Wonderful and horrible things to tell: Nevada County veterans among the Meuse-Argonne Offensive
Special to The Union
Overseas burials of Nevada County World War I veterans:
(Name — Regiment/Batallion, Division, Date of Death, Cemetery)
Bellows, William H. — 23rd Infantry, 23rd division, 7/20/18, Aisne-Marne American Cemetery-Belleau
Perkins, Albert G. — 12th Machine Gun Batallion, 4th division, 7/19/08, Aisne-Marne American Cemetery-Belleau
McGanney, Edward J. — 30th Infantry, 3rd division, 10/5/18, Cemetery-Romagne-sous-Montaucon
Smith, Rhodes R. — 362nd Infantry, 91st division, 9/29/18, Cemetery-Romagne-sous-Montaucon
Hill, Hedley — 1st Machine Gun Batalltion, 1st division, 10/5/18, Cemetery-Romagne-sous-Montaucon
Gadda, Onorato — 308th Infantry, 77th division, 10/12/18, Cemetery-Romagne-sous-Montaucon
Pinkham, Albert L. — 363rd Infantry, 91st division, 9/26/18, Cemetery-Romagne-sous-Montaucon
Murray, Clifford J. — 18th Infantry, 1st division, 7/22/18 Oise-Aisne American Cemetery-Seringes-et Nestes
Brasher, Lawrence — 7th Engineer, 5th division, 2/2/19, Oise-Aisne American Cemetery-Seringes-et Nestes
Fleming, Isaac L. — 363rd Infantry Regiment, 91st division, 11/12/18, Somme American Cemetery-Bony
Hague, William, 116th Engineers, 41st division, 1/1/18, Suresnes American Cemetery-Suresnes
For three days and nights in late September of 1918, the men of the 91st Division of the American Expeditionary Force had huddled under cover in the Forêt de Hesse in north-eastern France.
Nicknamed the Wild West Division, the unit was largely made up of men from the Western states and the Territory of Alaska. Many of the soldiers of the 91st were men from Nevada County. For nearly a year they had trained and drilled together at Camp Lewis in Washington, but had not yet seen combat.
That night the rain fell steadily. The doughboys made do with what shelter they could find in the forest as they tried to steady their nerves. Come morning the 91st would be one of 22 infantry divisions in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the largest military undertaking in U.S. history involving 1.2 million American soldiers across a front 18 miles long. The objective was to take Sedan, a critical German rail hub that would break the communication and supply lines of the German Army. The offensive would last from Sept. 26 to Nov. 11, when Germany signed an armistice that would bring an end to the fighting.
In that 47-day period, 26,277 Americans died and 95,786 were wounded.
At 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 26, the American artillery opened fire. One solider remembered the barrage as “… so vast, so stunning, and the noise so overwhelming that no one could grasp the whole.” In three hours about 2,400 artillery pieces fired over 4 million shells, more than the Union Army fired during four years of the American Civil War. At 5:30 a.m. the 91st Division surged forward into a fog shrouded wasteland. Initially the division found little German resistance.
The 363rd Infantry Regiment, in which many Nevada County men served, broke through three German lines advancing nearly five miles in a war where advances were often measured in yards. But over the course of the next two days the 91st found itself far forward of the divisions on its flanks. With supply trucks and ambulances bogged down at the rear the men had no food, fresh water or ammunition. Wounded men lay where they fell, or were moved by their comrades to any form of shelter that could be found. By Sept. 30, the 91st had taken 4,700 casualties.
On Oct. 4, after 10 days of intense fighting and heavy losses most of the 91st’s regiments were relieved with Major General George H. Cameron’s thanks: “At a time when divisions on its flanks were faltering and even falling back,” he wrote, “the 91st pushed ahead and steadfastly clung to every yard.”
News about the fates of individual soldiers was slow to reach Nevada County. Official notifications began arriving in early October, but often family and friends had to wait weeks for accurate information.
Nevada County’s first casualty was Albert L. Pinkham, a miner at the Brunswick Consolidated Mine who died on the first day of the battle, just two weeks after his 26th birthday. Isaac L. Fleming of Indian Springs was likely shot at the beginning of the attack as well, but remained on the battlefield for several days before being transported to a hospital where he died of his wounds. Rhodes R. Smith of Rough and Ready died on the 29th. Reports about men serving in other divisions trickled in as well. Lester Bishop, Hedly Hill, Oronato Gadda, Edward McGanney and Albert W. Perkins were all killed between Sept. 26 and the Nov. 11.
Nevada County’s wounded, which numbered more than two dozen, were eventually evacuated to hospitals where they were able to write home. Among the wounded writers was Grass Valley’s Howard Bennetts who wrote on Christmas Day from an American hospital in Paris. His words likely captured the sentiments of many who survived the Meuse-Argonne Offensive:
“I have some wonderful things and some horrible things to tell which I will have to save till I come home.”
A trip to pay tribute
In early September, I traveled to the Meuse-Argonne battlefields and visited many of the American World War I cemeteries.
At the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery I was privileged to visit the graves of five members of our community who are buried there: Edward J. McGanney, Rhodes R. Smith, Hedley Hill, Albert L. Pinkham, and Onorato Gadda.
They are but five of the 14,246 dead buried at that vast and beautiful “silent city.”
Their presence there is a reminder of the hundreds of largely forgotten men and women of Nevada County who served so far from home one hundred years ago.
Linda Jack is a member of the Nevada County Historical Society. See more on the historical society’s special project “Over Here: Nevada County’s Experience of World War” at http://www.nevadacountyhistory.org. Programs and events were funded by a grant from California Humanities and their partner the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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