David L. Hardee's Fifteen Days in the Meuse-Argonne, Part 2

Author: 
1st Lt. David L. Hardee
retyped and edited by Dr. Frank Blazich, Jr.

Editorial note: Dr. Frank Blazich Jr. has worked for years on preserving, research, and writing about the life and military service of American and North Carolina hero Col. David L. Hardee. Hardee is best remembered as a survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines in World War II, chronicled in a memoir by Hardee that was edited and published by Dr. Blazich as Bataan Survivor: A POW’s Account of Japanese Captivity in World War II.

 

Before he served in WWII, Hardee served in World War I. He was a 2nd Lieutenant serving in the 3rd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, U.S. Army. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive from the end of September-November 1918 in France, Hardee would earn his first Silver Star for gallantry, and later promoted to 1st Lieutenant. Hardee would later after WWI type history of his service in the Meuse-Argonne entitled "Fifteen Days in the Meuse-Argonne: Extracts from Letters to the Home Folks," which has never been published. The piece documents the role of the 3rd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, U.S. Army, in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. As part of a four-part blog post series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and North Carolinians' roles in it, we are going to publish a transcribed and edited copy of this history for the first time ever, completed by Dr. Blazich, along with his brief biography of Col. Hardee.

 

Dr. Blazich found this WWI account of Hardee's fighting in the Meuse-Argonne while working with Hardee's late daughter researching about his life. The Hardee family then donated it on her behalf to the State Archives of North Carolina. To learn more about David Hardee's life and military career, check out the first blog post of this four part series.

 

You can read the second part of this blog series on Hardee's Meuse-Argonne Offensive service as "David L. Hardee's Fifteen Days in the Meuse-Argonne, Part 3," through this link for the last of Hardee's 10-page reminiscence of the offensive in October 1918.

 

Fifteen Days in the Meuse-Argonne: Extracts from Letters to the Home Folks (Pages 6-9)

 

The next night we spent in the same place and during the day gathered information on the front and fighting from the prisoners that came pouring back. Some big things were happening fast, we knew not what. All we knew was that we were trying like the devil to relieve the Second Division and couldn’t catch them. The front line moved so fast and to top it off there were no signs of much fighting.

 

The early dark found us on the hike again and day broke on us twenty kilometers further north in position again in the woods north of Beaumont ready to attack. We had crossed a slightly shelled area and had one casualty, and one officer who was a mother’s pretty boy covered with mud. He has never been under fire before, just over and a casual from the States and rearing to get into it, the first big shell that burst in a few hundred yards of him, caused a commotion in his breast as to prompt him to take cover head first in a mud hole, which connected with the mud on his lower extremities forming one solid cake of human, O.D. goods, Red Cross scarves, and just plain French mud.

 

“How would you like for mother to see her pretty boy now,” he was asked.

“Not for a million I have in oil,” came his retort.” “I am about cured of my desire to see the front. I’ve seen enough,” and he was about cured. He had been about as much service to his Captain and his platoon as a ten year old boy. Next day a machine gun bullet game him his little souvenir in the hand and he was evacuated and soon en route for the States.

The conversation was hardly finished before his captain broke out in a little song, all too true to be poetic:

           

            “It’s not the pack that you carry on your back

            Nor the rifle on your shoulder

            Nor the five inch crush of Bolkton County dust

            That makes you feel your limbs are growing older.

            And it’s not the hike on the hard turnpike

            That wipes away your smile

            Nor the socks of sister’s that’s raising off the blisters

            It’s the last long mile.”

 

We were on the last long miles of the great world wide war. Some of the regiments of the division were engaged in pushing the enemy back across the Meuse, and we who huddled together in the woods that day, waiting for the word to go, trying to keep protected from the falling mist, soaked with mud, our feet wet, our clothes to the waist covered with the slop of the road, shivering with chill, with no chow after our long night march, and with our hard drawn war faces looked less like human beings than savages. The last long miles were telling their stories, setting our jaws and working us to a state of mind where we cared little whether we lived, died, or what became of us, the prevailing desire was to push on and on, or else get relieved where we could again sink down in repose.

 

Night crept on and as dusk came a couple of machine gun carts came up with chow for the regimental machine gun company, and news that our chow for the regiment would be up in a half hour. Just then the major came back from the regimental P.C. wearing a long hard expression. He need not have spoken for we knew it.

 

“Fall the battalion in and pass the word around for everyone’s to prepare for a long, hard march. That’s all the information I have at present.”

What was it this time? Was the division going to be relieved? We had been in only eight days. Was the general out of the kindness of his heart going to spare us from action this time because of our heavy casualties in the last drive? These and many similar questions were in the minds of the men as we crept over the top of a thick wooded hill, and down a muddy trail, with here and there signs of fighting and occasionally a doughboy who had fallen in the 26th Infantry assault that morning. It seemed the irony of fate that we should march over the opposite hill just as our chow wagons struggled up to the spot where we left. The fact that chow had not reached us for twenty-four hours was aggravated by a damp chilly fog that seemed to penetrate and stick, but on the whole the men’s hearts were steeled for any a fate and it was good that they were. They would not have been soldiers if they had not.

 

The battalion had moved only a few hundred yards before the old familiar cry came up from the rear.

           

“Pass the word up the line’s broke.”

           

And time and time again some mounted officer or orderly would ride back to connect up the line, and keep someone from being cut off and lost. The men were tired and most anything seemed to break the line.

 

The major disappeared to go to brigade headquarters and the adjutant took the battalion on trusting to luck and scouts out, that he could keep liaison with the units ahead and not get utterly lost from the units moving ahead in some direction no one knew what.  Across another shelled area where some isolated Boche battery was pounding a road crossing on and on the battalion moved until it closed up on the other units and fell out for a rest.

 

All officers were assembled for the Colonel to give instructions on the situation and give orders, orders no one who was present will ever forget.

           

“We have broken through,” he began, “and we aim to make a forty kilometer hike towards Sedan, take position on the heights east of that place and grab it from the Boche at daylight and thus end the war. This mission is of double significance because it will end the war victoriously for the Allies in the same city where France was finally defeated in 1870, and cash up for France the old grudge she holds against Germany for her defeat.”

           

“Resistance will possibly be met out in front somewhere, but it will be our mission to burst their thin line of defense and push on. The third battalion will constitute the advance guard.”

           

The major turned to his group of officers. “Co. K, the first unit to land on French soil will send out the advance elements, the other companies will be the support.  I will be at the head of the support. March Co. K one kilometer down the road, take position and send word back. The pace will be governed according to the progress of the leading elements,” was his short order.

           

The adjutant rode back to connect up with the machine gun carts at a road fork. Back he went through a multitude of jams the artillery had made in the road behind us and had he been able to find the carts he could not have gotten them through the traffic. As they were not found the machine gunners continued the long march with their guns and a limited amount of ammunition strapped to their backs. 

           

There was a hold up in the road north of Stone, for there the enemy in evacuating had blown out a bridge, and while the engineers of the division in front were rebuilding the bridge the column had to cross in single file through another jam of vehicles and get through a little mud caked stream, and back on the road again. In a couple of hours from the starting time the column had cleared the blow out, and again were in full swing down the hard turnpike.

           

Doubts and fears were intermingled as it sung on through several little towns, for no one knew when we would meet resistance or where the enemy were, until later in the night and near daylight we passed through the little town where the 42nd Division headquarters were located. It was one of the longest night and days of the war. The time dragged heavy as the men dragged their weary and sore feet down the road towards Sedan. It seemed that morning would never come, and that the halts for rests were too long apart. Men went to sleep on their saddles, and there was occasionally a clash of arms and a dull heavy thud, as some men would fall unconscious and drop from the ranks. God were every such men made. It they could hold up this well in carrying arms against the foe what could they do in the reconstruction of America and the world commerce and ideals once the fight is over?

           

Day broke and the outfit were still moving towards the heights of Sedan, the sun rose concealed by a mist of clouds and a heavy fog, still moving, but coming into sight of where the division ahead was at work outflanking a few scattered machine guns that has been left behind by the enemy. We were almost to our objective, only a few more kilometers, and the big hill in front which circled around the road like an immense horse shoe, we entering it from the open points was the heights that commanded our objective.

           

Was it going to be a triumphal entry with little or no fighting, it seemed so, for we had come this far without meeting the Boche. The high command thought so for they had left the rear of the column, the general and the colonel and their staff and were at the head of the support with the Major and his staff. It seemed as if we were going to walk right in and declare ourselves in possession of the city. It was here that we came in sight of the 42nd Division’s men flanking a machine gun and we were given orders to take attack formation.

           

Some of the company commanders complained that it seemed hard to make the men march into the city through the fields in deployed formation for they were tired, when the road was better walking. The adjutant went forward and reconnoitered for a kilometer in advance and deployed the leading companies as far ahead as possible to save the men. When in attack formation we lay down on the ground for a ten minute rest and again went forward.

           

The battalion was scarcely on its feet when the crack-crack-crack of Boche machine guns rang in its ears. When a machine gun is shooting off to one’s side it gives off a mechanical sound but when close to the trajectory it is a loud continuous cracking. Suddenly for no cause and without command the battalion automatically dropped like men do when held up by fire. Patrols were pushed out to the side. The fog was lifting, it was about ten A.M. and the enemy could observer us coming when he began to put in his dirty work. All his machine guns and artillery consisting of a few light pieces opened up with direct and flanking fire. Something had to be done and the safest plan when in doubt is to push forward, besides our orders were to break through the enemy’s thin line of resistance.

           

The little village of Chevaugne was five hundred yards in front of us. On we pushed through and beyond it, with here and there a man falling by shell taking away several at the time. Some of the men who had recently come from the States and were not trained in the use of their files pushed on with their rifles slung over their shoulders. The major and the adjutant pushed forward to the front lines and made the men use their rifles.

           

We were advancing well up towards the top of the hill when a liaison officer from the 42nd Division informed us that they were going to put down a barrage on the top of the hill in a few minutes. The advance was immediately halted and the men dug in, but the barrage never came. One or two registering shots and then the telephone line went out. No barrage, we were suffering fearful losses; to hold where we were would cost more than to advance, yet the thought of getting caught in an American barrage was worse than the losses in holding. We held, as minutes merged into hours, and occasionally a plea came from a company commander for more ammunition for his automatics, or another would have to move a few yards to the right or left to get out of a shelled area or the path of a machine gun.

           

The rear echelons of the battalion were in the little liberated village where the old women fearless of the shelling and the sniping down the streets were giving the men hot coffee and sometimes hot cakes, the tears of joys streaming down their cheeks. Those were a few moments of rare inspiration to a fighting man. They were so glad to be delivered from three years of enemy domination and towards dusk when the French soldiers began to come in to relieve us there were shouts of joy. They had given us information that the enemy were pulling back and would not fight longer than dark, for they were only making this stand to enable them to get their supplies out of Sedan. The information had come through a civilian who had slipped through the lines, for the French went on up the hill in a column of squads as our men quietly went to the rear to assemble and seek the chow wagons.

           

The companies went out one by one, and each came by the aid station where each squad carried back a wounded man. They could do this by the man taking all the rifles and the others taking the men who could be carried out on stretchers.

           

“Looks hard to ask men,” the battalion surgeon said, “but you would want someone to take you out of here if you were in the same condition.”

 

You can read the fourth part of this blog series on Hardee's Meuse-Argonne Offensive service as "David L. Hardee's Fifteen Days in the Meuse-Argonne, Part 3," through this link for the last of Hardee's 10-page reminiscence of the offensive in October 1918.

 

Resources

 

David L. Hardee Papers, Miscellaneous Military Papers, Military Collection, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, N.C.