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In Our Waters - The Lost Colonel of the Lost Battalion

August 23, 2018

“I was in the Army,” he explained as he drew the cigar from his lips, “During the Great War but,” he paused, “I did not see any action in Puerto Rico. Not like the action you faced over there.” The gentleman that he was speaking with reached up and pulled his delicate wire-rimmed glasses from his face. He offered a faint smile and then began to rub the glass lenses with the soft linen of his handkerchief. “I am happy that I was able to serve my country though,” the man continued as he tapped out the greyed ashen end of his Cuban cigar into the tray. “I guess,” he continued as he put the cigar back into his mouth, “that I never thought I would ever have the opportunity to meet you. A genuine hero of the war.” The gentleman carefully returned his glasses to their normal position. “Well,” he offered to his new acquaintance, “We all served and did our duty.” The other man pulled his cigar from his mouth and shifted forward in his seat. “Our duty?” he exclaimed. “You sir,” he paused, “did much more than that.” The man to whom he was speaking, eased back in his seat and crossed his legs. He smiled and coughed. “I guess,” he replied to his cigar puffing friend, “I guess you are right.” The two men conversed for nearly two hours about their experiences in the War to End all Wars. Over the course of a drink and reminiscing the non-smoking man then looked down at his wrist watch. It was nearly thirty minutes to midnight. He stood up from his chair. The other man, working on his second cigar stood up as if he was being brought to attention by a superior officer. “It was an honor,” he offered as he carefully placed the stubbed end of his lit cigar onto the ashtray, “to meet you sir.” He outstretched his hand. The two men shook hands. “It was nice to meet you as well, Mr. Malorat. It is late and I am going to retire for the evening. Good night,” the man stated as he offered a small smile and headed across the parlor. A few moments later, he stepped out onto the deck of the steamer into the cold November evening. He walked over to the railing and stared out into the darkness of the night. The retired lieutenant colonel leaned against the railing. His thoughts shifted in wanton abandon like the waves of the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. An innocent volley of reminiscing of the years in uniform with a brother in arms had again shifted the memories of the Great War to the front of his emotions. Though nothing more than a cordial and civil conversation, the interaction had dragged him to a place he knew he could never, despite his efforts, ever escape - to the death of the innocent souls who had braved the unknown…to the men he watched dying from the horrors of humanity in the dark forests of the Argonne.  The bitter cold of the evening and the remoteness of the sea reminded him of the forest three years earlier. As the ship steamed into the night, he watched the faint wisps of white foam on the crests of the waves. They reminded him of glimmers of hope and salvation from the darkness of certain death being swallowed by the enormity of the bleak and desolate expanse of the sea. A small wry grin emerged on his sullen face. But then, he reflected as he stared out into the dark and foggy evening, it had been different. He had been with his men. Now, alone on the deck of the liner Toloa, he had nothing except the memory of those dark and bitter days and nights, surrounded on all sides by the enemy and of impending doom. The liner eased forward through the water on its way to Havana as his heavy thoughts weighed on his core, the engines of the ship offering a melodic thrum that he could feel in the soles of his feet and into his legs, similar to the ground shaking as the shells from artillery careened from the heavens into the soil beneath his mud-caked boots in an effort to halt the enemies advance. But it was different, he reflected. There was no one there to help him, he pondered as he cast his gaze into the bleakness of the night. Even then, at his darkest of hours, he had someone in the rear able to offer a hand of help. But now, nothing. Alone he was cast. The hero of the Lost Battalion stared into the darkness of the night…alone. Maybe, he reflected, was there any other position for a leader? Maybe, he reflected as he stared into the darkness of the moonless night, there was only one place to be?
Whittlesey arrived in war-torn Europe as a Captain in the United States Army’s 308th Infantry Regiment, 154th Infantry Brigade, as part of the 77th Infantry Division. He had left his law firm a month into the United States’ involvement in the war and by September of 1917, he received his commission as a major. A year and a month later, Major Whittlesey and his men were ordered to push forward against the well-entrenched Germans in the Meuse-Argonne region of the Western Front. The offensive maneuver was audacious. The rail lines between Seden and Flanders were a vital supply line for the German forces. Over the course of four years, the Germans had built a nearly thirteen mile deep patchwork of prepared defensive works coupled with “the discouraging defenses that nature had devised.” But General Pershing knew that he had to drive straight through the region if he was going to try and force the Germans into submission. Major Whittlesey and his mixed battalion of five hundred and fifty four soldiers would soon find themselves in the thick of the heavy fighting.
On October 2, 1918, the efforts of Major Whittlesey and his men were divisive and too successful. When their flanking battalions failed to move forward quickly, Whittlesey and his men found themselves pinned down in a ravine by a formidable German force. With their supply lines severed, Whittlesey and his men were surrounded. Throughout the onslaught of wave after wave of German troops, flame throwers, and deadly machine gun fire, the beleaguered and battered infantry soldiers fought on to save their comrades and themselves. No food, no water, and limited supplies of ammunition had rendered the men all but lost. Whittlesey and his men fought on despite the horrific conditions of death, dismemberment and defeat. Whittlesey sent messages via carrier pigeon to the rear. The rest of his division could not reach them. They had to hold their position. Whittlesey issued an order to his company commanders. “Our mission is to hold this position at all costs. No falling back. Have this understood by every man in your command.”
By October 3rd, the men had no more food. Bandages for the wounded were non-existent and a quarter of the men of the battalion had been killed. After a mortar barrage by the enemy on the morning of the 4th, Whittlesey sent a request for artillery support along the ridge line. A few hours later, the heavy shells began unleashing their fury. There was one problem. The barrage, with each volley, was landing closer and closer to Whittlesey and his men. Whittlesey, surrounded by the enemy was now having his own support artillery barrage adding to his men’s carnage. One of the last carrier pigeons was sent aloft with a message. When it finally reached headquarters, it was almost too late. The message read “We are along the road parallel 276.4. Our Own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” Finally the barrage ended. Thirty of his own soldiers has been wounded by the errant fire. On October 5th, 1918, the commanding officer of the German forces sent an American soldier who had been captured back to his lines bearing a message. The wounded soldier, walking with a cane bedecked with a white handkerchief limped across the no-man’s land of death. “The suffering of your wounded men can be heard over here in the German lines, and we are appealing to your humane sentiment to stop. A withe flag shown by one of your men will tell us that you agree with these conditions. Please treat Private Lowell R. Hollingshead (the bearer) as an honorable man. He is quite the soldier. We envy you. The German commanding officer.”
Major Whittlesey looked over the letter. He folded it and placed it into his pocket. There would be no surrender. He and his men would remain, even if it cost them all their lives, and would never surrender their position. He ordered all of the white sheets that had been set out by his troops to signal aircraft of their position to drop food and supplies removed from the terrain. He did not want any mistakes. In the late evening of the day the German’s had requested their surrender, Whittlesey and his men were finally supported by fellow troops when three companies of the 307th Infantry finally arrived in the ravine. With the increased forces on the front, the German troops retreated. Whittlesey and his men had suffered greatly. One hundred and seven men had been lost, one hundred and ninety had been wounded and another sixty-three were missing. The putrid smell of death and carnage hung on each of the survivors like a blanket in the hell in which they had smothered. Whittlesey, for his heroism in stemming the tide of the enemy, despite being cut off from his supply lines and out-numbered by the enemy, received a battlefield promotion to lieutenant colonel. Two months later, the commanding officer of the Lost Battalion returned to the United States of America where he and his men were celebrated as war heroes. On December 6th, Lieutenant Colonel Whittlesey received the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor. Showered with attention, the mild-mannered Whittlesey wanted to put the horrors of war in his wake. His attempts to restart his life as a lawyer on Wall Street were often interrupted by calls for speeches, ceremonies, and requests to assist the American Red Cross. The toll of the war had caused him immense pain and anguish. After serving as a pall bearer for the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Virginia on Armistice Day in November of 1921, Lieutenant Colonel Whittlesey returned to New York tired and emotionally drained.
A short time later, he remarked to his housekeeper that he was going to go away for a few days. Booking passage on the United Fruit Company ship S.S. Toloa to Havana, Cuba would be a nice escape over the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend. Asked to dine with Captain Grant for the evening meal, conversation with the mild-mannered hero was relegated to the soldier’s requests for updates on the Army-Navy gridiron match. After dinner he had spoken with Mr. Malorat and then, before midnight, had left the parlor with plans to retire for the evening.
Good morning sir,” Mr. Malorat offered as he placed his cup of coffee down on the small table. “Have you seen Colonel Whittlesey this morning?” he inquired innocently. “We had the most spirited of conversations last night and I would love to invite him to breakfast.” The purser replied that he had not seen the officer during his tour of the ship. “Maybe we should call on him?” the purser replied. Mr. Malorat picked up his coffee cup and took one more sip. “Yes,” he offered as he stood up. “Let us call on him.” The two men reached the man’s cabin in a few minutes and the purser, in a stoic and professional manner, knocked loudly on the door. There was no response. He reached down, grabbed, and then turned the door knob. The door was not locked. “We shall call on the Chief Steward, the purser turned and remarked to Mr. Malorat. A few moments later, the Chief Steward joined the two men. The purser slowly open the door. “Colonel Whittlesey?” he inquired loudly as he entered the room. The three men quickly checked the head and closet. The room was empty. The bed’s linens were untouched. On the desk, nine envelopes were neatly arranged. The purser walked over to the small desk. The purser scanned the writing on the envelopes. One of the letters was addressed to the ship’s captain. “We must report this immediately to Captain Farguahar Grant.” The three men left the room. “Lock the door,” the purser ordered. The Chief Steward slid his key into the door. The latch clicked shut. “Stand fast,” he paused. “Mr. Malorat and I shall report this to the captain.”
Captain Grant ordered the purser, Mr. Malorat and several of the other ship’s officers to search the ship from top to bottom but first he wanted to see the stateroom. The Chief Steward unlocked the door upon the captain’s arrival. The stately skipper entered into the state room and immediately went to the small desk. Captain Grant carefully lifted each of the neatly placed envelopes. “There is the one for you,” the purser interjected. “Thank you,” the captain replied as he picked up the envelope. “We shall see what this is all about.” Captain Grant read and then reread the neatly prepared and distinctly detailed letter. He noted to himself that the linen of the paper was not of the stock supplied on the ship. He offered a muffled clearing of his throat as he folded the letter and slid it into the inside pocket of his uniform jacket. He picked up the remaining letters, addressed to family members and what the captain assumed were business associates. He turned to the purser and Mr. Malorat. “You can commence with a search of the ship but I do not think you will find the colonel. I believe,” he offered as he softly patted his blue jacket, “he, I believe, has joined the men of the Lost Battalion who never left the forest of the Argonne.”
The body of Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Whittesey, the hero of the “Lost Battalion,” the Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, and proponent of ensuring that the heroes who did not return from the Great War were taken care by the efforts of the American Red Cross, was never found.  On December 3, 1921, the will drafted up prior to his unannounced voyage to Havana, Cuba was unearthed amongst his papers at his law office at White & Case of Wall Street. The one-page typewritten document provided for the final disposal of some of his most treasured possessions. To Captain George McMurtry, he left the German order demanding the surrender of his men during the infamous fight in the Argonne. His Cross of Legion was left to his long-time friend and former law partner, John Pruyn and his Medal of Honor was left to his mother. The legacy of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey though encompassed more than a demand to surrender and medals. His heroic leadership and resolve under horrific conditions were the tenets of legend. He and his men’s heroism would forever be entrenched in the annals of military history but sadly for Whittlesey, the horror and ravages of the utter depravity of war was also forever lodged into the psyche of the battle-fatigued officer. Showered with reverence, honored as a hero, and witness to the walking wounded who had survived the Great War, Whittlesey was forever haunted by those men who had perished in the bloody trenches and fields of Europe. There was no returning to his pre-war life as a lawyer. There was no way he could ever shake the trauma of the stresses that he had endured. The weight of the war and of his actions when he had no other choice but to perform had finally taken its toll. The weight, the heavy burden of leadership amidst the death and loss of so many of his men, would never ease and despite the reverence of those who honored his actions, their reference to his actions would never cease. He would forever be reminded of those days and nights. The weight of those days, of the men saved and of the men lost, had become too much for him to remember and to reflect upon without a final resolution to the fate of his own mortality.
The final moments of Lieutenant Colonel Whittlesey will forever remain unknown as the personal ruminations of the soul are only reflected in the mirror of one’s own thoughts. There are no witnesses to that intimate encounter of emotions.  Whittlesey, an officer of the United States Army had defied death in the pocket of the Argonne Forest. He had remained steadfast and resolved despite the odds against his ability to keep his men alive and accomplish the mission. He had been successful in saving the lives of many of his men, but over the course of the engagement, he had lost so many others as they held fast in an effort to defeat the Germans. But his survival and elevation to that of legend had proven too heavy a weight to carry as it would be for most. And on November 26, 1921, he slipped over the railing of the S.S. Toloa and ended his life, slowly sinking into the darkness of the abyss, in our waters. 

 

 

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