Maj. Prinz: You Americans, you always have so much of everything. No matter. Eventually you have to surrender.
Lt. Leak: I don’t think so.
Maj. Prinz: Are you officers so callous? You’re surrounded. You have no chance of relief. Every night you send out patrols, and every night we kill them. We can hear the cries of your wounded Lieutenant. There is no dishonor in surrender.
Lt. Leak: Maybe for you, but my guys are different.
Maj. Prinz: What do you mean?
Lt. Leak: What you’re up against Major, is a bunch of Mick, Pollack, Dago, and Jew boy gangsters from New York City. They’ll never surrender. Never.
The Lost Battalion (2001)
During the Meuse-Argonne offensive there was a great deal of courage displayed by the American troops as they battered their way through determined German defenses in extremely rugged terrain. None were braver than the men of of the 77th Division, the Statue of Liberty Division, who became known to history as the Lost Battalion. The men of the Division were mostly from New York City. On their left shoulders they wore a patch depicting the Statue of Liberty. During World War I the Division was commonly referred to as the Metropolitan Division.
The commander of the First Battalion, 308th Regiment was Charles White Whittlesey. A New York City lawyer, Whittlesey was a socialist and a pacifist. He was also a patriot and that patriotism caused him to take officer’s training at Plattsburg in 1916, and in 1917 to join the Army. He found himself the commander of the First Battalion at the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive due to the heavy losses the officers of the Battalion had sustained heavy losses.
By the end of September the Meuse-Argonne Offensive had stalled. Alarmed, AEF commander General John Pershing ordered a renewal of the Offensive on October 2, with the following statement in his order that the attacks go forward “without regard of losses and without regard to the exposed conditions of the flanks. …”. Whittlesey received the news glumly. Two of his companies earlier in the offensive had been briefly surrounded by the Germans for a few hours, and he did not like the idea of advancing without securing the flanks of his battalion. His men had already sustained severe losses and numbered around 400 men, half strength. They had received replacements, primarily Midwesterners, some of whom had, incredibly, received no basic training. Whittlesy was still suffering from untreated exposure to gas at the start of the offensive. Whittlesy’s doubts about the condition of his battalion and its inability to participate in the attack on October 2, were passed up through his Brigade to the 77th Division commander, Major General Robert Alexander, who ordered the attack to be made. When Whittlesey receive the news he saluted his regimental commander and said, “All right. I’ll attack, but whether you’ll hear from me again I don’t know.”
Whittlesey’s battalion was to attack in tandem with the Second Battalion of the 308th, led by Captain George McMurtry, Jr. Their combined force consisted of approximately 800 men. Their objective was to seize the high ground beyond the Charlevaux Brook, Hill. Two companies, one from each of the battalions, were left behind to attack hill 205. On a day of completely unsuccessful Allied attacks in the Argonne, Whittlesey and McMurtry, amazingly, broke through enemies lines and seized their objective. Whittlesey had the men dig in, passed the news of their success back to the 77th by messengers, and waited for support from the Division.
Neither of the attacking units on the flanks of the first and second 308th had broken through. When news reached the 77th Headquarters, the 3rd Battalion, 307th was ordered to reinforce the first and second 308th. The four reinforcing companies marched through the night in pitch darkness, but only one company of 97 men, Company K, 3rd Battalion, 307th, reached Whittlesey and McMurtry. The force under Whittlesey now numbered about 545 men, including C and D companies of the 306th Machine Gun Battalion which had been attached to the original attacking force.
On the morning of October 3, Whittlesey sent out patrols to make contact with the units he thought were on his flank. These patrols came under heavy German fire, and by noon on Ocober 3, Whittelsey realized his force was surrounded and cut off from Allied lines. Whittlesey”s order to his company commanders did not mince words: “Our mission is to hold this position at all costs. No falling back. Have this understood by every man in your command.”
By pigeon Whittlesey informed the 77th Division of his predicament. There was nothing the Division could do with all of its units lacking the strength to mount a successful breakthrough. The surrounded Americans ate the last of the rations they carried and hunkered down as best they could as heavy German mortar fire and grenades raked their position and they beat off forays by German riflemen. The two companies of the first and second battalions outside of the pocket tried to break through, but were driven back by heavy German fire. By nightfall Whittlesey informed Division that one-third of his men were killed or wounded and all medical supplies were exhausted. He pled for artillery support and for ammunition and rations to be dropped by air.
On October 4 they received artillery support but it landed on them for several hours. Whittlesey used his last pigeon, Cher Ami, to fly back to 77th Division Headquarters and finally have the friendly fire barrage ended, several hours after it started.
On October 5 American planes tried to drop ammunition and rations, but they all fell among the surrounding German units. By now the newspapers in the States were filled with stories of the heroic Lost Battalion. (The American surrounded troops hated this name, a newspaper man’s creation, stating that they always knew where they were and so did everyone else. General Pershing ordered that “the Lost Battalion” be rescued, come what may by the 77th. A relief effort, personally led by a Brigadier General failed to break through.
On October 6, the Germans, supported by flamethrowers, made a two hour assault that the Americans beat off while suffering serious losses.
On October 7 Whittlesey received a surrender demand from the Germans: “The suffering of your wounded man can be heard over here in the German lines and we are appealing to your human sentiments. A white Flag shown by one of your man will tell us that you agree with these conditions.” Whittlsey did not bother responding to the demand. Captain McMurtry noted that this was a good sign and that the Germans were more worried than they were. The news spread among the men who were fed up and angry and in no mood for a surrender. One of the soldiers yelled out, “You Heinie bastards, come and get us!” His resolve was echoed by a chorus of obscenities directed towards the surrounding Germans by other Americans. The Germans replied by making one last heavy attack that was beaten off by the hungry, exhausted Americans, many of them bearing wounds from earlier attacks.
That day a relief force led by the First Division staged a breakthrough, and the Germans surrounding the no longer “lost” battalions withdrew. Relieving troops from the 77th Division reached the no longer surrounded Americans at 7:00 PM, the Germans withdrawing after sunset.
The next day Whittlesey and his men walked out, the 190 who were still able to. Of the remaining men, 193 were seriously wounded, 107 were dead and 63 were missing. They had inflicted some 600 casualties on their adversaries. Five men of the force earned Medals of Honor, including Whittlesey, who was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and McMurtry, a veteran of the Rough Riders, who was promoted to Major. 31 of the men earned Distinguished Service Crosses. A survivor’s association formed after the War and had annual meetings until 1968. They are all gone now, and it is up to living Americans to remember them.