Christmas greetings from the old front line

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Princess Mary’s Christmas Box for the British soldiers, 1914

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from a Scottish Regiment

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from the Chasseurs Alpins

from the 7th Division, BEF, 1917

from the 7th Division, BEF, 1917

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from the Cameron Highlanders 1918

from the Cameron Highlanders 1918

Published in: on December 24, 2014 at 12:09 pm  Comments (1)  

One Doughboy’s bitter reminiscence of the Armistice on the Western Front, November 11, 1918

Detail from F.C. Yohn’s painting, “Last Night of the War”, depicting the 5th Marines crossing the Meuse on the night of November 10-11, 1918.

Detail from F.C. Yohn’s painting, “Last Night of the War”, depicting the 5th Marines crossing the Meuse on the night of November 10-11, 1918.

This reminiscence of the Armistice as experienced by soldiers and marines of the 2d Division AEF is excerpted from the book Trifling with War, by Ray DeWitt Herring (Boston: Meador Publishing Company, 1934).  Herring was a member of the 5th Machine Gun Company, 3rd Brigade, 2d Division, AEF.

~ ~ ~ ~

“When it became assured the war was to end, the dread uncertainty of the last few hours held anew the terrors of the unknown. To be bumped off on the last day, what devilish luck! And yet such was the fate of many of our own boys, pawns in the hands of ambitious military chiefs.

Note the order:

  1. On the night of November 10th (actually the early morning of Nov 11th), “heroic deeds were done by heroic men. In the face of a heavy artillery and withering machine gun fire, the 2nd Engineers threw two foot bridges across the Meuse, and the first and second battalions of the 5th Marines crossed resolutely and unflinchingly to the east bank and carried out their mission.
  2. In the last battle of the war, as in all others in which this Division has participated, it enforced its will on the enemy.

‘It enforced its will on the enemy’.   It is a heart-shaking question whether this one time gallant boys, hardly daring to breathe the hope of a promised armistice, wanted to force their will on the enemy. Perhaps that will had fashioned another concept in which “enemy” was now a meaningless abstraction, ‘war’ an ugly, fitful dream. Perhaps their will was only to live and let live.

It may have been a military necessity for one American Division to gain the right bank of the Meuse, and it may have been splendid strategy for another to race out of bounds into historic Sedan before 11.00 A.M. November 11, 1918 to stage a fitting finale to the melodrama that showed arrogant democracy the hero in the closing role; but it was not necessary to kill those boys at 4.00 A.M. on the day which was bringing life anew before the blessed sun should have reached his zenith. So it appears, and so our Major said, who cried bitterly over the uncalled-for slaughter. His consolation was that the death of the boys, who had been twice crucified, could not be laid upon him who would not have had it so.

The morning of that day passed by with leaden feet the living who almost forgot the sin of death done at daybreak. Intermittent shelling was noted with feelings that must e pardoned if there was shame in them. When about 11 o’clock the last hostile shell in this sector crashed harmlessly near the brook bordering foret de Dieulet, then we knew enchained humanity had broken the latest shackles fastened on the race by its nemesis, war.

. . . . .   ‘A peace that passeth understanding’  came within partial comprehension in the evening of that soldiers’ day of promise. A great heaviness was borne away. New men, strangely moved with new visions unbelievably true, gathered in wondering groups. There was no hilarity, no singing of paeans of victory. Too rapid had been the change from the threshold of death on this broken battlefield now promising life to the fortunate buddies of the unrequited slain. An aloofness was upon all, and a silence as of the great unaccustomed shadows thrown by the first campfires known to this generation of soldiers. The pageantry of the storied camping ground was lacking. The camaraderie about the beacons flaring fitfully along the horizon was of the fellowship of the disconsolate and lonely. Nothing could be so empty as victory. Many days must pass before life could be cherished. Never again could it be embraced with rapture. For the mark of the beast trails thru dreams of Christians who prevailed mightily over their brethren.

On the next day with the help of Sergeant Long, a roster of our original company was drawn up. Killed, wounded, missing, shell-shocked, sick, accounted for many missing names. Minor changes in the company itself took on dramatic significance to we who knew the men intimately and realized the relentless shuffling of their fortunes and hopes. This roll calling was not the glorious recital official records would make of numbers slain and percentage of valor registered by volume of casualties.

How does the damned human idiot figure another man’s death as his glory? — or a regiment decimated as his coronet? Our record showed us how truly unfortunate so many in one small company had been. When we multiplied the misery centered in our own group by thousands of like units in a dozen armies, we began to realize the world of woe encompassed in that tragic quadrennium beginning in 1914.”


BJ Omanson

Published in: on November 10, 2014 at 11:22 am  Leave a Comment  

The Scrapbook of an American Army Nurse in the First World War

Edith MacDonald, probably taken shortly before the war.

Edith MacDonald, probably taken shortly before the war.

When Edith Lois MacDonald returned to her home in Columbus, Ohio, in the Summer of 1919, after a ten-month stint of overseas service as a U.S. Army nurse with Base Hospital 115 in Vichy, France, she brought with her a sizeable collection of photographs ranging in size from 9×7 enlargements to tiny shots just 1.5 x 2.5. In addition, there was the usual stack of individual souvenir postcards and postcard booklets  from Vichy and neighboring towns (Dijon, Digne, Monte-Carlo, Nice), and an assortment of other paper ephemera acquired during her overseas service:  ~~a hand-written and signed note from King George to “Soldiers of the United States”, welcoming them on their way through the British Isles to “…take your stand beside the armies of many nations now fighting in the Old World the great battle for human freedom…” ;  ~~a formatted postcard sent by the A.E.F. to the folks back home, informing them that their daughter has arrived safely in France;  ~~a Special Order on onionskin paper granting Nurse MacDonald and her travelling companion, Nurse Elizabeth Payne, permission to visit Nice and the nearby Alps for one week in February of 1919; ~~ a foot-long itemized and illustrated receipt from Hotel Westminster in Nice, filled out on both sides;  and  ~~a French Transport Order permitting Nurse Edith MacDonald to travel by train from Tour to Bordeaux (probably the first leg of her journey back to the States).

But the chief interest lies in the many photographs portraying life in Base Hospital 115, which was housed in the Hotel Ruhl, in Vichy. As explained in the little history of the hospital published for staff members in 1919, Base Hospital 115 was one of three base hospitals and associated organizations forming a “hospital center” in Vichy:

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Hotel Ruhl in Vichy, home of Base Hospital 115


       Upon arrival at Vichy it was found that the hospital was to be a part of what was known as a Hospital Center, which was the usual manner in which the hospitalization of the A. E. F. was handled. There were in Vichy when No. 115 arrived, two Base Hospitals, No. 1, from Bellevue Hospital, New York City, under the command of Major McKee, and No. 19, from Rochester, New York, under the command of Major, afterwards Lieutenant Colonel, John M. Swan. . . . .

       No. 115 was assigned to the Holt! Ruhl, a magnificent concrete building nine stories high, said to be the tallest building in France. The maximum capacity of this building was 1657 beds, and it was said to be one of the largest hospitals under one roof in the world. It had been occupied as a hospital by the French since August, 1914,, but was closed for a while, and had been reopened by Base Hospital No. l a short time before the arrival of No. 115. The building was in charge of Captain Thomas Atkins, of Base Hospital No. l, and he remained in that capacity till No. 115 was ready to take charge, giving valuable and much appreciated assistance, and helping greatly in all matters concerning the transfer. The building was taken over by No. 115 on September 11th, with 822 patients in the wards.

By the opening of the Battle of the Argonne, the carrying capacity of Hotel Ruhl had been more than doubled, to a total of 1657 beds.

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Nurse Edith MacDonald, at Cape May, New Jersey, two months before shipping out for France with BH 115

The photographs of Nurse MacDonald show several of the wards and offices of BH 115 in Hotel Ruhl, and a number of individual physicians, nurses, staff and patients. There is far too much material to fit into a single blog article, even if winnowed down to just the highlights, so throughout the next year or two I intend to post a series of small articles, each featuring one, or several related photographs or other ephemera. Insofar as possible, the individuals in the photographs will be identified.

Although Vichy was relatively distant from the Western Front, the American hospital center in its midst treated thousands of front-line soldiers, from all the major American campaigns, beginning with Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, and ending with the costliest American battle of all, the Argonne.

Photographs of a number of individual soldiers, many of them identified by name, found their way into Nurse MacDonald’s scrapbook, and as I am able to discover something about each of these soldiers—their home addresses, their units, and perhaps what became of them, I will include that information along with their photographs in future installments here.

I will also, of course, include more information about Nurse Edith MacDonald herself.  My sincere thanks to the family of Edith MacDonald for making her scrapbook available to me, and permitting its piecemeal publication here.




click to enlargeA HISTORY OF UNITED STATES ARMY BASE HOSPITAL No. 19. (Vichy, France: American Expeditionary Force, A.P.O. 781, 1919).



BH115 A HISTORY OF U.S.A. BASE HOSPITAL No. 115. (Vichy, Allier, France: American Expeditionary Force, A.P.O. 761, 1919).



tjom3 Tjomsland, Anne. BELLEVUE IN FRANCE: Anecdotal History of Base Hospital No. 1. (NY: Froben Press, 1941).

BJ Omanson

Published in: on April 14, 2014 at 9:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

Join the effort to save the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial outside of Paris


(note: the following text is taken from a brochure published by the American Battle Monuments Commission regarding the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial outside of Paris.  The actual brochure may be downloaded as a pdf file here: )

LafEsc1On the outskirts of Paris, a white marble arch stands with the legendary title “Lafayette Escadrille” carved upon its façade. Within this monument lie the remains of America’s first combat airmen—individuals who answered the call to fly and fight in the name of freedom, not because they had to, but because it was the right thing to do.

The men of the Lafayette Escadrille came to the aid of France at the height of the First World War, when the debilitating cost of attrition warfare threatened to push Allied nations to the brink. With vast trench-bound armies locked in a bloody stalemate, commanders sought to harness the air domain as a new front to secure victory.

Operations in the aerial domain revolutionized warfare. For centuries, armies and navies had sought victory with fielded forces attacking head-on in a set of surface campaigns. With the advent of powered flight, military leaders gradually recognized the potential afforded by taking the fight to the sky. Airmen could inform command decisions by observing the position and composition of enemy forces. They also expanded the scale and scope of the battle arena as they attacked opposing frontline forces and struck strategic targets deep behind enemy lines.

???????????????????????????????With no single nation possessing a monopoly on the aerial domain, leaders also had to consider how to counter hostile forms of airpower. Airmen initially improvised by taking rifles and pistols along on their patrols. Aerial duels erupted above the trench lines as opposing flyers fired at one-another in an ad hoc fashion. This approach was eventually superseded as aircraft designers devised methods of installing fixed machine guns to their latest designs. A new breed of flyer emerged, one whose sole purpose was to gain control of the sky—the fighter pilot.

The Lafayette Escadrille was the brainchild of three individuals: Mr. Norman Prince of Boston, Massachusetts, Mr. William Thaw of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Dr. Edmond Gros, an American expatriate living in France. Seeking to aid the Allied cause, they lobbied officials in Paris to create an all-American squadron within the French Air Service. In need of more combat forces and ever-aware of the positive propaganda value Americans flying under the French flag could afford in garnering United States support for the Allied cause, French officials approved the concept on August 21st, 1915.

lafesc3The new squadron, officially designated N.124, was formed eight months later under the command of French Air Service Captain George Thenault. While a handful of the Americans joining the unit had previously served in the French Air Service, most were novice aviators—just having mastered the most basic elements of flight. Their first combat patrols saw them strain to master their aerial craft amidst a hail of enemy gunfire. With Kiffin Rockwell scoring the unit’s first victory on May 18, 1916, these amateur airmen rapidly matured into seasoned veterans.

Operating from austere bases close to the front lines, the airmen took to the sky to secure air superiority during some of the war’s largest campaigns, including the Battle of Verdun, the Somme Offensive, the Nivelle Offensive, the Aisne Offensive, and the Ypres Offensive. The American flyers also escorted Allied bombers as they struck targets deep behind enemy lines. The risks associated with daily combat operations were pronounced—with some units experiencing casualty rates in excess of 400 percent. Flying amidst such odds yielded a stark understanding regarding dedication to duty and sacrifice.

As tales of the Lafayette Escadrille spread around the globe, these young men stood as noble champions of the Allied cause. Hundreds of Americans traveled to France in a quest to join the famed squadron. Unable to accommodate the flood of volunteers within the original unit, French Air Service leaders formed the Lafayette Flying Corps—an effort that saw over two hundred American volunteers join a variety of French squadrons. Their contribution to the war was undeniable—with the volunteers shooting down 199 German aircraft.


With the United States entering the War in 1917, the pioneering airmen of the Lafayette Escadrille formed the foundation on which American combat aviation was built. Donning United States Air Service uniforms, the veteran flyers continued to fly and fight, while also teaching their newly arrived counterparts about the nuances of combat aviation. This continued service proved critical, with American airpower helping win a series of battles that ultimately brought victory to the Allied cause in November of 1918.

Despite the celebratory status afforded to the men of the Lafayette Escadrille, flying in combat for over two years proved exceedingly costly. Nearly one third of the 38 aviators who served in the original squadron gave their lives to the Allied cause during the war.


The men of Lafayette Escadrille now belong to the annals of history. Young, vibrant airmen who risked their lives in the name of freedom now stand as stoic figures in a handful of black and white pictures. However, far from being forgotten, the men of the Lafayette Escadrille charted a course our airmen proudly follow today. Direct lineage squadrons still take to the sky—including the US Air Force’s F-22-equipped 94th Fighter Squadron. While advancements in technology and tactics may differentiate these modern flyers from their forefathers, they remain united as airmen in their drive for excellence and dedication to duty.

The legacy of the Lafayette Escadrille also continues in a far more tangible fashion. In 1928, veteran aviators of the First World War gathered to dedicate a monument to the American volunteers who came to the aide of France in 1916 and 1918. Impressive in its beauty and stature, the structure stands forth as a proud tribute to the selfless service and sacrifice of the young aviators.


The monument also serves as the final resting place for the veteran American flyers. Members of the original Lafayette Escadrille and those of the Lafayette Corps lie in repose beneath the soaring marble arch in a dedicated crypt, surrounded by stained glass windows depicting the aerial campaigns in which they proudly served.

While impressive from a distance, a closer examination of the monument shows clear signs of wear and neglect. Water incursion has damaged much of the crypt, with the upper structure standing at risk given problems with the foundation. Repairs over the years have attempted to address aspects of these issues, but the time has now come for a full scale restoration.

In 2010, the American Battle Monuments Commission contracted with CH2M Hill, Inc. to perform a comprehensive engineering study to determine the scale and scope of work required to fully restore the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial.


The resulting report called for a $14M restoration effort.  2014 marks the beginning of a joint Franco- American partnership to turn this plan into reality. Working diligently to execute the project in conjunction with the WWI Centennial, the restoration will address the underlying structural problems threatening the structure, while also restoring its external appearance. Given the present state of affairs, successfully executing this project stands as an imperative.

The Lafayette Escadrille Memorial is the final resting place for brave airmen who gave their lives in one of the most pivotal wars of the twentieth century. They volunteered to serve and made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom and liberty.  Immediate action must be taken to reverse decades’ worth of decline and provide America’s pioneering combat Airmen the fitting tribute they deserve. This project is not just about restoring a physical structure, it centers upon the caring for the men who answered the call to serve. Your financial contribution is essential in achieving this goal.


Contributors are asked to send their tax-deductable donations via check to the

Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Maintenance Fund:
Mr. Michael G. Conley Chief of Staff,
American Battle Monuments Commission
2300 Clarendon Blvd, Suite 500
Arlington, VA 22201

Phone (703) 696-6778 


“I am paying my part of our debt to Lafayette and Rochambeau.”  –Kiffin Rockwell, Lafayette Escadrille Pilot—Killed in aerial combat, 23 September 1916

BJ Omanson

“Silent Night” opera recreates 1914 Christmas Truce


Next Christmas Eve will mark the Centennial of the so-called “Christmas Truce”, which occured spontaneously at various places along the Western Front on Christmas Eve, 1914.  British, French and German soldiers unexpectedly broke out into carols, left the trenches and— to the subsequent outrage of their superior officers (who weren’t present in the trenches themselves, of course, being snugly & safely ensconced far behind the lines)— met in No-Man’s-Land with white flags, exchanged impromtu gifts, shared snorts of rum & brandy, tried on one another’s helmets, and even indulged in the odd game of soccer.

If you have not yet had an opportunity to watch the opera, SILENT NIGHT, by Kevin Puts, based on the original event, and the 2005 French film “Joyeux Noël,” try to do so this Christmas.  Check your local PBS listings, or buy the DVD (when it comes out: it apparently hasn’t been released yet).  SILENT NIGHT played a sold-out premier run in 2011 at the Minnesota Opera, and won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music.

The set is powerfully evocative, the details grittily realistic and historically accurate, and the music nothing short of glorious, as can be seen in the brief segment below:

 Watch the Minnesota Opera perform the song “Sleep” from SILENT NIGHT.

If you are a student of the First World War but ignorant of opera, this might be the time to broaden your horizons into higher culture.  If, on the other hand, you are already an opera devotee, but ignorant of the events of 1914-1918, this could be the perfect time to deepen your acquaintance with the premier shaping event of the twentieth century.

BJ Omanson

Published in: on December 16, 2013 at 1:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Armistice Day, 2013

Armistice Day, November 11

Eleventh hour, eleventh day, eleventh month

1918 – 2013


Published in: on November 11, 2013 at 11:58 am  Comments (1)  

A Small Circle of Chums~~ some Marines of 15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion at Belleau Wood: how each of them came to be there, and what followed after . . .

Frank Dunham's caption for this photo reads: "The crack Machine Gun Section of the world, after 28 days in Belleau Woods". Individual Marines remain unidentified.

Frank Dunham’s caption for this photo reads: “The crack Machine Gun Section of the world, after 28 days in Belleau Woods”. Individual Marines remain unidentified.


Cpl Frank Dunham

A modest cache of letters, photos and medals originally belonging to Cpl. Frank Dunham, USMC (1917-19) offers an evocative glimpse into the wartime experiences of several members of 15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, during the summer of 1918 at Belleau Wood near the River Marne.

There is not enough here for a cohesive narrative, but only isolated clues, such as might emerge from an archaeological dig– or, as in this case, from a soldier’s trunk.

The full story of Frank Dunham and his friends in 15th Company is lost to time.  But his handful of photos & medals, and a couple of letters, open small windows on a place called Belleau Wood and, together with what is preserved in the official histories, at least a small part of that story can be pieced together.

For the Marines of 15th Company, as for much of the 4th Brigade, the decisive date was June 6, 1918, when the Marine Corps suffered more casualties in one day than during their entire history up to that time.

At 3:45 a.m. on the 6th, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines under Major Julius Turrill (of which only two companies were available, the 49th under Capt. George Hamilton, and the 67th under 1stLt Orlando Crowther) attacked from Hill 142 north to the Lucy-Torcy road.  Ten machine guns from 15th Company, including Dunham and his friends, supported the attack with direct overhead fire on German assembly points and reserve positions.  As a result of this firing, they drew fire upon themselves.  While their objectives were attained, both companies had suffered such heavy casualties among officers and men that by mid-morning Capt Hamilton had to step in and merge the remnants of both companies into a single company under his command.

Dunham, Croix de Guerre

Dunham’s Croix de Guerre

Meanwhile, the machine gunners of 15th Company suffered several casualties during the attack, though no fatalities.  Cpl Frank Dunham was awarded the Silver Star Certificate and Croix de Guerre for his actions on this date.  His citation reads: “He displayed coolness and leadership  in conducting his guns throughout the day, under heavy artillery and machine gun fire.”

Also decorated for courage under fire in this attack was one of Dunham’s friends, Pvt. Russell D. Smith, who received the Silver Star Certificate.  His citation reads: “He maintained the fire of his machine gun throughout the day while subjected to enemy fire which was so intense that parts of his gun were destroyed.”  Pvt Smith would later be awarded another Silver Star and two Croix de Guerres for his actions at Soissons.

Among Dunham‘s possessions is a photograph of Smith and himself standing in the wheat field where the attack of the 6th had taken place.  The photograph is undated, but it was so soon after the battle that bodies of dead Marines are still lying unburied on the ground.

Dunham & Smith, with unidentified dead Marines. Taken sometime shortly after June 6.

Dunham & Smith, with unidentified dead Marines. Taken sometime shortly after June 6.

Also taken at this time is another photograph showing Dunham standng by himself, with unidentified dead Marines.

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Dunham standing near dead Marines at Belleau Wood

And this photo of another chum, Irving Bigelow . . .

Irving Bigelow sitting near dead Marine, Belleau Wood

Irving Bigelow sitting near dead Marine, Belleau Wood

But the story and Frank Dunham, Russell Smith and Irving Bigelow, as well as their other chums, Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer, Edward Duda, Emanuel Smolik and Victor Bleasdale– all members of 15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, and all present at Belleau Wood– for all of them the story of their military service began earlier.  For most, it began with the declaration of war by the United States in April, 1917.  But for two of them, Frank Dunham and Victor Bleasdale, the story began two years earlier, in 1915, and involved an earlier conflict, an insurrection in Haiti— while for Irving Bigelow it began earlier yet, in 1914, in yet another conflict —  in Mexico, at Vera Cruz.

Irving Bigelow

Vera Cruz, Apr-Nov 1914

Irving Bigelow enlisted in Lansing, Michigan in January 1914 and was stationed at Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, in Norfolk, Virginia for the next three and a half months.

On April 22nd, Pvt Bigelow joined 20th Company in LtCol A.W. Caitlin’s 3rd Regiment and participated in the landing at Vera Cruz, taking part in the house-to-house fighting that took place in that city later the same day.

On the 29th, Bigelow joined 15th Company of  LtCol Wendell Neville’s 2nd Regiment and remained in Vera Cruz for the duration of the American occupation, until late November of that year.

Pvt Victor Bleasdale, in Haiti

Pvt Victor Bleasdale, in Haiti

Haiti, Aug 1915 — Dec 1916

Next among the future friends to enlist was Frank Dunham, who joined up in Akron, Ohio on October 19, 1914.  He trained as a member of Company F, Recruit Depot, Marine Barracks, in the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia until mid-January when he was transferred to 15th Company, 2nd Regiment, 1st Brigade which by this time had returned from Vera Cruz and was stationed at the Navy Yard on League Island, Philadelphia. 

The third friend to enlist was Victor Bleasdale  from Janesville, Wisconsin, who joined up in Milwaukee on May 10th, 1915.  He trained in Company D at the Recruit Depot, Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, in Norfolk until mid-July, when he travelled by train to Wintrop, Massachusetts, where he underwent marksmanship training on the Army rifle course. 

At the end of July, Bleasdale was transferred to 15th Company in Philadelphia, just in time to join the company on board the USS Connecticut, which steamed out to sea on July 31st— carrying 344 Marines (five companies) of the 2nd Regiment, under Colonel E.K. Cole— and bound for Haiti, where a bloody revolution was underway.

At this point, on board ship, the three future friends, Bigelow, Dunham & Bleasdale, were all together for the first time in the same company, though at what point they became acquainted and struck up friendships is unknown.

Marines boarding the USS Connecticut at Navy Yard, Philadelphia, 31 July 1915, destination Haiti.

Marines boarding the USS Connecticut at Navy Yard, Philadelphia, 31 July 1915, destination Haiti.

The Connecticut steamed into harbor at Port au Prince on August 4, after a record run from Philadelphia. The capitol was in chaos. Two Presidents had been murdered within thirty-six hours— one of them dismembered with body parts displayed on poles; hundreds executed, many by machete; two foreign legations violated, and the government non-existant. Mobs stormed through the streets.

On August 15, Colonel L.W.T. Waller arrived on board the armored cruiser Tennessee with eight companies from the 1st Regiment of Marines and estabished the 1st Brigade (just over 2000 men) on shore, with the long-term purpose of pacifying the country and permitting the reconstitution of the Haitian government.   The native insurgents, known as cacos, controlled much of the island, and driving them out of their strongholds became the main objective of the Marines.

The first job was to drive the cacos out of the capital of Port au Prince, and this was accomplished in the first few days by Col Waller’s 2nd Regiment, followed by the clearing of nearby town of Gonaives. 

The next main trouble spot was in the north around Cap-Haitian.  Colonel Cole’s 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment, including 15th Company. was stationed in Cap-Haitian.  The cacos, controlling the countryside, set up a blockade around the town, blocking all movement in or out, cutting off all supplies to the surrounded Marines.  On September 20th, a Marine patrol, attempting to cut through the blockade, was ambushed.   Cole called in a landing force from the USS Connecticut to hold the town, while he and most of his regiment went to the rescue of the surrounded patrol.  In the ensuing conflict, forty cacos were killed at the expense of 10 Marines wounded.  It is unknown if  Bigelow, Bleasdale or Dunham took part in this fight, as no mention of it is found in their roster records.

The following week Cole attacked a caco stronghold at Quartier Morin, taking it on the 27th.   At this point Waller turned his full attention to taking possession of the northern region of the island.  He set up a three-town triangle of garrisons at Ouanaminthe, on the Dominican border, Grand Riviere du Nord, and Fort Liberte, leaving a company in each town.  15th Company was responsible for Fort Liberte. 

15th Company, 2nd Regiment --  3 pm Guard Relief, Fort Liberte, Haiti, 1916.

15th Company, 2nd Regiment — 3 pm Guard Relief, Fort Liberte, Haiti, 1916.

The next objective in Waller‘s plan was the caco stronghold at Fort CapoisWaller sent Major Smedley Butler and Captain “Deacon” Upshur and forty enlisted Marines, including the legendary Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly (both Butler & Daly would end their military careers with two Medals of Honor apiece).  Also present on this six-day, 120-mile expedition was Pvt Irving Bigelow.  For an assault force, the Marines were lightly armed, their heaviest weapon being a single machine gun. 

Unfortunately for the patrol, their guide was in cahoots with the cacos and led the Marines into an ambush.  That night (Oct 24-25), as the Marines were attempting to cross a mountain river of whitewater, the forty-odd Marines were surrounded and attacked by some 400 cacos from Fort Capois and Fort Dipitie.  The cacos kept them pinned down and under fire throughout the night.  The Marines did not even have the benefit of their one machine gun, as the horse carrying it had been killed by gunfire while crossing the river.  In the dark, while still under attack, GSgt Daly stole back to the river, hoisted the machine gun on his back and made his way back to camp (an action which earned him his second Medal of Honor).

At daylight, knowing the cacos would attack and overwhelm them by sheer numbers, Butler audaciously attacked the cacos, in three directions!  The cacos were so dumbfounded and caught off guard that they panicked and ran.  Captain Upshur and 1st Lt Ostermann (who was wounded), with just 13 Marines (one of whom was Bigelow) pursued the cacos back to Fort Dipitie, then stormed the fort and burned it to the ground (an action for which both officers received Medals of Honor).  Bigelow, as one of the thirteen, would later receive a Letter of Commendation, signed by the Secretary of the Navy, for his participation in this attack.

After their long and sleepless night, Butler led the patrol back to Grande Riviere du Nord.  Almost immediately Captain Chandler Campbell organized a column and set out to attack Fort Capois.  This time the Marine column was far larger, composed of two companies of sailors from the Connecticut and five companies of Marines, including 15th CompanyBigelow, Bleasdale and Dunham were all present on this expedition.  Le Trou was captured on Nov 2, and Fort Capois on Nov 5.  Forts Selon and Berthol were captured on the  7th and 8th.

"Hunting bandits near Fort Liberte, Haiti, 1916".  Photograph by Victor Bleasdale.

“Hunting bandits near Fort Liberte, Haiti, 1916″. Photo by V. Bleasdale.

According to their muster roll records, Bigelow, Bleasdale and Dunham only participated in Butler‘s expedition through the 15th, but this is probably in error since the expedition lasted at least through the 18th, culminating in the major assault of Fort Riviere on that date.  As none of the three Marines was wounded, or was reported sick, or AWOL, it seems unlikely that any of them would have been removed from the expedition while it was in progress.

15th Company was one of several units assigned to the initial assault on the fort on the night of the 17th-18th.  The company, accompanied by Major Butler, attacked the south side of the fortification, and penetrated the fort through an opening so constricted that only one man could go through at a time.  The first two Marines to enter were Sgt Ross Iams and Private Sam Gross, both of whom were awared Medals of Honor.  A few more squads from the company squeezed through right after them, and were immediately attacked from within by the cacos.  The hand-to-hand fighting which ensued was extremely brutal— involving firearms, bayonets, machetes, clubs and rocks.  By the time it was over, all the cacos were killed (about fifty in all), while all the Marines were left standing.  Major Smedley Butler earned his second Medal of Honor on this day.

15th Company, as part of the 2nd Regiment of Marines, remained in Haiti through the rest of 1916. 

Irving Bigelow served on detached duty with the Haitian Gendarmerie at La Valliere throughout June and July, then returned to Port au Prince in August where, till the end of the year, he drove an “auto truck” for the regiment.  Sometime in September, 1915, Pvt Bigelow was promoted to corporal.  On Dec 27, Cpl Bigelow was promoted to sergeant.

Through most of his time in Haiti, when he was not participating in expeditions against the cacos, Victor Bleasdale served as payroll and muster roll clerk for the company.  On June 25th, 1916, Pvt Bleasdale was promoted to corporal.

From September 1 to 26, 1916, Frank Dunham participated in a mounted expedition from Port au Prince, Haiti, over mountainous jungle, to Azua, in the Dominican Republic.  Through much of November and December he was hospitalized in Port au Prince with an unspecified ailment.

Stateside, Jan-Apr 1917

Sometime in January, 1917, the 2nd Regiment, including 15th Company, returned to the United States and took up their station in Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, Philadelphia.  Bigelow and Bleasdale returned with the company.  Dunham‘s movements are less clear, as his roster record for January is missing.  Probably he remained in hospital in Port au Prince for a time after the regiment had returned to the States.  By February, 1917, all three Marines were at Marine Barracks, Philadelphia Navy Yard on League Island.

Sometime in late February, 1917, 15th Company was transferred to the Marine Aviation Section, US Navy Aeronautic Station in Pensacola, Florida, and all three friends were included in the move.  It was at this time that another future member of the Dunham “circle of chums” joined the Company:  Russell Smith, who had enlisted the previous November.  

War is Declared, April 2

While Bigelow, Bleasdale and Dunham were still at Pensacola with 15th Companythe United States declared war on Germany on April 2nd.   In mid-May, the Secretary of War made a formal request to President Wilson that a regiment of Marines be included in the first contingent of troops being sent to France.  Wilson issued an order to that effect on the 27th.  Accordingly, Marine units with expeditionary experience in Haiti, Santo Domingo and Cuba, including 15th Company, as well as a number of shipboard detachments, were formally organized into the 5th Marine Regiment, commanded by Col Charles Doyen, and composed of three battalions.  15th Company was called up from Pensacola to Quantico and assigned to 1st Battalion under Major Julius Turrill.  

It was at about this time that the rest of the Marines in Dunham’s “circle of chums” joined the company.  Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer and Emanuel Smolik enlisted just days after the declaration of war, underwent basic training together at Paris* Island as members of the same “Company H”  and joined 15th Company at Quantico on June 1st.  Edward Duda also joined on this date from Paris Island, where he had trained in “Company I”.  

Crossing the Pond

The Marines of 15th Company left Quantico on June 12, traveling by train to their old homebase at the Navy Yard on League Island, Philadelphia, and immediately boarded the USS DeKalb (formerly the German ship Prinz Eitel, seized at the outbreak of war), joining the rest of the Col Julius Turrill’s 1st Battalion.

Marines boarding the USS Dekalb, June 12, 1917, Navy Yard, Philadelphia

Marines boarding the USS Dekalb, June 12, 1917, Navy Yard, Philadelphia

Together with the USS Hancock (which held Headquarters & Supply Companies), the Dekalb weighed anchor and steamed out to sea on the same day, to a sustained cacaphony of every bell and whistle on the waterfront.  Their journey up the Jersey coast was slowed by a heavy fog in Delaware Bay, but soon enough they made it into New York Harbor and anchored within sight of the Statue of Liberty.   The two ships were  joined by a third, the USS Henderson, which carried the 2nd and 3rd Battalions and the regimental band.  On the 14th, together with other ships carrying the remainder of the 1st Division, they set sail for France. 

A pair of encounters with German U-boats notwithstanding, the Dekalb arrived in St Nazaire harbor, on the coast of France in good order on June 26.  The 1st Battalion disembarked with little fanfare on the same day and marched five miles to the western outskirts of the city, to a British campground known as Base Camp #1.  This was to be their home for the next couple of weeks.    They set up tents, and within a few hours were nicely settled in, making coffee and frying bacon over open fires.  For the next couple of weeks, the Marines primarily busied themselves with marches and close order drills, sometimes marching back to the docks to spend a day unloading ships.

Prvates Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer and Edward Duda at Base Camp #1, St. Nazaire, in early July 1917.

Prvates Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer and Edward Duda at Base Camp #1, St. Nazaire, in early July 1917.

 To be continued . . .


* “Parris Island” was not spelled with two “r”s until after the war.

Original photographs in this article courtesy of Paul Higgins.  All other photos are in the Public Domain.

Last updated in the early hours of 11 Feb 2013.   Additions, questions & corrections by readers are welcome.

BJ Omanson