Family War Stories: Thad M. Mangum

Michael T. Mangum, Guest Author
edited by Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

[Today’s WWI blog post was written by Michael T. Mangum of Ocean County, N.J., based on a longer family history piece regarding his grandfather Thad M. Mangum’s WWI service. Thad Mangum was a soldier from North Carolina who would move to New Jersey long after the war. The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources would like to thank Mr. Mangum for his contribution to North Carolina’s commemoration of the state’s role in World War I. All of the historical information in this post are from the Mangum family’s history of Thad Mangum.]

My grandfather Thad Manning Mangum was born July 31, 1895, in Henderson, N.C. His mother Nina Euphrasia Manning Mangum died when he was only one year old. His father David Humphrey Mangum endured great sadness, having within a few years lost his father, wife and three young sons. Thad was his only surviving child. Thad’s father was a traveling broker, so Thad was raised almost as an orphan by his grandmother Lucy Ellen Camp Mangum, along with his Uncle Claude Wayland Wilson and Aunt Carrie Mangum Wilson in the community of Scotland Neck in Halifax County, N.C.

As a youth Thad Mangum ran away from home with his dogs to join the circus, and was almost killed when their house caught fire—he had refused to leave the house because he had put his pants on backwards. Other times were spent with his Uncle Thad Rives Manning, the owner of the Gold Leaf newspaper in Henderson, N.C. Thad attended school in Scotland Neck, later relocating to Greenville, N.C., when his Uncle Claude became one of the founders of today’s East Carolina University.

After high school, he held a variety of jobs, including stints as a salesman and a magician. He even managed a vaudeville act called the “Human Spider,” which traveled around scaling the so-called skyscrapers of the day. By the time he was drafted for military service in World War I, Thad Mangum was working as a foreman on a tobacco farm. After receiving his draft card on August 25, 1917, Mangum would not be drafted until nine months later. On May 25, 1918, Thad was inducted into service in the U.S. Army, assigned to Company K, 323rd Infantry Regiment, 81st Division, in front of the Pitt County Courthouse in Greenville—along with 79 other Pitt County boys plus three more who failed to muster. The Red Cross was there to greet them along with dignitaries and patriotic speeches. At 3 A.M. on May 26th, the men entrained on board a train for Camp Jackson, S.C. Despite the late hour, 800 persons were present to see the Pitt County boys off. The Greenville newspaper described the scene as a “most pathetic one as the train pulled out of the station with broken mothers, fathers and crushed sweethearts.”

Basic training at Camp Jackson was short. After less than a month, the unit was shipped off to Camp Sevier, S.C., for further training and to prepare for an early departure to France. On July 21, 1918, the 323rd Infantry began to move by train to Camp Albert L. Mills on Long Island, New York, for preparation to ship overseas. They would remain there less than a week. On July 30, 1918, Mangum and his unit boarded a train to a ferry boat, by which they were transported to the port of embarkation piers in New York-New Jersey. Part of the 323rd Infantry embarked from Hoboken, N.J.; while the rest of the men—including Thad Mangum—headed for Pier 61 at the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, New York, where they boarded the troop transport ship RMS Melita.

Mangum and his unit departed New York Harbor on July 31st, and joined the convoy for the 81st Division off the coast. Mangum was a consummate story teller but did not often speak of his experiences in the Great War. Although occasionally he would relate a horrifying story that would get our family’s attention. I think the scariest one for us Mangum kids was when one of his fellow soldiers was walking on sentry duty. An incoming shell blew his head off, and the headless corpse kept walking with his rifle on his shoulder. Thad left a gung ho patriotic soldier in the summer of 1918 and returned after eleven long months overseas later as someone who could not even bring himself to watch a war movie or TV show later in life. One thing he did talk about was the trip over the Atlantic Ocean and the horrid conditions on the ship. Despite being taught how to float on their backs by the Army, the men on board these troop transport ship lived in constant fear of being torpedoed.

One of the happiest days of Thad Mangum and his unit’s overseas service was on August 11, 1918, when they pulled into the port of Liverpool, England. After disembarking, the men marched through the streets of Liverpool for a brief stop at an Army rest camp. The next day they began their journey across England to the port of Southampton. They hiked on roads built by the Romans, then boarded trains where every soldier was given a letter of appreciation from the British King George V. Thad Mangum mailed a letter home to his family from the tiny hamlet of Peak Dale in the High Peak District of Derbyshire, England, during this march.

Upon arrival in Southampton, England, the 323rd Infantry boarded a sea-going paddle wheeler boat for a rough night-time crossing of the English Channel to Le Havre, France. They left the boat on August 15, 1918. By August 16th, the 323rd Infantry boarded the famous French “40 x 8” box cars to be transported to an unknown destination “for Somewhere in France” for further training. They soon realized the capacity of the train was calculated like for livestock by standing room only, so by the end of the second day in the troop train the men were very grateful to arrive at their destination.

While in the training area near Tonnerre, France, the 323rd Infantry was billeted with the French peasants in the hamlet of Melisey. Training was exhausting, food was scarce and tobacco even scarcer. By the middle of September 1918, they received orders to move to the St. Die Sector in the Vosge Mountains, where they were assigned as part of the French 7th Army to learn how to fight with the French in Europe. They moved at first by train, then hiked under difficult conditions into the mountains. The Vosges Mountains were a so called quite zone, but when the Americans arrived they increased attacks on the German lines, and the Germans responded in kind. Mangum and his unit quickly acclimated to always being wet; and dealing with lice, rats, little sleep or food. It was here that the Spanish flu first struck the 323rd Infantry.

In a letter home, Thad Mangum spoke in in a tone that bespeaks someone new to combat. He said the following statements while on the front line trenches,

“popping off the Huns [Germans] every chance we get."

“I actually had the experience of going to a patrol and was not one bit frightened nor was any of the rest. Just after dark a few nights ago our Lieutenant took a few of us out to pay the Huns a visit. We slowly and carefully went over the top through entanglements across no man’s land and on until we came to the enemy’s entanglements. Then we carefully made our way near to the front line and when nearly there met their patrol coming towards us. When they found out we were there, they flanked off toward the right and gave us no trouble. Then our lieutenant gave the command we returned to the trenches and my only trouble was a scratch and torn trousers’ from the enemy’s barbed wire.”

“Trench life at night is very long and tiresome and all have to be right on the job to get all the experience possible. To realize how long time can be one has to guard the trenches at night to find out”.

On October 5, 1918, the 323rd Infantry received baptism under fire in battle. Shells screamed day and night. The Germans assaulted the American trenches four days later in four waves. They held their fire until the enemy was within a hundred yards, and made every shot count. By the third wave, the 323rd Infantry was out of ammunition and fixed bayonets to charge out of the trenches to drive the enemy back. By October 20th, the 323rd Infantry marched out of the mountains to Bult, France, to receive further training and some rest and relaxation before participating in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The 323rd Infantry arrived in Sampigny, France, on November 1, 1918, then marching a grueling 45 kilometers through the rain and mud where they arrived under the cover of darkness in the Verdun area.

When it became light they were shocked to see the utter destruction. The sight was oppressive, as far as they could see it was barren—not a tree standing—with only shell holes and the bones of the American, French, British, and German soldiers. On November 7, 1918, the 323rd Infantry moved east of the Meuse River to confront the enemy on the Woevre Plain. The terrain was difficult with little cover and they received very little artillery or air support. During the next several days the air hung thick with both smoke and fog, which was a blessing because it saved lives and a curse because they could not see the enemy.

On November 9, 1918, the 323rd Infantry continued their advance through wet swampy terrain, where they encountered heavy machine gun fire and severe cannonading. During the last three days of WWI, they had no food, water or sleep. The men who were there marveled the rest of their days at their luck escaping with their lives. During the next few days, the 323rd Infantry advanced and withdrew several times. They were told they would be in pursuit of a retreating army; instead, they were up against some of Germany’s best shock troops.

Near Haudiomont, France, on November 10, 1918, Company K, 323rd Infantry Regiment, was under heavy artillery and machine gun fire. Late in the day, the enemy started firing poisonous gas shells at the American troops. At 10:30 P.M., despite being bombarded with high explosives, gas, shrapnel, and machine gun fire, the 323rd Infantry resumed their advance. Rumors swirled of a possible armistice, but they were ordered to attack anyway on November 11, 1918,at 6:45 A.M. Despite the 323rd Infantry being notified at 8:21 A.M. the Armistice had been signed, it would not take effect until 11 A.M. Because of this, the 323rd Infantry continued the advance on the Germans, leaving the trenches by 9:40 A.M. but making little progress until 10:40 A.M. because of the withering fire. Abruptly at 11 A.M. the gun fire stopped, by which point the 323rd Infantry had advanced to the Pintville-Manheulles road about one kilometer northeast of Manheulles, France. My grandfather Thad Mangum was among the last soldiers fighting when the Armistice took effect.

Everyone thought since WWI was technically over, that the American soldiers would soon be going home. That thought carried them through the hike from hell that soon followed. The 323rd Infantry marched a 175 miles with full gear (90-lb packs) and little food in all weather conditions to the Chaumont area. They marched under severe handicaps, including the weakened condition of the men due to exposure, lack of food, water and sleep; and epidemics of dysentery, flu and bad colds of which at least 75% of the men suffered. They slept little because of the distressing and continuous coughing that went on all night in the billets [which were usually cow barns] that haunted the men to their dying days.

Thanksgiving dinner in November 1918 consisted of beans, syrup and bread, with a promise of turkey when they reached their destination. Company K, 323rd Infantry, arrived on December 3, 1918, in the tiny village of Grancey-sur-Ource, France. Members of the 323rd Infantry often said the two greatest hardships they faced during the war was the trip overseas in British ships, and the 175-mile march after the fighting had ended—not all the hardships and terrors associated with combat and trench life. Morale plummeted when they found out they were being held in reserve for another seven months, in case the war was rekindled. They began training again, but gradually the U.S. Army introduced recreational activities into the program.

One of my grandfather’s greatest pleasures was playing baseball. Military baseball teams were formed all over France. My grandfather often spoke of playing baseball with Ty Cobb while he was in France. Cobb and other athletes had been sent there as part of the U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service. During this seemingly endless period, the YMCA, Red Cross, Knights of Columbus, and Jewish Welfare Board made life more bearable for the soldiers through provision of entertainment and places to congregate.

After months serving in the U.S. Army of Occupation in Europe, the 323rd Infantry Regiment was moved to the American Embarkation Center near Ballon, France, on May 5, 1919, in preparation to return to the United States. On June 4, 1919, the 323rd Infantry boarded the American troop transport ship USS Walter A. Luckenbach in St. Nazaire, France, for the voyage home. Great crowds waved farewell as the Luckenbach pushed out to sea. Conditions were crowed but no one complained. They encountered a massive storm that left everyone including the ship’s captain in fear the ship would sink. Despite the storm and crowded conditions, the voyage back was less ominous then the voyage over. The soldiers enjoyed good American food, few were seasick, there was no fear of being torpedoed, and they did not have the prospect of war hanging over them.

After arriving back in the U.S., Thad Mangum mustered out over active U.S. Army service on June 25, 1919, with the rank of Corporal, at Camp Lee, Virginia. All he had to show for all the hardships was $99.36 in back pay, in addition to $7.40 in travel expenses back to Greenville, N.C., along with his letter from King George V.

After WWI, Thad Mangum relocated to Pennsylvania, eventually moving to the Jersey Shore. On April 2, 1935, he was awarded a small pension from the State of Pennsylvania for his WWI service. Mangum was a committed member of the George P. Vanderveer Post 129 of the American Legion, and a patriotic American until he passed away on August 31, 1974 in Toms River, New Jersey.