Thoughts on Memorial Day, 2018, By William Loeffel

Bill's Picture.jpg

Illinois National Guard, 33rd Division in the trenches

            On Memorial Day 2018, we memorialize the passing of those who served.  We celebrate the 200th anniversary of Illinois Statehood, and remember that Illinois was literally taken by the military conquest of George Rogers Clark and his band of frontiersmen.  2018 is the 150th anniversary of General John A. Logan’s General Order 11, which specified the Grand Army of the Republic’s sponsorship of Decoration Day to honor the Civil War dead.  2018 is the 100th anniversary of America’s major combat operations in World War I

            We honor those who served and have passed on, and particularly the casualties of all the military actions of the United States. These are far more than can be properly addressed in remarks that must be brief. For this reason the subject of these remarks will concern Illinois, and particularly, Peoria’s role in the First World War.  Over 5,500 Peorians entered military service during the war. [1]One hundred and thirty nine lost their lives “on the battlefields and in the hospitals and on the ships where battle flags were flying.”[2]

In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place; and in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly.  Scare heard amid the guns below.

          At the start of the First World War in 1914, the population in Peoria was about 70,000. German culture had a strong presence in the community. Peoria had a daily German newspaper, the Taglicher Peoria Demokrat. As public sentiment turned against Germany with the sinking of the Lusitania, German culture fell out of favor, and Germans became “the Huns” The Taglicher Peoria abruptly ceased publication on February 27, 1915[3].

            The war between the great European powers was good news for familiar Peoria [4]businesses. The Holt Company soon geared up to ship 80 to 120 caterpillar tractors a week.to the British and French.[5]  Keystone Steel produced barbed wire.[6] Distilleries produced industrial alcohol for use in munitions and medicines.

            As the war went on, support grew for American military intervention. Edwin Feber enlisted in the Canadian Red Cross in 1916 and was soon in France.[7] He died there while driving an ambulance in June 1918.[8]Albert Tombs enlisted in the British Army and died fighting the Turks in Palestine on February 11, 1917.[9] Many young men enlisted in local Peoria units of the Illinois Military and Naval Department. These included Companies G & H of the Fifth Illinois Infantry, Troop G, Illinois Cavalry, Company K, 8th Illinois Infantry (colored), and the 8th Division of the Illinois Naval Militia. These units were organized along Civil War lines. 

            When war was declared on April 6, 2017 the United States War Department was tasked with creating a national army out of a small regular force and a patchwork of state militia units. It immediately designated 8 regular infantry divisions, numbered 1 through 8. State militias were organized into brigades and divisions, numbering 26 through 42.  A “national army” to be filled with draftees comprised divisions numbered 76 through 93. Eventually, 2 million troops were deployed to France, including 8 regular army, 8 National Guard and 8 national army reserve divisions.

            Those Peorians who had enlisted in the Regular Army, Marine Corps and Navy were the first to arrive in what the military calls ‘the box” or area of operations. However, one of the first to arrive in France was a nurse, Emma McCall, who left Peoria on August 21, 1917. [10]  George Luthy, later a prominent banker, was commissioned as a naval ensign. The first death was that of Edmond J Powers who enlisted as an electrician in the Navy. He was sent to the Naval Training station at Newport Rhode Island where he contracted pneumonia and died in December 1917.   His brother Thomas enlisted in the Army Railway Service and survived the war after deployment in the expedition to Russia. As regular troops sailed for Europe during the fall of 1917, not all had a safe journey. LeRoy Potter and Ralph Lindquist perished when the SS Cyclops vanished at sea.[11]  Elmer Bloom was aboard the SS Finland when it was torpedoed on October 28. Although the ship survived, some of the crew panicked and ordered abandon ship. [12]Bloom spent hours in the water before rescue.[13] A total of fifteen naval deaths were reported, mostly from influenza and pneumonia.

Twenty were commissioned in the Army Air Corps, with Gordon Keller killed in a training flight[14]

            The first great battle that American troops participated in was during the great German offensive in the spring of 1918. The Marine Corps Devil Dog Brigade, was assigned to the US Army 2nd Division and took their place on the line in June. 1918.[15] The Division stopped part of the German offensive in the woods of Chateau-Thierry/Belleau Wood. Marine Sgt. Harry Maas was wounded three times on June 8 and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. [16] Army Lt Thomas Goodfellow, commanding a company of  the 22nd  Infantry was killed in the same battle on June 15, when blown to bits by an artillery shell.[17]Marines Grover Pioneer, John Stover and Ralph Harper also died in the battle.

            Back in Illinois, mobilization was in full progress. Eventually 351,153 residents of Illinois reported for duty. Of these, 3,678 enlisted in the Marines, 24,663 reported to the Navy, and 286, 163 reported to the Army.[18]  Many were rejected for military service for reasons I will mention later. 

            Companies G & H were called to active duty on March 25, 1917.   Their first assignment was to guard the Holt factory and bridges over the Illinois. The units were mustered at the Globe street armory and encamped in Glen Oak Park[19]. They were soon joined by Company A from Pekin.   These units were soon reorganized into the United States Army. A “square division” consisted of two infantry brigades, a field artillery brigade, and support battalions. It had an authorized strength of  27,152. The infantry brigade was a purely tactical unit. It consisted of two infantry regiments of 3,600 troops each, and a machine gun battalion. A full strength brigade had 8,000 troops.  

The 33rd Infantry Division, commanded by MG Bell of Chicago was a purely Illinois Division. Company G, Illinois  Cavalry became the 124th FA of the 58th FA Brigade. Among those who became artillerymen was Dale Sweeney who later worked as a librarian at the Peoria Public library for many years. He wrote a unit history and preserved many items regarding Peoria during the war for the library.       

The units were “federalized” on Aug 5 of 1917.  Companies G and H were redesignated the 123rd MG BN, 65th BDE. It served with the 129th and 130th Infantry Regiments of the 65th BDE, which were drawn from central and northern Illinois.  

Company K, 8th Infantry and all other “colored” units were organized separately under the 370th Brigade, 93rd Infantry Division.  The “Black Devils” of the 370th had the distinction of being the only Black regiment completely staffed with black officers. For its actions during the war with the 59th French Division, members received Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal and 68 Croix de Guerre. [20]    

The Draft came to Peoria on June 5, and on July 28, an exemption office was also opened.  A total of 10,015 Peoria county men registered. Six “slackers” ended up in the Peoria County Jail. The Peoria County Bar resolved not to provide legal aid for slackers. One of the first draftees from Peoria was Black. John Hardison established a “fine service record” in France before returning to his civilian job as a night watchman at Holt. [21]  Some prominent Peorians drafted into service included attorney Richard Kavanagh, George Sprenger chief of the Peoria County Probation Department, and Charles Mason, who was the baseball coach for Manual HS.[22]  Draftees, and those enlisting into the “National Army” were sent to Camp Dodge Iowa, where many were assigned to the 84th, 85th, and 86th Divisions, primarily composed of men from Illinois. Others, such as John Moser of Moser Shoes, went to the 88th.  These division did not see much combat, but were constantly levied for replacements for the 33rd Division and Regular Army divisions. Many died in action after assignment to their new units. “I’m glad I got in the Engineers[23].” wrote Private Peter Leuze from Camp Dodge to his sister, Eva. She never saw him again. She kept the letter and a picture of him in his new uniform until her death in 1994. In a walk around Soldier’s Hill at Springdale Cemetery, one learns of many other units local men served in.  

Although women were not drafted, 3,411 women registered for “patriotic service” with various organizations. 

  On September 14, 1917, the Companies G and H, entrained “amid many tears and cheers” for Camp Logan Texas, where the entire 33rd Division assembled and trained. One of the problems faced by the division was the quality of draftees.  In order to attain its authorized strength of 27,215, it had to receive and vet over 36,000.  Many of the draftees that were transferred from the 84th, 85th and 86th Divisions were determined to be unfit for service because of illiteracy, venereal disease, general unfitness, and status as “enemy aliens” Those of German or other enemy nation descent who had not established citizenship were ineligible to serve. Over 700 soldiers assigned to the division were of this status, and even though 400 specifically petitioned to fight against Germany[24], they were not allowed to deploy unless became naturalized. Eventually 793 vacancies had be filled because of the disqualification of these aliens.[25]  The 33rd churned through unqualified soldiers and officers until it had the number and quality of troops that it needed.

The first units of the 33rd Division arrived in the port of Brest, France on May 24, 1918. The arrival of the troops aboard the Leviathan was not without incident as it was intercepted by five German submarines in the approaches to the port. Fortunately the subs were dispersed by destroyers.  By July the division was fully deployed. From then until the Armistice, it spent 27 days in training, 33 days “in sector” and 38 days in intense combat.

The 33rd drew first blood supporting the British along the Somme in July.  On July 4th, Corporal Andrew Schabinger of Washington leapt over the top of his trench as his unit attacked.  He was dropped immediately with a severe wound to the arm.  He staggered to his feet and ran forward to rejoin his comrades.[26]  The attack was a success.

In September the 33rd went into the line between Verdun and the Argonne Forest along the Meuse River. It supported the offensive in the Argonne Forest by attacking across the Meuse in October. During a nighttime trench raid Lt John Trager and another officer captured 31 enemy troops.[27] For this he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. In late October the 33rd went on the offensive in the St Mihiel sector. 

Peoria’s 123rd Machine Gun Battalion was engaged until the bitter end and fired 75,000 rounds in action during the day leading up to the Armistice on November 11, 1918. During the unit’s time in France it had lost 25 soldiers killed, or died of wounds or disease.

In 38 days of major combat the 33rd Division had advanced 22 miles on various fronts, captured 3,987 Germans, sustained casualties of 993 KIA, 5,871 wounded, and 127 missing or captured.[28]  It received 5,415 replacements, meaning over 33,000 served with the 33rd in France.[29]

Back in Peoria, college students and others drilled on the campus grounds of Camp Bradley. A home guard was organized. The Peoria Battalion of the 7th Regiment, Illinois Reserve Militia was mustered into service at the Globe Street Armory on September 10, 1918 for possible duty in a violent strike at Keystone Steel. The men slept on the floor, except members of Company F, who were all from the Creve Coeur Club and had managed to procure mattresses.[30] . there was celebration on November 11. However it was also noted that at the time Peoria schools were closed due to influenza.[31]

Following brief occupation duty, the 33rd Division, and the rest of the American Expeditionary Force returned home, starting in April 1919.   

 On May 11, 1919, The 33rd Division Commander, MG Bell of Chicago awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to Harvey Jones in a ceremony in Glen Oak Park. During the battle of the Argonne Forest on October 3, 1918, Jones was serving as a runner for Company C, 123 MG BN, when he came upon a severely wounded comrade at a machine gun position. He carried his comrade across a field that was being heavily shelled with poison gas until delivering him safely to an aid station.[32]       

Those who served went on with their lives. Seventeen years later, 2,000 veterans received small bonuses of $50. [33]Occasional newspaper articles noted their service. On November 11, 1961, the Peoria Journal Star ran an article encaptioned “It’s the Age of Retirement, Puttering, for the Boys who Sang ‘Over There’” Sixth Ward veterans gathered for a commemoration at the Sixth Ward monument on August 8th, 1969. Some 600 Illinois World War I veterans gathered for a convention at the Peoria Hilton on July 13, 1973. The Journal Star noted a meeting of the Peoria Tontine, or Last Man Standing Club at Donnelly’s Shamrock Tap’ on November 12, 1981. A year later, only 10 men were present[34]   On February 23, 1989, the French Consulate and American Legion Post Number 2, held a dinner honoring the three remaining veterans, Chester Hamilton, William Loveridge, and Bernard McGuire.[35]

And then, the old soldiers faded away. The World War I veterans are no more. To resume the poem In Flanders Fields:    

We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, love and were loved and now we lie, in Flander's fields.  Take up our quarrel with the foe:  to you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.  If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow, in Flander's fields.  

            So on Memorial Day we remember those served in the Great War  and passed the torch to those who would serve in World War Two.  We honor those who served and passed the torch from Revolutionary War through all the wars, to include Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and through the death of MSG Jonathan Dunbar of Austin, Texas who died from an IED March 30, 2018 in Manbij, Syria.  The fallen are the epitome  of Duty,  Honor, County.  We must not break the faith with those who served and now have passed. Whatever the conflict they lived and died with the values of Loyalty, Duty, Responsibility, Selfless Service, Humility, and Personal courage. 

            Thank you for your remembrance.

[1] Peoria Journal, May 30, 1936

[2] Peoria Star, November 11, 1923

[3] Taglicher Peoria Demokrat, February 26, 2015.

[4] Chicago Evening News, March 1, 1919. 

[5] Id

[6] id

[7] id

[8] Peoria Transcript September 23, 1925

[9] Peoria Journal Transcript, February 7, 1932

[10] Peoriana, Peoria Daily Record, Peoria Public Library Local History collection. 

[11][11] Peoria Journal May 30, 1936

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Finland_(1902)

[13] Chicago Evening American, March 1, 1919

[14] Peoria Transcript September 23, 1918.

[15] http://www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php/usmc-in-ww1/850-a-brief-history-of-u-s-marine-corps-action-in-europe-during-world-war-i.html

[16] Chicago Evening American,  March 1, 1919

[17] Id.

[18] http://www.idaillinois.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/isl8/id/12615 p.2

[19] Peoria Journal May 30, 1936.

[20]http://www.nationalguard.mil/News/Article/653966/black-history-month-highlighting-the-93rd-division-in-world-war-i/

[21] Peoria Journal Transcript November 3, 1940

[22] Peoria Journal Transcript, id

[23] 318th Engr Bn 88th Division

[24] MG Bell to the War Department Adjutant General, January 9, 1918. The 33rd Division, Volume 1, Illinois Digital archives. http://www.idaillinois.org/digital/collection/isl8/id/11389/rec/18

[25] id

[26] Sunday Morning Star, November 5, 1933

[27] Id

[28] American Armies and Battlefields in Europe, American Battlefields Monuments Commission, 1938

[29] American Armies and Battlefields in Europe. United States Government Printing Office, p. 517

[30] Notes of George Treadway, February 24, 1949 (unpublished) Local History Collection, Peoria Public Library.

[31] Notes of V.F. Post, Local History Collection, Peoria Public library.

[32] Peoria Transcript May 11, 1919.

[33] Peoria Transcript, June 10, 1936.

[34] Peoria Journal Star, November 12, 1982

[35] Peoria Journal Star, February 11, 1989