American participation in World War I, the Great War, seemed to come so fast. Just months before war was declared against Germany on April 6, 1917, President Wilson was speaking about the possibility of peace talks. His campaign slogan in the November 1916 presidential election was "He kept us out of war."
At the beginning of 1917, Woodland's Company F, 2nd Regiment of the California Infantry reflected the nation's lack of readiness for war. Company F had only 18 members, a long way from the minimum of 68 required for a unit to be in good standing.
As the possibility of war grew, Company F got orders on March 26, 1917 to prepare to be called up for service. The Woodland Daily Democrat wrote that "Company F faces the problem of being mustered out for lack of numerical strength." (March 26, 1917) Company F sought recruits in events in Woodland and meetings throughout Yolo County, along with encouraging even those living outside the County to join. Local Ira Farnham donated use of his car so that members of Company F could travel around to make this effort at recruitment. The City of Winters aided Company F by holding what was billed as a mass meeting, with a band and a quartet singing patriotic selections. By April 4, the day Company F left Woodland for mobilization at Richmond, the unit had grown to 70.
Woodland's Company F departed from Camp Kearny for France via England on July 26, 1918, led by Captain Lester Caldwell. Their first stop in France was LeHavre and then Grossouvre, where Company F soldiers stayed until October 28, 1918, at which time they were ordered to the front at Scermaize.
On the day of the company's arrival at Scermaize, its division was subjected to a spirited air raid by enemy planes. By way of understatement, Captain Caldwell related on his return to the U.S. that this air attack was "a very mild introduction to the real shell-hell" some members of his company received in future experiences. (The Mail of Woodland newspaper, April 20, 1919.)
Company F did not remain intact. Its members were used as replacements in other companies at various locations on the front to bolster weak spots in the defense. Woodland attorney Charles Hoppin, who was promoted to Captain by the end of the war, explained that in this assignment as replacements, "Our best men made a splendid record, including the St. Mhiel salient and the Argonne campaign." (Woodland Daily Democrat, April 28, 1919.) These two battles in which Yolo County servicemen fought were some of the most important in the United States' war participation.
The Battle of Saint-Mihiel was fought between September 12-15, 1918, involving the American Expeditionary Force and 48,000 French troops under the command of U.S. general John J. Pershing against German positions. The United States Army Air Service (which later became the United States Air Force) played a significant role in this action. The attack at the St. Mihiel salient was part of a plan by Pershing in which he hoped that the United States would break through the German lines and capture the fortified city of Metz. U.S. forces made a strong blow against the Germans. The attack faltered after the Americans outdistanced their artillery and food supplies. The attack on Metz was not realized, as the German Army refortified their positions. The Americans then turned their efforts to the Argonne offensive.
The battle in the Argonne Forest of France went on for one and a half months, Sept. 26 - Nov. 11, 1918. It was the biggest operation and victory of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, and also its deadliest. Approximately fifty thousand Americans died. (Ellis & Cox, The World War I Databook.) The success of that offensive against the German Army led to the end of World War I.
Sgt. Oliver Grayson, who joined Company F in February of 1915, was wounded in the Argonne and after 28 days passed away. The Woodland Daily Democrat explained the impact of Grayson's death back home. "Sad word of the death at a base hospital in France, October 23, of her son, Sergeant Oliver O. Grayson, was received by Mrs. W. A. More . Mrs. W. A. More is overcome with grief over her loss." (December 24, 1918.)
A 1914 enlistee into Company F, Roy Hamilton was killed in action October 6, 1918 at age 39.
William Oliver of Woodland died while fighting in the Argonne Sept. 29, 1918. His body was finally returned to Woodland three years later. Oliver's funeral was "directed by the Krellenberg company under the auspices of the American Legion," Post 77. (The Mail of Woodland, Sept. 9, 1921.)
Company F's Corporal Christ Hegelan was also killed in action. Born in Germany, he moved to Woodland and loved America enough to fight for the United States' cause his mother country.
Others who had joined Company F faired better. Laurence Dieudonne, Hunter Ogden and Henry Biondini had all been through the thick of the fight in the Argonne Forest and made it out alive, as did Walter Green. "Walter Green, the only Winers boy seriously wounded in the great war . had enlisted in Co. F. His company was up against a detachment of German machine guns and snipers." He was shot by a German soldier who was "up in a tree with a machine gun. Five machine gun bullets passed through Green. It was thirty hours after he was shot that he received hospital treatment." (Winters Express, April 18, 1919.)
During his fighting in Argonne, Mitchell Fountain was inflicted with injuries that "partly paralyzed the use of the right arm, shortening the right limb so that only the ball of the foot reaches the ground." (Woodland Daily Democrat, April 1, 1919.)
Woodland resident Harold Pierce fought bravely and fiercely during his eight days in the Argonne. "For many days after he was wounded by a bursting shell," Pierce continued to fight. He "bandaged his own wound and refused to tell the medical authorities of his injuries." (Woodland Daily Democrat, April 16, 1919.)
In sum, Company F's Commander Caldwell noted after the final victory over the Axis powers, "Nearly all of the Yolo company [F] boys saw service in fierce fighting at one time or another before the armistice was signed." (The Mail of Woodland, April 20, 1919.)
The leader of the American forces in Europe, General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, stopped in Woodland after the war. While on the platform of the train's end car he was on, General Pershing told the huge mass of those from Yolo County in attendance what many already knew about their brothers, sons and friends: "America had the finest army in the world and the men who came from this part of the country were of the best." (The Mail of Woodland, January 24, 1920.)
No doubt expressing the feelings of World
War I servicemen from Woodland, Darrell Johnston reflected upon
his return, "this burg looks good and I'll never leave it
again." (Woodland Daily Democrat, Apr 4, 1919.)
Posted 2 March 2010
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