked him where he was putting those he carried over. Then we found out. Corporal Kelly and Frank Doyle, two good, smart Irishmen, had taken those logs and erected breastworks around the end of the hole we had dug and then to cap the climax, placed the machine gun on its tripod in the hole with it nose sticking over the top. There was the hole we were going to sleep in turned into a fine machine-gun emplacement. We had a few choice remarks to make about it, as can be imagined, but there was a war going on and we had orders to fire a half-hour's barrage. Doyle hopped onto the saddle and started letting her ride, while Wanner slammed in the clips of ammunition as fast as the gun would take them and I kept an eagle eye out for stoppages. We had just one which was caused by a missing round, but after signaling Frank to re-cock the gun, away we went.

It is hard to say how we found time to do it but somehow we could see our rivals, Mike Lambert and Jimmy McManus, a short distance away, getting a few "put-put-puts" and a stoppage. They worked like Trojans to keep their old blunderbus going, but it was surely cutting up that day. We were watching to see Frank Doyle get tumbled off the seat any moment, but there he sat and I doubt if there was ever a cooler gunner. Wanner stopped to put on his mask, as the gas in the hole became too much for him. When we stopped firing, Frank said to take a look at the nice job we did and there ahead, caused by our bullets clipping off branches, was a fine, long tunnel bored through the woods. That left us sitting at the head of it and anyone could have fired along that opening and bumped us off with ease. The interesting part of it all was that upon close examination it was disclosed that the logs Kelly and Doyle had piled up in front were full of lead and we no doubt would have been push-ing up daisies had they not been there.

Over where some of the A Company men were with Floyd Smith, as we have mentioned, Kennedy and McAuliffe were killed. Smith wrote:

"Wednesday, October 2nd: We bury the boys along the road, also several of the infantry. We move to the left and dig in. Everyone nervous.

"Thursday, October 3rd: The Boche are making a hard stand. Stockton wounded; also the Chaplain. Sergeant Goerse killed. Our own artillery fire got them.

"Friday, October 4th: We are still in support and can't go ahead. Get some shelling.

"Saturday, October 5th: [evidently referring to the infantry] The battalion is lost and we take positions next to them. Steep hill. Boche on other side and we throw things back and forth all day. Everyone stays close to a hole.

"Sunday, October 6th: Still on the hill. Marine major orders at-tack and infantry loses 265 men in a few minutes. Bad day. My platoon lucky. Hear Achilles loses several.

"Monday, October 7th: Lieut. Lewis brings up some guns. Sent back one team gassed. Have a brush with the Boche. Mail from home. Hear we will be relieved.

"Thursday, October 10th: We follow the Boche. They pepper us with trench mortars. Very exciting and several infantry hurt. We surely dig.

"Friday, October 11th: Boche has beat it again. We follow through the woods. Get lost and run onto a mine. Very lucky. Several of the infantry hurt."

So it went. Day by day we penetrated deeper into the forest in the teeth of those German machine guns and then we heard about some outfit of the Division that had run into trouble up ahead-but it was a matter for the other brigade, the 154th, to handle and we had nothing to do with that. The world has come to know it as the "Lost Battalion" but we had no such romantic name for it. To us it was simply that some of our buddies had gotten into a jam and no one can realize what that meant better than the men of the 77th Division, who fought every step of the way through the entire length of the Argonne Forest, battling not only the German Army but the mud and those deep ravines.

No story would be complete without a word about the first-aid men, those fellows with the red-cross brassards on their arms, who were up where the going was tough. Their's was no easy task getting through the undergrowth to tend the wounded. I recall one fellow whose name I never learned. He sat on the edge of our funk hole during a lull, just about at the end of his rope. His partner had been killed and he was handling the entire job alone but he was putting up a grand fight and no cry of "First Aid" went unanswered. He was one lad who was entitled to a D. S. C. and he carried no weapons. There wasn't anything cheerful about the Argonne, but here and there we managed to get a laugh. We were advancing on one of the good roads when a halt was called to await orders. Part of the platoon went to each side of the road and as luck would have it, the guns were mounted and pointed up the road instead of being placed on the ground. Again it was our old friend Wanner. He decided it was a good time to take off his cootied underwear and to put on a clean suit he had in his pack. He was standing there naked when Generals Alexander and Wittenmeyer came striding along. We were handed the usual question by General Alexander, "Do you know who I am?" We had the right answer. Then he addressed himself to Wanner but it would take more than a mere major general to rattle that bird. "What's the idea?" said the General, or words to that effect. "Cooties, Sir; had to get some relief," said Wanner unabashed, "clean underwear in my pack, so I decided to put it on." "Well, get further under the trees; you can be seen by aeroplanes." The General suddenly swung around to Corporal Mike Lambert. But Mike was equal to the occasion. "Mounted for action or just resting?" demanded Alex. "Mounted for action, Sir." "What range have you got on those guns?" "Battle sight, Sir," said Mike, and the day was saved. If he had said something like eighteen hundred yards up in the dense foliage of the Argonne, we would all have been in the hoosegow. As a matter of fact, Mike did not know what was on the guns any more than he knew what day of the week it was.

The Germans had things fixed up quite comfortably in the Forest and the Schwabenplatz, in the heart of the woods, was a nice, restful spot, but we did not have time to linger. I can also recall those houses built of small branches and the interior trim of hard wood. One of the bright spots came when we were drawn back for a day or two at which time we had a chance to shave and had an official bath in tents. The water was supplied through small galvanized iron pipes punctured every couple of feet and as one of the boys explains it, after you got your head well soaked you were told that you had your quota of water and you were rushed out to put on your clothes. But it was good to get any kind of wash. Pete Windolph, of C Company, said at the outset that he would not shave until we were finally relieved. He kept to his word, but before he could shave he had to use a pair of scissors, as he had a particularly heavy beard.

This proved to be only a respite and the next day we were moving forward again, but the going was easier and apparently the enemy was going back fast. Lieut Floyd Smith said, "Saturday, October 12th: Out of the woods and advance to Aire River. We are away out in front of the infantry. Thompson wounded by shell. Locate Cloke [probably an infantry officer] in Marcq and move there. Sunday, 13th: Sergeant Pearsall comes up with two guns. We get vegetables from Boche garden and send them to kitchen. Will eat anyway. Monday, 14th: Lots of shelling. Several land in yard. Three come through roof. We wonder if cellar is deep enough. Tuesday, 15th: We fire a barrage on St. Juvin. Take it and get 350 prisoners. The enemy shells Marcq something awful."

It seemed almost unbelievable when we first observed open country ahead and what a relief to leave the darkness of the forest behind. We of C Company, emerged at what had been the tiny village of La Bezone, just a group of three or four old shacks and how lonely and desolate there at the northern end of the Argonne Forest. What a rugged road we had come through since the jump-off on September 26th, and the only division to come through the heart of the woods. The woodsmen from the sidewalks of New York.
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