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18. The Beginning of the End


A STORY
of
THE 305th MACHINE GUN BATTALION
77th DIVISION
A.E.F.
By

HENRY W. SMITH
Chapter 18
The Beginning of the End


CHAPTER XVIII
THE BEGINNING OF THE END

AN ALL-NIGHT hike back through the Argonne and, as Lieut. Smith says, "Thursday, October 31st: Back to the old crossroads. Take a position outside St. Juvin and shoot steadily for five hours. Lose eight men. Friday, Nov. 1st: In St. Juvin again. Shoot some more and the Boche does not reply."

Leaving our comfortable quarters at Camp de Croix Gentin to march the entire length of the Argonne under cover of darkness with a realization of what was at the end of the trail would certainly not put a man in the lightest of moods and it was especially saddening to those men who were prepared to go on leave as they pictured their new uniforms being dragged through the mud of the battlefields. We resigned ourselves to the task with the thought in mind that the sooner we started at it again the sooner it would be over. We trudged along one of the few roads in the forest, thankful that we did not have to make our way up and down those heartbreaking ravines. A sunken road running down toward St. Juvin was strewn with many Jerries, machine guns and equipment, mute evidence of the fierce struggle that took place there. It was here, at St. Juvin, that Lieutenant Andre, of our Battalion, fought gallantly with his men, winning a citation and the Distinguished Cross. We did not relieve any troops as divisions holding the lines drew to the right and left, making room for us to take over our sector. As daylight came upon us and we picked out familiar landmarks, it could be seen that we were back where we were when relieved. During the early hours of the morning of November first the artillery regiments put over a barrage and at the zero hour we once again started forward, little knowing that we were actually starting down the home-stretch that would bring us to the finish of the war.

Under Lieutenant Parker the Third Platoon of C Company veered over to the right of St. Juvin, skirting the positions of the D and A Companies' guns. Those Companies were firing a barrage on Champignuelle, a town across the valley, and they were doing a mighty fine job. Ask any D or A Company man, even now, years later, if he recalls the barrage and a satisfied smile will spread across his face. We of C Company, under Parker, were working our way along the side of a hill when the Lieutenant stopped us and then lined up the Platoon in squad columns. He then started us down the valley in the direction of Champignuelle. We had not gone very far when Captain Dollarhide came striding up the valley. "What are you doing, Lieutenant?" he inquired. "We are preparing to take that town," replied Parker. "Aw, hell, call it off, Lieutenant," said Dollarhide, "I have been in that place all morning and there is no one there." Was Parker's face red!

Swinging forward again, our way lay along the long slope of a hill that was being raked by enemy machine gun fire which was holding up the advance. It was along this slope that Frank Doyle ran afoul of mustard gas in a shell hole which later put him out of action. As the machine gun fire swept the hillside we were forced to throw ourselves to the ground and flatten out as much as possible until the firing let up. While in this prone position, Greenyear said he had been hit but he looked alright until he shoved his foot out sidewise along the ground and the blood, streaming from his foot, had already stained the outside of his shoe a dark muddy crimson. When the Germans withheld their fire for an instant, according to a prearranged plan, a dash was made for a designated shell hole some few feet further up the hill. From where we had been lying it could not be seen that the shell hole was already occupied and there were a couple of surprised soldiers as we slid head first into that hole on top of them. Cutting away Greenyear's puttee and shoe, it was found that a bullet had gone through his instep and he was hastily bandaged with first-aid packs. Fortunately he had a clean pair of socks with him, one of which was drawn on over the bandage. Looking cautiously over the edge of the hole, a doughboy with a stretcher over his shoulder was discovered some distance down the hill. He came up to the hole and said his partner had run out on him when the firing started and he could handle only one end of the stretcher. Frazee, from the One-pound Platoon of the 305th Infantry Regiment, who was also in the hole, volunteered to take an end of the stretcher if we would let his outfit know where he had left the ammunition he was bringing up. Some day we may be able to do that. Greenyear was placed in the stretcher and, as he was lifted, he raised himself on an elbow and, waving to us he said, "Well, so long fellows, the best of luck to you."

"So long, Archie," we replied. "You lucky son of a so and so. You will never come back to this mess again." And he never did.

Off to our left a German ammunition dump at the edge of Champigneulle had been fired and was making quite a bombardment.

Fred Harris, of B Company, recalls that his gun crew had taken up position sometime during the night of October thirty-first and that Lieut. Jones, in command of the gun, gave orders to go over the top at five o'clock on the morning of November first. The names of all the men in the squad do not come to mind but those handling the gun were Fitzpatrick, Siff, Henry J. Jones and, of course, Harris. Everyone was tense as the zero hour was awaited and, when at last the signal to go over was given, the gun crew started forward in the face of terrific shell fire. There came that swish and explosion, comparable to the death-dealing lightning bolt and the war ended for Henry J. Jones. It was broad daylight and in open country but the crew pushed steadily forward although it was slow progress as the men were forced to crawl like worms in the grass as German machine gun fire swept the ground. As the men squirmed into a shell hole Siff was hit. He was dragged in and, as he was found to be bleeding profusely, Lieut. Jones asked Fitzpatrick to take him back to a first- aid dressing station. Fitzpatrick carried him back across the open fields. The command was, again, forward and those of the gun crew left crawled laboriously out of the shell hole. Perhaps fifty feet directly ahead three German soldiers struggled out of their machine gun nest. A rifle spoke instantly from a group on the right; one German pitched forward lifeless. The others were taken prisoner.

Continuing forward from shell hole to shell hole along the side of the hill, C Company men finally dropped into a ravine and were thankful for the protection it afforded. It was not long before there was a shout and up the ravine from the left came a dozen Jerries with their hands raised above their heads. Suspecting a trick there was a general shout to get guns mounted and to be on the alert but it was just a case of these war-weary fellows surrendering and calling "quits". Some of our fellows, who could speak German, asked them why they were clinging to the black bread it could be seen several were holding under their arms. They replied that their officers had told them all kinds of stories about what would happen to them if taken prisoner and that it behooved them to hang on to any food they had. Our men told them to throw it away as they would probably get better food than we were able to get in the line. The prisoners were started for the rear with the war over so far as they were concerned and we again started forward. With our heavy equipment on our shoulders we laboriously climbed the hill out of the ravine. An officer of the 306th Infantry, after watching us for a few minutes as we struggled up the hill, turned to his men and told them that they ought to be ashamed of themselves for kicking about the load they had to carry. He told them to take a look at the machine gunners who were carrying a real load, what with our heavy guns and equipment, and we were not complaining. What heroes we were! It just so happened that we needed all our energy to get up the hill and did not have wind enough to do anything else. We would suggest that the infantry officer stay around the machine gunners for a while for some real, plain and fancy kicking.

The enemy was unable to withstand the relentless pressure of the Division, falling back so rapidly, offering practically no resistance that the advance became quite a foot race. Far off, across the valley, so far away that the explosions could not be heard, there could be seen, along the slopes of the distant hills, the exploding shells of a barrage being poured into the German lines. Just after emerging from a patch of woods and crossing an open field, an enemy airplane flew low over us dropping hand grenades. Instinctively we scattered in all directions but it raised the ire of Captain Dollarhide who said he would shoot the man who was the first to break the next formation. He also threatened the first one who asked to be sent back to the picket line. It so happened that the Captain was the first one to go back, suffering from the strain and exposure. Crossing bridges erected under the most trying conditions by our reliable 302nd Engineer Regiment, we pushed on through Verpel and then to Thenorgues, names we do not have to consult histories to recall. Wounded German soldiers who could not keep up with the retreat were found waiting for us in one of those villages. Debris was scattered all along the route and, at one point, a German long-range field piece had been blown off the road and, together with the entire team of eight horses, lay half submerged in a large puddle at the side of the road.

It is not recalled just when we loaded our equipment on the machine gun carts but it might be mentioned that the gun teams had been almost exhausted trying to keep up under the weight. Runners offered to relieve the gunners but Capt. Dollarhide would not permit it, saying he wanted his runners fresh when the advance stopped. The attack continued, the various battalions of the infantry leap-frogging each other to keep it going and we found ourselves moving through Buzancy where the houses were burning on each side of the road when we passed through.

Continuing along, the heavy hum of many airplanes was heard and, to our amazement, there appeared what could only be described as a cloud of bombing planes. A quick count disclosed over four hundred in the squadron and, at last, the supremacy of the air appeared to have been gained by the Allies. As the bombing squadron flew into the haze ahead it could be seen to be dividing into smaller units and spreading out. Very faintly, in the distance, the sound of some of the bombing could be heard and it must have filled the Germans with consternation when that armada swept across the skies. In order to check the advance, bridges had been demolished which had to be hastily replaced by the engineers and, at one point, a mine on each side of the road had blown away most of it leaving a piece at the crown just wide enough for the passage of machine gun carts. The limbers had to swing off into the marshland of the valley.

Just short of St. Pierremont we were held up temporarily by the enemy so, as it could not be foretold how much of a stand would be made, it was necessary to dig in. A Company took up positions in a railroad cut and were shelled all night. On Monday, November fourth, Lieutenant Smith, making a notation in his diary under shell fire, reports the loss of nine horses and three men. It was at about this time that Magrath and Jourdain of C Company were wounded. Rubin, one of C Company's mule skinners, came along the line bemoaning the fate of his mule. It seems that the Boche started to concentrate on the woods where he had tethered the mule and fearing that things were getting too hot, the mule was shifted, unfortunately, right into the path of a shell, which cut the animal in two.

During this advance machine gunners did not have any chance to do any firing and it was exasperating to be a target for the enemy without an opportunity to reciprocate. Earlier in the advance, around St. Juvin, A Company had been firing steadily and prisoners going back said the machine gun fire had been fearful.

The hold-up at St. Pierremont kept us there overnight. It was not the plan of the enemy to offer stiff resistance here, however, but to get back across the Meuse River and we looked forward to a siege similar to our Vesle River experience. On the night of November second C Company lay along a road with guns mounted on the forward embankment. Sidney Rust, who as we have mentioned, was always salvaging and looking for the best protection, found a semicircular piece of elephant iron and, with much effort, succeeded in turning it on its ends so that he could sleep beneath it. It was the last salvaging job that Rust did, for out in front of that shelter, on the morning of November third, a shell made a direct hit. We laid Rust away in the hole made by the shell that killed him; the last man of C Company to make the supreme sacrifice. Death in those days caused us only a moment's pause. It only served to fire us with a greater determination to square the score with the enemy.

Once again we pressed northward toward the Meuse River and it was a satisfying sight to see hundreds of German prisoners being marched to the rear. Rumor had it that not far ahead lay a village with white flags flying from the chimney tops indicating the presence of civilians and, while at first we were inclined to disbelieve the story, it was not long before the actual sight met our eyes and we entered La Besace, the first village in which we found civilians. Any large piece of white rag that could be found was floating above the house tops to mark the location of the village so that it would not be shelled. We learned that the Germans, upon leaving, gave their word that they would not bombard the village but they shelled pretty close to it and it was on the road at the edge of the village that Lieutenant Agler was killed. As the shells crashed around the outer rim of the village the villagers retreated into the houses almost in a panic. The small population consisted of women, old men and very small children and it is quite possible that the fathers of some of those children may have been German. Life had been anything but pleasant during the years the Boche had occupied the village and it could be detected that these poor French people were uncertain whether or not to be afraid of us. It developed that the Germans, upon departing, had impressed it upon the villagers that if life had been hard under German rule, they would see just how bad it could be when the Americans came. It was not long, however, before the people realized what they had to fear from this "wicked American army" composed of men in whose minds there was always thoughts of mothers, wives, sweethearts and sisters at home in God's country.

We might mention that it was raining. It seemed to be raining always and the few streets of La Besace were rivers of mud. We stood in the doorways as elements of infantry regiments sloshed through, hurrying forward to contact the enemy. Several of us had crowded into a small shack attached to one of the houses in which several women were living. One of them entered the shack to saw up some wood with a big saw only a man would be expected to handle. Sergeant Herman Eckert, chilled to the bone, took the saw from the woman and, in no time, had enough wood cut to last some time; in addition, he got his blood in circulation. Naturally the women were filled with consternation. They had been accustomed to doing such work for German officers and they were amazed and mystified to see a soldier working for them. It was just about unbelievable to those people who had been so in the habit of doing an officer's bidding and living in squalor and misery.

That night A and C Companies, in command of Lieutenants Floyd Smith and Simons placed the guns of the Companies, about twenty-four in number, in position just outside of the town to lay down a barrage on a red rocket signal from the infantry. The order was to dig in but, as each spade-full of earth was lifted out, the hole filled with water and it was given up as a bad job. We lay in the rain all night waiting for the signal that never came and in the morning guns were dismounted. Back in the village again the people knew they had nothing to fear from us and when the ration cart came up with cans of steaming hot coffee it was our turn to be surprised as the villagers brought out cognac to be put into the coffee. Throughout the years they had successfully kept it hidden from the Germans. Any horses that had been killed meant meat for these people and it was amusing to see them go to work carving steaks,

It was while all this activity was going on that suddenly the sound of galloping hoofs was heard and, coming down the road, could be seen a French officer followed by a bugler, both in shining new equipment. Straight down the center of the road they came at a hard gallop making a wonderful picture. The peasants rushed to the middle of the road to touch the uniforms of these French soldiers, the first they had seen for so long. Apparently they wanted to convince themselves that the soldiers were actually of this world. In a trice all thoughts of the Americans were out of the minds of the villagers and cries of Vive la France! echoed down the road as the soldiers disappeared from view. The women, standing in the doorways, murmured Vive la France almost as a prayer as tears glistened in their eyes.

The command again was forward and we resumed our march over those last few miles that took us to the Meuse River and the end of the war. It has been mentioned that B Company moved on to the Chamblage Farm, D Company pulled into Raucourt while A and C Companies moved into Autrecourt, a good-sized town near the river. Of course there were civilians in most of these towns. A Company cooks had salvaged some cabbages from a German garden along the way and, in an alley-way of one of the houses on the main street, they were boiling a fine cabbage soup. My, how good it smelled! To those men who were fortunate to get some of it, it was probably the finest soup they had ever tasted before or since.

Two guns of C Company were carried on down through the main street of Autrecourt toward the river to a point a considerable distance from the town where they were set up on each side of the road to help take care of a possible counter-attack by the enemy' Lieut. Williams, who was in command, was not sure of the proper location for the guns and returned to the town for more explicit data but he was too sick to return to the positions that night. Those in the gun squads remained at the forward positions all night in command of Sgt. Bender. German shells dropped in fairly close and shrapnel rained on the tin roof of the shed in which we had taken refuge. The next morning the gun crews were drawn back into the town. A Company moved down to cover the engineers who were endeavoring to construct a bridge across the river and a lively fight ensued with the enemy across the river. It was at this point that Lieutenant Floyd Smith attempted to get across the river on the debris of the old bridge. The Lieutenant, after falling into the river, gained the opposite embankment alone and his subsequent gallant action won for him the Distinguished Service Cross and Citation which were presented to him years later. We are happy to be able to include here Lieutenant Smith's story of his heroic action in his own words.

Detroit, Mich.,
Dear Alfred: June 18th, 1934.
1 hope you will pardon the long delay in answering your kind letter of last month. The truth of the matter is that I had mislaid my 77th Division history and did not want to write until 1 had some dates and facts before me. I did not receive the pamphlet which you forwarded at an earlier date. However, I am outlining the facts as I remember them.

The events in question happened at Villers Devant Mouzon on Nov. 7th, 1918. Our Division history give the following account of some of the action:

"When the Meuse River was reached . . . leading elements of the Division pushed up to the river, preparatory to a crossing. The river was found unfordable and it was necessary to await the erection of bridges. It was here that a detachment of the 302nd Engineers displayed great bravery in their efforts to place a passageway over the stream. Attempt after attempt was made in the face of German machine gun fire to build a bridge at Villers. Parties carrying material suffered most. No sooner would they make their appearance than a Boche automatic or sniper would open fire, causing them to take cover in the woods bordering the river. Finally a covering party of machine gunners, infantry and artillery was called to protect the engineers while they proceeded with their work. The operation was completed late in the afternoon and two platoons from the 305th Infantry were pushed to the other side of the river."

This is my version of what happened and is refreshed somewhat by a personal diary.

On the day in question, November 7th, 1918, a Colonel of Infantry met me in Remilly early in the morning and asked me to help the 302nd Engineers with my platoon of machine guns. At that time there were no infantry in the town proper. I went down to the designated spot at Villers Devant Mouzon with Sgt. Pearsall to make a reconnaissance. There we found a company of Engineers behind the diked-up bank of the Meuse. An officer and a couple of men had been shot and they reported that every time they attempted to build a bridge they were fired upon by the Germans. I then sent for my machine guns and placed them to the right of the Engineers and in some shrubbery there. At that time there was little or no firing from the other side. The old bridge bad been blown up and there was still a lot of debris in the river. The water itself was below the Germans and hidden from their sight. After some delay, Sgt. Smith, since deceased, and myself decided to go across the river on the debris and try to locate the Germans. We started across with a two-by-four between us to cover the gaps. About half way across the wreckage started floating away and I found myself marooned alone in the middle of the river. I could only go forward so I went to the opposite bank. There I found a ditch alongside a road that lead from the old bridge. There were no Germans in the ditch and it was protected, so I crawled up a ways to look around. When I stuck my bead up I found myself exactly opposite and about ten feet from a German machine gun with two men there. These men surrendered as soon as they saw me. Then I saw between 50 and 75 Germans dug into shallow fox holes behind a line of willows that were parallel to the river. I then went back to the river bank with the two prisoners and sat them up on the bank to keep their own men from firing. Then I yelled to Sgt. Pearsall to fire on the willows with his guns. When we started firing the Germans found that they did not have enough protection and they started running back for cover.

I remember that there was some dandy shooting that day and that we got most of the enemy. After we started firing, the Engineers put planks across very quickly and finished the bridge. I turned the prisoners over to Private Kerstein, who gave them to the 302nd Engineers to take back. After the bridge was built the infantry came up and dug in. Later in the day and the rest of that night the Germans shelled that spot with great abandon. That, Alfred, is my recollection of what happened.
Sincerely,
FLOYD T. SMITH.

WAR DEPARTMENT
THE ADJUTANT GENERAL'S OFFICE
Washington

September 24, 1934. In reply Refer to AG 201 Smith, Floyd T. (8-3-34) Ex Capt. Alfred Roelker 165 Broadway New York, N. Y.
Dear Sir:
Reference is again made to your letter of June 25, 1934, with which you enclosed a copy of a letter from Lt. Floyd T. Smith, formerly a member of Company A, 305th Machine Gun Battalion, 77th Division, and requested information relative to the possibility of an award of the Distinguished Service Cross.
I take pleasure in informing you that, by direction of the President, under the provisions of the Act of Congress approved July 9, 1918, and the Act of Congress approved May 26, 1928, Lt. Smith was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by the War Department on September 14, 19:34, in recognition of his extraordinary heroism in action at Villers-de-Mouzon, France, November 7, 1918.
Very truly yours,
JAMES F. McKINLEY, Major General,
The Adjutant General,
By W.
JWK-H-221


DETROITER, WAR HERO, GIVEN HONOR CROSS
Washington, Sept. 27-A belated distinguished service cross for extraordinary heroism at Villers-de-Mouzon, France, November 7, 1918, was today awarded by the War Department to Lieutenant Floyd T. Smith of 13570 Turner Avenue, Detroit.
The citation follows:
"When the Meuse River was reached it was found unfordable, thereby making it necessary to construct a bridge. Lieutenant Smith, in charge of a platoon of four machine guns, sighted two guns to support the engineers building the bridge.

"He then crossed the river alone under heavy machine gun fire on the partially completed bridge in order to locate the enemy.

"He advanced on the supposed location of enemy machine gun nests and fired upon them with a rifle. Two of the enemy surrendered and several others fled.

"Holding his prisoners at the bridgehead, he continued to fire on the retreating enemy until the bridge was completed and the patrols had crossed."

At that time Smith was a second lieutenant. He was later advanced to first lieutenant.

A short distance back from Autrecourt an ambulance loaded with wounded became mired in a shell hole of mud and everybody lent a hand to lift the bus out. There were several A Company men in the ambulance who told us that things were pretty hot up ahead. On the eighth of November Lieut. Smith, with his platoon or what was left of it, were back in Purron where the enemy shells killed a few civilians. It was stated that the rest left and gave A Company men everything in town. The nights of the ninth and tenth were spent in a cow stable and on the tenth the Boche put three holes through the roof of the building some of the men were in, Sergeant Mahoney being hit by tile thrown by one of the shells.

During the night, in the woods back of Autrecourt, the C Company ration cart came up with hot food and the regulation supply of first class rumors about the end of the war being close at hand. They were laughed off, as usual, as we could foresee another long, drawn-out session getting across the Meuse River and thoughts of the Vesle River again came to mind. Trench cards were distributed by the kitchen man and a number of us handed them in to be mailed home bearing the message that we were well. This was on the ninth and when the folks back home received the cards they naturally started worrying about what had taken place from the ninth to the eleventh of November. There were two days there that had to be accounted for.

C Company swung over left from Autrecourt and guns were mounted in the underbrush at the edge of the woods overlooking a broad sweep of the valley down to where the river had flooded the lowlands. Dimly discernible in the distance could be seen Sedan. We commanded a fine field of fire but the positions were precarious as it meant keeping guns dismounted in the daytime and staying down in the, damp underbrush with as little activity as possible. We had been warned against taking a short cut across a small, open spot in the woods as it was sure to draw fire but our old friend, Wanner, probably thought he was immune. He disregarded the warning and won a nice black eye for himself from the fist of Sergeant Prior.

Then came the morning of the ELEVENTH. So far as we were concerned it started out to be just another morning in the lines when, to our astonishment, there appeared, out in the open, Charlie Hover, Acting Company Clerk. He was proceeding along the edge of the woods yelling at the top of his lungs for Sergeant Russell. We could hardly believe our eyes. Was the man mad? "Hover, you this, that and the other thing, come in out of there I" Everybody was yelling frantically but Hover calmly waved us back and kept on. In a few moments came the booming voice of Sgt. Russell giving us the message that Hover had brought. "DISMOUNT ALL GUNS, MEN, AND DO NO FIRING UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES UNTIL FURTHER ORDERED."

So, at eleven o'clock, came the end and, to us, Hover has always been the "Man who stopped the war".

It was not easy to believe and, for several minutes, there was
uncertainty as to just what to do. After what we had been through it required some nerve to stand up in the face of the enemy in daylight. A man almost had to pinch himself to realize that the war was over and he was still in one piece.

An armistice had been signed but it had always been our understanding that an armistice was just a temporary halt and it was possible that we would be called upon to continue. An old, ruined barn down in the valley was designated as the gathering place and the night of the eleventh was spent on the dry boards of what remained of the floors. An estimate of the number of the original men of C Company places the figure at thirty-eight and, of this number, many had been back to the hospital wounded, gassed or sick so that, of the men who left Camp Upton, there was a mere half dozen on the line at the finish who were lucky enough to come through unscathed. The same no doubt holds true for the other companies of the Battalion.

Almost as soon as the hostilities ceased, different kinds of guns took command of the situation. They were the Chow Guns or rolling kitchens and they surely started to roll. The rattle of chains and rumble of wheels came from all points and clouds of smoke that cooks had all along been desperately struggling to keep down, now floated merrily skyward and what a treat to get some hot food. It was always good to see the kitchen crew anyway and after coming out of the line there was something "homey" about milling around the kitchen.
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