American history is replete with tales of heroism on the battlefield, from generals right down to the common soldier. Heroes in war are the meat and potatoes that history books — and the telling and re-telling of heroic deeds — are made.
Yet, there is a cost in war — every war.
It’s in the untold stories of those who have fought and bled and died for their country.
So, the most poignant tales many times are not of the great deeds themselves, but in the eventual outcomes as soldiers try and live out their lives, knowing the horror of war they both saw and experienced.
Charles White Whittlesey, had you seen him in civilian life prior to the outbreak of the First World War, would not have under any stretch conjured up the image of an American war hero.
Bespectacled and erudite, Whittlesey was Wisconsin born, and as a teen moved with his family to Massachusetts, where he attended college, eventually graduating from Harvard Law School and entering practice in New York City.
A month after America entered the war in 1917, Whittlesey took leave from his law firm and joined the Army, shipping as a captain to France with the 77th “Metropolitan Division” — called that because it largely was composed of New York City men from the Lower East Side, who spoke 42 different languages and dialects.
Fighting with the 308th Battalion, Whittlesey and his men entered real combat in August 1918, during the Argonne and Meuse offensives against the German army. Sent into the famed Argonne Forest, the 308th Battalion was cut off from flanking American Army units, without adequate food or ammunition.
Now a major, the companies of Whittlesey’s battalion were surrounded on Oct. 2, and joined by some units of the 307th Infantry, trapping a total of about 550 men in a ravine.
Vicious fighting and privation ensued for Whittlesey and his battalion, who would be cut off by the Germans for five days before they were rescued.
The battalion was subjected to constant machine gun and mortar fire by the well-equipped German troops.
In addition, the Americans were targets from their own lines, as so-called “friendly fire” from artillery rained down on them.
Lacking adequate communications, and using homing pigeons to send coordinates to headquarters to direct the artillery, one pigeon took back inaccurate information, causing American artillery to hit the battalion position.
Despite being badly wounded by German fire, the last pigeon — Cher Ami — flew a note 25 miles to stop the barrage.
Only 194 men came out alive and unwounded of the 550, with 107 dying and another 63 missing in action. At least 800 Germans died in the fighting.
The Germans had requested Whittlesey’s surrender, and it was widely reported he told them “You go to hell,” although he later denied the statement.
Promoted to lieutenant colonel, Whittlesey returned to the states a hero, and awarded one of the first three Medals of Honor for valor given in the war.
Whittlesey returned to his law practice, and as a genuine hero, frequently was called upon to speak of his war experiences.
But as countless soldiers who have been in combat and life-altering situations will tell you, talking about war experiences is not often an easy task.
Many never speak of them again.
Modest and sensitive, Whittlesey was reported to be most uncomfortable speaking of the Argonne Forest fighting.
What he did do was deflect praise from his actions, and laud the common enlisted men who fought under him for their uncommon bravery.
He was reminded of the war almost at every turn in his civilian life, and eventually was promoted to colonel and given charge of a Reserve division.
Reminding him further of the horrors he had seen was his service as pall bearer at the tomb ceremony honoring the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.
Booking passage on the SS Toloa bound for Cuba in November 1921, two days after leaving port Whittlesey stayed up late drinking and conversing with fellow passengers, and then jumped overboard.
His body was never recovered.
Having put all his affairs in order prior to leaving, Whittlesey left no letters revealing his reason for suicide.
Speculation and theories abounded after he was lost at sea, from depression over the war, to his constant reminder of the men who died under his command, the possibility it was his inaccurate coordinates that had increased the loss of his men from friendly fire, his inability to adjust as a war hero, and even his refusal to surrender to the Germans.
For whatever reason, Charles Whittlesey was as much a casualty of war as those who fell in the Argonne Forest.
His legacy, and that of the “Lost Battalion,” still are indelibly etched into the memory of American history.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.