CHATHAM – Growing up the youngest of seven children in the Bronx, Chatham resident Tom Baldwin knew very little about his father Walter’s service in World War I.
“I cannot recall my Dad ever talking about his wartime experiences in our home,” Baldwin said. Walter Baldwin passed away in 1965.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Tom and his sister discovered a typed manuscript while going through some of their father’s papers. Consisting of 70 single-spaced typed pages, the memoir, written by his father immediately after the war described in detail his service as the Battalion Sergeant Major in what came to be known as “The Lost Battalion.”
Baldwin shared some of his father’s writings on last Thursday evening at the Eldredge Public Library.
The memoir chronicles the unimaginable six days and nights that 600 men of the First Battalion, 308th Infantry, 77th Division faced in October 1918 in the Argonne Forest in France. Trapped without food or water, under constant bombardment and shelling, and completely surrounded by a numerically superior German force, hundreds of soldiers would die in a valley that would later be called “the pocket.”
Walter Baldwin was “truly a gentleman,” Tom said. “Anyone who knew my Dad before or after the war could never imagine how such a gentle man survived such a horror.”
Drafted into the Army in June 1917, Walter Baldwin joined a unit known as the Statue of Liberty Division, made up almost completely of men from the melting pot of New York City who spoke 42 different languages.
Basic training in Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island was “very basic,” Baldwin said. “They trained with broomsticks!”
Upon completion of basic training, the division embarked on a 14-day voyage to Liverpool and Dover, where “the reality of the mangled bodies of the British soldiers on the dock” brought the war home to these Americans. Another ship then took them on to Calais. Finally a train of boxcars holding 40 men in each one took three days and nights to reach their destination – Alsace-Lorraine in France.
In June 1918, their on-the-job training began as they were thrown into the war in earnest. For 10 weeks they endured daily shellings, mustard gas and life in shallow seven- to eight-foot deep trenches, known as funk holes, often flooded and infested with rats and vermin. “They were introduced to trenchfoot and cooties (or lice),” Baldwin said. Food was mostly hardtack, a recipe that included flour, water and salt that was the consistency of rock, he added.
A series of actions were fought in and around the area and in late September they reached the southern end of the Argonne Forest. Their objective was Abri du Crochet, a town that housed a German officer quarters 25 feet underground. By early October, through a series of brutal as well as cold and rainy advances, it appeared they had reached their objective. They did not rest for long.
On Oct. 2 the battalion was ordered forward to reach their next objective, the Charlevaux Road, “regardless of costs.” The ration truck arrived too late to resupply their rations. Facing their heaviest opposition of withering German artillery and without the French and American units on their flanks, the unit advanced to a narrow bridge below their objective, where they were ordered to proceed one at a time across, five yards apart. Those who survived dug in on the steep sloped sides of the “pocket.” They had reached their objective. Without radios or other communication devices, a message was handwritten and attached to a carrier pigeon. “Objective reached.”
When the dawn broke on Oct. 3 they learned that without their flanks covered, the Germans had moved up their forces and the battalion was now surrounded.
Shelled by heavy artillery and grenade barrages from the top of the hill, without food and water and running low on ammunition, the unit sustained hundreds of casualties. By Oct. 6 there were 300 men “with barely the strength to life a rifle,” Baldwin wrote.
That afternoon “the worst happened, when for two hours we were shelled by our own heavy artillery when they laid a barrage that fell short of the German position and fell right in our lap,” according to Baldwin’s memoir.
The unit had one carrier pigeon named Cher Ami left. In desperation a note was strapped to the bird’s leg. “Your barrage is falling on us. For God sake, stop it!”
“The pigeon fluttered and few off,” Baldwin wrote. Two hours later, “suddenly all went quiet.” The pigeon had done her job. “She lost a leg and one eye, but she saved many lives,” Baldwin wrote.
Offered the chance to surrender on Oct. 7, the remaining soldiers chose to defy the Germans and by that evening they heard the welcome sounds of the arrival of the 307th Division American forces to shore up their flank. It was over. The “Lost Battalion” was found.
“Captain Whittlesey assembled what was left – 174 men, and we walked down the hill and through the valley and left the area that would become famous for the bravery of 'The Lost Battalion,'” Baldwin wrote.
Three officers in the group would be awarded Medals of Honor and Battalion Sergeant Major Walter Baldwin was awarded the Silver Star. “I never knew he got it until I read the memoir,” Baldwin said.
Returning from the service, Walter Baldwin worked in sales and with other survivors established and attended a series of reunion lunches every year until he died. “This group of men were the love of my father’s life,” Baldwin said.
Walter’s wife Bella typed the manuscript in 1921. It remained undiscovered among his father’s papers until recently, Tom Baldwin said. The family had it made into a hard cover book including both the original typed manuscript, a typeset version and a synopsis of events. A copy of “The Lost Battalion” is available at the Eldredge Public Library.