The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces
The Experience and Meaning of the Lost Battalion:
Presented by James V. Leak, Company E, 308th Infantry
November 11, 1938
Lost Battalion Survivors Return to the Site
President Cox, Members of the Faculty, Students of Abilene Christian College and Ladies and Gentlemen:
After the flattering introduction I have just received at the hands of President Cox I begin to feel that perhaps I am fitted to discuss with you one of the most glorious episodes in American History - one comparable in a measure to the story of the Alamo, one similar in its setting to that of Thermopylae. Since being asked by your Vice-President, Mr. Morris, to speak to you on this your homecoming about the "Lost Battalion" I have worried much over my approach to this ordeal.
Before the student body and faculty of this great institution it is indeed an effort on the part of one so unknown to talk on such a subject - one that I have often wished I could blot from my memory. I keenly appreciate the great work this College is doing. It was my pleasure to know George King, a former graduate of your school, and one of the brightest young men I have ever known. I also knew his charming wife, formerly Fern Biggs, whose devotion to George endeared her to his and her friends. I claim as my personal friends Mr. & Mrs. Eldon Sanders of Quanah; he is a man who is a credit to any school; Mrs. John Porter, an Abilene girl and a graduate of your school, is a neighbor of mine and indeed a Christian lady. I keenly appreciate the responsibility of this hour. Whatever I may have to say of my small part in the Lost Battalion, believe me, it is said in all modesty. My part in it was due to fate - not to my choosing.
In the outset may you understand that the "Lost Battalion" is entirely a misnomer. First, it was not a battalion, but was composed of seven companies of Infantry and one Machine Gun Company. A battalion is composed of only four companies. Second, it was not "Lost". We knew exactly where we were and went to the exact position to which we had been ordered. This organization was under command of Major Chas. W. Whittlesey. It consisted of Companies A, B, C, E, G & H 308 Infantry, Co. K, 307th Infantry, and Co. C, 306th Machine Gun Battalion. All told there were slightly less than 700 men in it. A war strength company was 250 men. The 77th Division, of which we were a part, had been ordered by the Commanding General to advance to the Binarville Charleveaux Mill road and to take that road. The 308th Infantry position was on the left flank of the Argonne Forest. This forest had been established as a game preserve during the reign of one of the French Kings and had been so maintained to the World War. It was approximately 5 to 9 miles wide and 25 miles long. Covered by forest as dense as the Big Thicket and in terrain quite similar to the Hill Country of Texas. At the intersection of the sector assigned to the 308th Infantry the Binarville-Charleveaux Mill road was about 2/3 the way up a hill. Late on the afternoon of October 2nd, 1918, the 308th Infantry stormed and captured the German trenches about one mile south of this road and pushed its way to Hill 198, just south of the "Pocket". Under cross machine gun fire we crossed Charleveaux Creed on a narrow bridge. We dug "fox holes" in the hillside immediately under the road. The Germans were on top of the hill above us. Neither the French troops on our left nor the 307th Infantry on our right were successful in their attacks on the German trench a mile to the south of us. During the night German troops again occupied that part of the trenches over which we had come that afternoon. Thus we were a mile behind the German line, cut off and surrounded but not lost.
American Battle Monuments Map of the Lost Battalion Site
At the outset of the Argonne drive the approximate strength of each of the Companies in the 308th Infantry was 154 men. After some 7 or 8 days fighting the strength of these Companies had been materially reduced; "A" Company only had 18 men under the command of the Sergeant; my Company, which was "E" Company, only had 58 men; the strongest Company did not have over 100 men. These men had not had a hot meal since the start of the Argonne drive on the morning of the 26th of September and had been in the lines since September 20th; they never had a meal of any kind after September 30th and what little they had to eat was their hard rations, namely, hard-tack, and very few of them had this. The weather was raining throughout the day and freezing at night. The men did not have overcoats or blankets, but were dressed in their regulation uniforms. Some 50 men in each Company prior to September 20th had never even loaded an Army rifle and were untrained soldiers having been inducted into the service in July preceding. These were the men who were from the Northwest plains.
On the morning of October third, just before day light, my Company was ordered back to the position where on the preceding day we had assaulted and driven the Germans from their trenches, and that left Companies D and F. Our mission was to bring those two companies up to the rest of the First and Second Battalions of the 308th Infantry. As we started back we were attacked by a machine gun on the hill on our right. This machine gun was silenced and the crew taken prisoner. Then we proceeded on toward our objective and just before we reached it we were fired upon from each flank and from the front. The Germans were to the right of us and to the left of us and to the front of us; they attempted to close in behind us but a small portion of my Company, myself and 17 others, succeeded in fighting our way through the lines behind us, while another portion succeeded in pushing its way forward across the trench. I reported to Major Whittlesey upon my return what I had found. Another Company in which was Lt. Thomas G. Pool of Port Arthur, Texas, was ordered by the Major to attempt to break through the German line; this Company also failed and returned to our position on the hillside, after having lost considerable of its men. No other determined effort to break through the line was made by our forces on the hillside and our efforts were mainly directed to warding off attacks being made upon us by the enemy. The Germans on the top of the hill constantly threw hand grenades upon us and directed several attacks each day at us. We were exposed to machine gun fire from the hill directly south of us and one to the southwest. We had no food but were fortunate in that we could secure water from the mountain creed immediately south of us, but this had to be obtained in the darkness of the night. On the afternoon of October 5th the French, due to incorrect information that had been sent back by carrier pigeon as to our position, directed a box barrage upon us. The Allied airplanes had seen men at our position, but since their information was that we were located half a mile to the west of where we really were, they assumed that the men they saw were Germans. This box barrage lasted for 45 minutes. It consists of the laying down of a line of fire by the artillery directly in front of the position, directly for 100 yards behind the position, and on each side of the position, and each line of fire being gradually moved toward the center line of the position. At the time this barrage was laid down upon us by the French we had suffered some 200 dead, who were stacked in piles like cordwood immediately under our line. This barrage entirely destroyed all of the bodies of those 200 men and left not a body among them intact. These 200 men thereby became unknown, in that it was impossible to assemble the remains of any one of them.
The Troops Arriving On The Hillside
Liquid fire was poured upon the men from on top of the hill by the Germans. They did this by pushing pipes down the hill and forcing oil through the pipes which was ignited as it came out of the pipes. It was more terrifying than damaging, but it was immediately followed by counter attack on the part of the Germans. The attacks of the Germans were continued until the morning of October 7th when, by virtue of the general push back of the whole of the German lines the Battalion was relieved, and at that time it consisted of less than 200 men, practically all of whom were wounded and their exhaustion cannot be described, but the outfit was not "lost", its position was held, every attack of the enemy had been repulsed, and they still clung to the objective to which they had been ordered.
As Depicted in 2001 Film The Lost Battalion
Actual Location Depicted in Above Photo, 2007
I have said this incident was in a measure like the Alamo - neither outfit gave up - "The Lost Battalion" held its position and demonstrated to Germans and the world that Americans possessed courage. These soldiers were largely from New York City and from the Northwest plains. There were Irish, Canadian French, English, Jews, Italians, Swedes, Norwegians, Northerners, Southerners, but Americans all, in this outfit, all fighting bravely for the land of liberty. There were Jew and Gentile - Catholic and Protestant, all fighting as brothers under our Stars and Stripes, Patriots each and all of them. Each ready to give up life for his country - truly those of them who gave their lives have shown their patriotism for "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend". Some 200 or more of those who died on that Argonne Hill on those bleak, dreary October days twenty years ago are unknown - and no one knows but that silent marble tomb in Arlington Cemetery overlooking the Capitol of this great Country is not the tomb of one of my comrades who made the supreme sacrifice in that struggle. When I stood with head bared in that sacred spot, my mind carried me across the sea to that now silent hill with the thought that perhaps a buddy of mine rested beneath that marble shaft.
May the student body of this great school, which has produced many worth sons and daughters, learn from the story of the "Lost Battalion" that lesson of patriotism "My country - may she ever be right - but my country right or wrong" - May the liberties won and preserved by blood of patriots be further preserved, and next to our God and religion be the most precious possession of a free people. What are these glorious possessions? True, they consist in part of the traditions of our country. What would America be without our Constitution, adopted over 150 years ago and yet all sufficient for the guidance of this country in this modern day of reckless living and spending. It contains the Bill of Rights, the most sacred two pages in profane history. Our three branches of government, if their independence is maintained, is a guaranty of our liberty. Oh, it may be said "you cannot eat or wear the Constitution". It does prevent any dictator making you wear the "brown shirt or Hitler". The "black shirt of Mussolini", or the "red shirt of Stalin". It guarantees freedom of speech; the right to worship God as one chooses; the right to maintain schools like this one; the right to engage in your chosen avocation. Dictators are threatening these blessings. They can only be maintained by a free people living under a government of the people.
There is a great deal of confusion throughout the world today. There is much loose thinking and loose talking. The rapid dissemination of information and ideas through improved press facilities and the development of radio is giving us more to think about than we can digest. Our young people, especially, are finding themselves utterly confused by a welter of political and social doctrines and 'isms'.
And in this confusion Americanism and patriotism are gradually but surely sinking. Self-styled 'experts' are making our young people wonder if, after all, the American system is best. Three is a subtle but definite trend in some of our institutions of higher learning that tends to belittle our Government. There is so much loose talking and writing about our political administration that we are prone to confuse politics with Government, and the tenets of a political party with the principles of the American Constitution.
It is human nature to be intensely loyal to something. This is well illustrated in college life. The students maintain a loyalty to their institution that is traditional, yet it is a wholesome loyalty providing outlet for natural enthusiasm. It used to be that our patriotism was of the same order on a grander scale. The sight of Old Glory would trill us; the trains of the "Star-Spangled Banner" meant something more than a signal to stand up.
If our young people are filled with doubts; if their loyalties are divided between their Country and some un-american 'ism', our future is in grave danger.
We need a revival of Americanism. We want no enthusiasm of the "Heil Hitler" type, nor the subversive and subtle workings of Communism. Our patriotism should be spontaneous and wholesome.
The American Legion has dedicated its activities to such a revival. On Armistice Day the theme of the celebration will be Americanism - the old-fashioned kind. We should like every individual and organization taking part to keep this in mind. We want to forget Nazism, Fascism, and Communism for that one day and concentrate on Americanism. We want to revive the America of Washington and Lincoln. Like the rooters at a football game we ant to cheer to the songs and thrill to he banners of our alma mater - the United Sates of America.
It is for us, the living, who celebrate this day that is dedicated to peace, to determine whether the fate of mankind shall be preserved in the democratic processes that express the genius of American government; or shall be consigned to the care of those whose rule of the sward reaches its highest expression in suppression of those seeking the maximum of human liberty and the right to worship God in peace.
A Lost Battalion Survivor Visits the Site About the Same Time as James Leak's Speech
Our first line of defense against the debauching barbarism of alien philosophies is to be found in our adherence to a living, vital spirit of Americanism. If America is to remain the hope of the world then we must regard democracy as a workable living instrument that shall continue to express our thanks for and preserve the precious rights that are our civil liberties. It is for us to inspire America with the will to conquer the forces of apathy and indifference - that provide so fertile a soil to those who would spread the poison of despotism.
Our men of the World War say the foreign nations from which these threats to America have sprung. They know that no foreign government has aught to contribute to our welfare, to the happiness of our people. They know that the mistakes of a self-governing people can be righted through self-government. They know that the surrender of human liberties is too great a cost to pay for any imagined temporary benefit that can come trough a dictatorial form of government.
Let us not be confused by those who seek to divide and confuse and turn us away from the will to serve America. In the name of those who lie in honored graves for the sake of democracy let us re-dedicate ourselves to the preservation of our dearly gained possessions. There must be no surrender to tempters who toy with the idea that the American way of life has failed.
I know the answer of the surviving four million men who saw service in the World War. The lessons of the moment will be serve to re-charge them to be active in support of our own form of democratic self-government; will serve to make them jealous of the privileges of free men in a land that alone of all the nations offers equality of opportunity.
America's defenders in war are today enrolled in the struggle to form an enduring peace. They appreciate what it means to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in defense of the American way of living. They will not fail America in the present world crisis. Their message to America today, as they recall the Armistice of 1918, is that our soldier dead shall not have died in vain.
Lt. James Leak of the Lost Battalion
Some Details and Thanks: Lt. Leak gave this talk at Abilene Christian College. His home town at the time he delivered the speech was Longview, Texas. At the time he served in the Lost Battalion it was Memphis, Texas. Lt. Leak's father was a pastor in the Christian Church. His grandfather was one of the founders of Texas Christian University. His invitation to speak at Abilene Christian College came through his church affiliation. Thanks to L'Ann and Fran Bingham, relatives of Lt. Leak, and Jeffrey Ricker for bringing this to our attention. Photos were contributed by Steve Miller and Ray Mentzer. James Leak is portrayed in considerable detail in the 2001 film by South African Actor Jay Rodan, which is recommended for viewing.
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