As Father Time marches on, we tend to lose stories that fade in our collective memories. Sometimes we repeat mistakes because we forgot why we don’t do something a certain way. For organizations, that is called “institutional knowledge” and remembering the past can save any entity an incalculable amount of damage. Sometimes simply remembering characters of the past will inspire us to be better individuals or organizations.
Now that World War One is over one hundred years old it would be easy to forget the bitter lessons learned from the “war to end all wars” and its distinguished heroes that should still inspire us. One such hero is the subject of today’s lesson in courage and loyalty.
In 1918, the 77th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army Expeditionary Force was part of the famous “Lost Battalion.” The American Army served on the western front long known for the virtual stalemate both sides endured in France. The 77th Division pushed against the fortified German Army positions in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Three regiments fought through the Argonne Forest until they were actually behind enemy lines. They found themselves cut off from food, ammo, and other supplies that were sorely needed. The field radios of the day depended on wires that were fragile and hazardous to run while under relentless German machine gun fire. Therefore, the regiments were completely cut off from the rest of the army. Five hundred and fifty men were ensnared in No Man’s Land with little hope of coming back home.
Soon the American artillery entered the fray and started firing into the German lines with a terrible ferocity. The weather was overcast and stormy thus grounding the little biplanes of the era that caused a loss of eyes in the sky. The ground was a muddy mess – mechanized vehicles were stopped. Long range artillery was the weapon of choice in such miserable conditions, and it was employed in a merciless manner.
The three Army regiments were behind enemy lines. The first artillery barrage killed thirty American dough boys as our troops were then known. The American commanding officer was Major Charles Whittlesey and he needed to get a message back to his headquarters but the unit was pinned down by heavy German machine gun fire and our own artillery. He penned a hasty note that read, “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it!”
The chosen messenger went straight into the German line of fire. Dodging bullets that were most intentionally aimed at him, he continued until he hit the ground felled by a bullet through the breast. The Americans lost hope until they saw their wounded comrade get up off the ground and continue the course all the way back to headquarters some 25 miles away. By the time he got to the post he was heavily wounded. His right leg was nearly shot off and he was blind in one eye. Of the original 550 men, 194 made it back to the American lines owing their very lives to the courage and tenacity of their comrade.
The French Army awarded the soldier with the “Croix de Guerre.” The commanding officer of the American Army, General John Pershing recognized the soldier’s sacrifice and service. The soldier was taken back home to the United States accompanied by an officer, Captain John Carney (pictured). Despite the best efforts of the United States Army to save him, he died at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey on June 13, 1919. Many men were brought to tears thinking of the soldier’s sacrifice. The surviving family members of the nearly 200 Americans who were saved were the most grateful of all. It is not clear how many people are alive today over 100 years later due to one soldier’s attention to duty; surely that number is in the thousands.
If you would like to pay your respects to this example of American heroism, you will need to visit the Smithsonian Institution. The soldier’s name is “Cher Ami”. The soldier was a brave carrier pigeon whose sacrifice is held in reverential honor at the Museum of American History. The brave pigeon is pictured below as seen at the Smithsonian. It’s not always humans who offer examples of selfless courage and loyalty, but members of the Animal Kingdom who have aligned themselves with us that provide inspiration. I am continually amazed at the feats displayed by horses, whales, dolphins, primates, dogs, and, yes, birds as they interact with our species. They are the best of friends neither passing judgements nor questioning our methods. Matthew Scully, an advocate for the welfare of animals, says, “Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent honorable conduct and faithful stewardship.”
I am thankful that God gave us such creatures as “Cher Ami” for companionship, fellowship, and to occasionally save our lives.