Two of our family doctors and the fathers of several of my friends were volunteers also. As a result, I have been interested in Company F all my life. After years of research about the Company, I wanted to visit the areas in France where they, including my father, fought. My wife and I had taken a group bus tour in 1999 and saw some interesting WWI sites, but we were unable to visit specific Company F locations. This dream was realized in May 2004 when I visited the Western Front on a customized tour with Doug Gangler of World War I and II Specialty Tours, Champion, Pennsylvania, as my guide.
The city of Shawano is the county seat of Shawano County, a rural area in northeast Wisconsin. In 1917 it was predominately a lumbering and dairy area. There were several saw mills and a paper mill in town and the surrounding countryside contained many dairy farms and cheese factories. The city of Shawano was the commercial trade center of the area.
In 1916 and 1917 as the United States moved closer to direct involvement in the war in Europe, there developed a growing sentiment for the formation of community-based Wisconsin National Guard units throughout the state. It was thought that these military units could represent the community, as individual enlisted men could not, and would have the support of the whole community. Also, there was sentiment for joining a unit where young men would be with others they knew as opposed to waiting to be drafted into units of strangers. About 170 men from Shawano County enlisted in Company F.
The 4th Infantry Regiment initially went into training at Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1917. At the end of September they were transferred to the Army's Camp MacArthur in Waco, Texas. There the National Guard units were reorganized into the 127th and 128th Infantry Regiments, 64th Brigade, 32nd Division. Shawano's Company F was disbanded. About 100 men were combined with about 150 others from Milwaukee, forming Company F, 127th Infantry Regiment USNG. Others were assigned to the 107th Engineers, Trench Mortar Battery, Supply Train, Ammunition Train, and other units. After rigorous training in Texas the 32nd Division shipped out for France in January and February 1918.
My personal WWI tour started in Brussels, Belgium, on 1 May 2004, following a flight from Chicago. Doug introduced me to the Western Front with a visit to Iper and its Menin Gate and surrounding Flanders' Fields. We moved on to The Canadian National Memorial at Vimy, the battlefields of The Somme, and, at my request, the Suresnes American Cemetery and Memorial west of Paris and Versailles.
For about six weeks after arriving in Brest, France, 4 March 1918, the 127th Infantry troops were assigned to labor and guard duty with the Service of Supply. In April the 32nd Division was brought back together for training in east-central France. In May the Division was ordered to south Alsace for trench warfare training on that "quiet" front.
With the gains of the German offensives of 1918, the 32nd Division was ordered to the Aisne-Marne region near the end of July. The U.S. Army 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 26th, 28th, and 42nd Divisions were already fighting in the region. On 30 July the 32nd Division, with Company F, 127th Infantry leading on the right flank, attacked Bois de Cierges, a woods near Roncheres sustaining heavy losses. Four Shawano men?Edwin Austin, Peter Frankovick, Emil Tiegs, and Moritz Weigel?were killed here with many more wounded. Two were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross?Pfc. Louis Witte and posthumously, Pvt. Edwin Austin. Witte, although wounded, maintained effective automatic rifle fire while the remainder of the company was withdrawing. Austin was killed on his third trip in advance of the front lines to rescue his wounded comrades.
Here is where my personal quest began. I traveled the road where my father and the rest of Company F hiked the night of 29-30 July 1918. I stood by the roadside ditch that had been the front line and looked across that field at the Bois de Cierges where the deadly German machine guns were concealed. Dad survived this first engagement. I wondered if he were afraid for his life. I would have been.
The woods were ultimately taken in another attack that day and on 1 July the village of Cierges was captured. Alfred Gross, Leonard Besaw, and Guy George of Shawano and eight other Company F men from Milwaukee were killed. Emil Zeuske was severely wounded and died on 15 September.
The attack continued on 1 August north of Cierges against Bellevue Farm on Hill 230. The 127th Infantry, including Company F, attacked at 2:30 in the morning with little success. They sought shelter in a woods east of Bellevue Farm. In an all too frequent irony of war, they were shelled by their own artillery. In company F nine were killed and ten others wounded. Those killed from Shawano were George Frank, Joe Goree, and Charles Skaleski. The wounded included James Goree, who died the next day, and Mike Brunner who died 8 August. My father was among the wounded. He was wounded in the right arm, side, and leg so severely that he was not expected to live. For three days he lay on a stretcher in the forward aide station receiving only minimal medical attention. But he survived and finally was transported to an Army field hospital where he received the necessary surgery to close his wounds.
In May 2004 I was in Cierges looking across the fields at those deadly woods. What a beautiful and peaceful place it is now, young green blades of wheat, white cows grazing contentedly in the pasture. It was hard to visualize a battlefield here. I wanted to walk to the woods where Dad had been, but it is private land and hard to reach. However, we located a farm lane that allowed us to drive up closer. We walked several hundred yards further to an opening, which could have been the location of Bellevue Farm, but no building ruins were evident. We could not go further without damaging the grain; however, I was actually within a quarter mile of where Dad was wounded. Knowing this was very moving.
Bellevue Farm and Hill 230 were taken 1 August 1918 by a frontal attack by the 127th Infantry and envelopment by the 128th Infantry attacking from the right and rear. In this action Robert Luecke of Shawano was killed. The 127th was then relieved and retired to the rear for two days.
The 127th Infantry resumed the front line on 4 August at St. Gilles and attacked Fismes, about 2 km away. (See photographs on next page.) Casualties were very heavy. Late in the day the units were so decimated and mixed together that a single provisional battalion was organized out of what was left of the original three battalions. A final, desperate assault succeeded in capturing Fismes about nightfall, but it remained a sniper's haven for both sides for several weeks thereafter. On this day Fred Kapanke, Charles Robinson, Edward Salzor, and Louis Mangold of Shawano's Company F were killed. Lyle Davenport was killed 6 August, probably by a sniper. He was a close friend of my mother.
In memory of both of them I placed a memorial card at the side of the road near where he must have fallen.
The 32nd Division was relieved by the 28th Division on the night of 6-7 August and retired to the rear in a support position. The division casualties were 4187 from all causes, including 777 killed. Division strength was usually about 27,000 men. However, among the infantry units the casualty rate was much higher. After Fismes was captured the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry including Company F, had five officers and 104 men remaining out of slightly more than 1000. Therefore, the casualty rate was about 90 percent.
The Division was rested and resupplied. A few replacements were received to fill the rifle companies to about 40 percent of normal. Training was ordered for all because most were inexperienced and poorly trained. However, in less than two weeks orders were received to report to the Tenth French Army north of Soissons.
The 32nd Division was the only American division to serve with the Tenth French Army. It went into action 28 August. On 30 August the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 127th Infantry successfully captured the village of Juvigny surrounding it on the right and rear. The attacks continued east of Juvigny on 31 August and 1 September. The Division was relieved by the French 1st Moroccan Division on the night of 1-2 September.
Three more Shawano men died from this action. Pfc. Otis Evans died 2 November of wounds received 31 August. Pvt. Payne Drake and Sgt. Edwin Elefson were killed 1 September.
We visited this battle site on a May afternoon and followed the route of the battle across carefully cultivated fields and forested ravines. It is hard to imagine this as a battlefield now. No signs of the war are evident.
Twenty-two deaths of Shawano's Company F members have been previously mentioned. The bodies of thirteen of these remain in France to this day. Six are buried in identified graves and seven are listed on the Walls of the Missing. Another objective of this trip to France was to visit these graves and memorials. Prior to leaving home I made a laminated memorial card for each soldier with his picture on the front, and written inside, "A Son of Shawano Remembers [soldier's name], Wisconsin N.G. Company F 4th Infantry Regiment."
The first American cemetery we visited was Suresnes, west of Paris. Here I wanted to find only one grave, that of Emil Zeuske. The cemetery superintendent was most helpful and also provided flags of France and the United States to be placed with the memorial card. After placing the card and flags, a photograph was taken and a moment of silence observed.
There are two American cemeteries in the Aisne-Marne region?the Aisne-Marne and the Oise-Aisne. In the Aisne-Marne Cemetery at the village of Belleau, Leonard Besaw, Guy George, Robert Luecke, Louis Mangold, and Charles Skaleske of Company F are listed on the Wall of the Missing in the chapel. Here memorial cards were placed on the altar with a moment of silence.
The Oise-Aisne American Cemetery is near the village of Fère-en-Tardenois. Here Edwin Austin, Peter Frankovick, James Gowan, Fred Kapanke, and Edward Salzer are buried in individual graves. As at Suresnes, a memorial card and the flags were placed at each gravestone followed by a moment of silence. Payne Drake and Edwin Elefson are listed on the Wall of the Missing, where again we laid a memorial card and had a moment of silence. The placing of the memorial cards, although a simple process, was still very moving.
While in the Aisne-Marne region, Doug directed us to other historical locations not well known to me?Aisne-Marne American Memorial, Belleau Wood, and the 28th Division memorial bridge at Fismes, among others.
Following their victory at Juvigny the 32nd Division, on 5 September, was ordered to the Argonne region near Verdun to join the First American Army as a reserve division. The Division received about 5000 replacements, which brought the Regiments almost to their authorized strength. After a brief rest, training was begun again.
On the morning of 14 October all four regiments of the 32nd Division attacked the strongest position on the Hindenburg Line in the Argonne sector, the Kriemhilde Stellung centered on Cote Dame Marie. On the right the 128th Infantry broke through and encircled Romagne. Attacking the now exposed German left flank caused that section of the German defensive line to withdraw, allowing the 126th Infantry to advance. Likewise, a unit from Company M of this regiment attacked the German defenders on the left flank of Cote Dame Marie causing the defenders of the hill to withdraw or die in their trenches and holes. On the extreme left of the sector
the 127th Infantry had initially been unable to advance against the Cote Dame Marie. Later in the morning the 2nd Battalion flanked Cote Dame Marie on the west making contact with the 126th Infantry on the right and the 42nd Division on the left, completing the encirclement of Cote Dame Marie. The attack continued for five more days, clearing Bois de Bantheville to the north. After 17 days of battle the 32nd Division was relieved by the 89th Division the night of 20-21 October. Losses were 1179 killed and 6046 total casualties.
In this action Sgt. Walter Siebert of Shawano earned a Distinguished Service Cross on 16 October by single handedly destroying a German machine-gun nest. Pvt. Henry Wetzel of Shawano also was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for repeatedly volunteering to carry messages in the face of heavy machine-gun and shell fire.
During travel to the 32nd Division sites near Romagne, Doug showed and explained other sites of interest in the Argonne?the slope where the "Lost Battalion" valiantly defended their position, the memorial to Cpl. York at Châtel-Chénéry and the slopes of Hill 223 where York's actions earned him the French Croix de Guerre and the U.S. Medal of Honor.
Passing through Gesnes we arrived at the location of the German trenches west of Romagne and the position of the 127th Infantry at the base of Cote Dame Marie. After a brief visit to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery we explored the area north of Cote Dame Marie. The distant view of the Côte de Châtillon in the 42nd Division sector brought to mind Douglas MacArthur's commitment to "take it, or my name will head the list" of 5000 casualties. Observing these heavily wooded hills with intermingled cultivated fields gave me a feeling of awe for the gigantic effort expended by American forces to capture this ground.
After rest and refitting the 32nd Division was held in reserve of the 3rd Corps in Montfaucon Woods. On 1 November they moved forward in support of the 89th, 90th, and 5th Divisions. On 5 November the 128th Infantry was attached to the 5th Division, then fighting east of the Meuse. On 9 November the rest of the 32nd Division went into the front line on the right flank of the 5th Division. On the morning of 11 November they faced a stiffening German defense at the River Thinte when the armistice was announced.
When I visited this location, the Bois de Jametz, I found it an unimpressive, flat, wooded, and swampy area. Here the war ended for Company F.
Ultimately, the 32nd Division joined the "Watch on The Rhine" near Coblenz where they remained on duty until they started the trip home on 18 April 1919. A large celebration and parade honoring their "heroes" was held in the city of Shawano 18 June 1919, and then Company F began to fade into obscurity.
While concluding my tour of 32nd Division battle sites at the Bois de Jametz, Doug took me to other important WWI sites. We followed the route of the 26th Division, cutting the Salient in half. The American monuments and cemeteries were most impressive in spite of the foggy, rainy weather. We returned to Brussels, stopping at other important historical sites along the way. It was a pleasant finish to an emotional journey.
Curtis Druckrey is a new member of WFA and has been a student of WWI, particularly Company F, all of his life.