Ken Harbaugh tells the stories of service members who have distinguished themselves through an act of valor. These stories feature recipients from the Civil War to present day, including a few who were originally overlooked for the medal.
The Lost Battalion: Four Medal of Honor Stories - Part 1
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The Lost Battalion was the name given to 554 American soldiers who were encircled by German forces during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of World War I. These men defended their vulnerable position for nine days with very little food, water and supplies. This episode tells the story of four soldiers who were awarded the Medal of Honor during those nine days: Major Charles Whittlesey, Captain George McMurtry, 1st Lieutenant Harold Goettler, and 2nd Lieutenant Erwin Bleckley.
Welcome to the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National Medal of Honor Museum. I’m Ken Harbaugh. In each episode, we’ll learn about a different service member who has distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.
Today in a special episode, we’ll be talking about The Lost Battalion, and the soldiers and airmen who earned the Medal of Honor for their actions during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in World War I.
During World War I, French and German lines locked horns in the Argonne Forest, with neither side able to gain the upper hand. By 1918, American troops had joined the fighting alongside the French. Among these Americans were Major Charles Whittlesey and Captain George McMurtry.
Before the war, Whittlesey was a Harvard graduate and practiced banking law on Wall Street. He was introverted and initially opposed the war, but his mind was changed after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, and he signed up for the U.S. Army reserve. He received his commission at 33 years old in 1917.
McMurtry was also a Harvard graduate. He came from an affluent family, and previously fought in the Spanish-American War when he was 20. He served under Teddy Roosevelt and fought at the Battle of San Juan Hill, where Roosevelt earned his Medal of Honor. After returning home, McMurtry became a full-time partner at a brokerage firm and was a millionaire by 30. He was 40 years old when he received his commission to fight in 1917.
Together Whittlesey and McMurtry served in the 77th division, nicknamed the “Metropolitan Division” because it was composed mostly of New Yorkers. The soldiers of this division spoke a total of 43 unique languages.
On September 26th, 1918, the 77th and 8 other divisions were ordered to press forward into German Territory in what would become the bloodiest campaign in American military history: the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Brand new to command, Maj. Whittlesey led the 1st battalion 308th infantry division into battle. Their push was quickly met with strong resistance, but despite being vocally reluctant to the idea, Whittlesey was ordered to keep moving farther into German territory without support. As a result, the 308th was scattered, cut off from their division, and encircled by the Germans.
On October 2nd, 554 American soldiers including a new replacement commander, Captain McMurtry, and Major Whittlesey found themselves surrounded by hills occupied by Germans on all sides, with no way to reach safety. The Germans relentlessly fired machine guns and artillery into the American’s position, nicknamed “the pocket”. In addition, Autumn rain left the Americans cold, wet, and hungry. Digging foxholes, they did their best to hunker down and weather the attack, but they ran out of food and most of their medical supplies by the end of the next day. They sent runners and carrier pigeons to fetch rations from their division and call for help, but none of them returned. In one carrier pigeon message, Whittlesey wrote “Situation is cutting into our strength rapidly. Men are suffering from hunger and exposure; the wounded are in very bad condition. Cannot support be sent at once?”
Unbeknownst to the trapped soldiers, the rest of the battalion, as well as a reporter, had received word of their situation. Seeing an opportunity, the reporter ran with the story, and dubbed them “The Lost Battalion”. This wasn’t an accurate moniker, as American forces were generally aware of their position, but the catchy name helped the story become front page news back in the States. Suddenly all of America was rooting for the Lost Battalion.
On the third day of their entrapment, they continued to repel German attacks. Captain McMurtry’s kneecap was shattered by a bullet, but he continued to encourage his men, bravely hobbling from position to position despite the ensuing chaos. Whittlesey was also injured by a shell splinter.
In an attempt to aid their allies, the rest of the division launched an attack on German lines and fired artillery at the Germans surrounding the pocket. The ground assault was completely ineffective, and although it initially hit its target, the artillery barrage slowly crept towards the pocket until it was directly hitting friendly troops.
Desperate to contact the rest of the division to alert them of their deadly miscalculation, Whitelsey used his remaining carrier pigeons to try to send a message. The first two flew in the completely wrong direction, leaving only one left: a pigeon named “Cher Ami”. Cher Ami flew in the right direction, but stopped to perch on a nearby tree. The Americans managed to scare the bird off its branch by shouting and hollering, and to their delight, the pigeon flew off in the right direction.
Cher Ami reached the rest of the division with only one eye, one leg, and two gunshot wounds. He delivered Whittlesey’s message, although it’s unclear if the bird is what first alerted them to their mistake. Nevertheless, the barrage was successfully diverted back onto enemy troops, and the German screams echoed into the pocket. Cher Ami became a war hero, and he’s immortalized in a statue in the Argonne. After his death, he was stuffed and sent to the Smithsonian, where he remains today.
That evening, Whittlesey slept next to a scared wounded soldier in order to comfort him and share warmth. In the middle of the night, Whittlesey turned over and felt the ice cold cheek of the young soldier, dead in his arms.
The story of The Lost Battalion continues next week.
The Medal of Honor podcast is a production of Evergreen Podcasts.
Nathan Corson is our executive producer and mixing engineer, Declan Rohrs is our associate producer, scriptwriter, and recording engineer, and I’m Ken Harbaugh.
We are proud to support the National Medal of Honor Museum. To learn more, and to support their mission, go to mohmuseum.org. Thanks for listening.