In October 1918 the 308th Infantry Regiment prepared to charge towards the German lines in the Argonne Forest. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey, 554 men went “over the top” in what was supposed to be a well planned and coordinated attack. Unfortunately, plans don’t always survive contact with the enemy.
The regiments on the left and right of the 308th became bogged down in heavy fighting while Whittlesey’s men surged forward. With their flanks unprotected, the 308th was swallowed up by the German defenders and cut off from their own lines.
The 554 men of “the lost battalion” spent five days trapped behind enemy lines. They endured almost constant artillery bombardment, machine gun fire, accurate snipers, German bayonet charges, and hand-to-hand fighting. By the time friendly troops broke through to facilitate a rescue, 356 men were missing, dead, or wounded.
Whittlesey, a 37-year old soft-spoken lawyer from New York, became an instant hero for his leadership and refusal to surrender.
Three years later, Colonel Whittlesey was an honored guest for the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown in Washington DC. He marched with the caisson from the US Capitol all the way to Arlington National Cemetery. During the entire morning, artillery fired every minute, pausing for two minutes at 11:00 to remember the armistice. The solemn dedication of the tomb was then punctuated by a 21-cannon salute.
After the ceremony, Whittlesey returned to New York. He then bought tickets for a ship heading to Cuba. During the first night at sea he jumped over the side. In his cabin were his will, letters to family, and instructions to the ship’s cabin of what to do with his luggage.
No one will ever know what precisely was Whittlesey’s unbearable burden. Was it the weight of being a hero to his surviving men and his nation? Was it guilt over the men he lost? Or was it just the incessant pounding of ceremonial artillery that reminded him too much of the battlefield?
I choose to remember Colonel Whittlesey, but not just for his sake. I remember him because his tragic story is played out 22 times per day in our modern day. The transition from war to peace is not an easy one and too many of my brothers and sisters choose to follow Whittlesey’s path.