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 2
| S:9 E:8
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 hear the rest of The Lost Battalion’s story.
By the morning of the 5th day, the Lost Battalion had suffered 60% casualties. They were still without food and water, and constant fighting left them too exhausted to bury their dead. Bodies littered the pocket, covered only with leaves and branches.
The rest of the 77th continued to try to liberate their comrades. The division wanted to airdrop supplies, but this proved difficult. Despite knowing the coordinates of the Lost Battalion, tree cover, cloudy weather, and German fire made it difficult to spot the Americans from the air. By tracking which areas they came under fire, and which ones they didn’t, pilots were able to pinpoint the location of their allies, but it cost them three aircraft.
Pilot Harold Goettler and Forward Observer Erwin Bleckley first spotted the Lost Battalion, and attempted the drop. Unfortunately, the pilots didn’t have experience with airdrops because the concept was brand new to World War I. Under heavy fire, Goettler and Bleckly missed their target, dropping the supplies over enemy lines instead of their own. Delighted with the mistake, the Germans opened up the packages and shouted what items they contained down the hillside so the Americans could hear.
Goettler and Bleckly were undeterred. They flew back, reloaded, and made a second run, this time approaching lower to the ground to increase their drop accuracy. Again they came under heavy fire, but this time they hit their target. As they left the area, Goettler was shot in the head, killing him instantly. The plane crashed, and Bleckly died soon after. They were both awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery and sacrifice.
Even with their new supplies, things did not look good for the Lost Battalion. After one ambush in which 5 were killed and 4 were wounded, the Germans gave a surviving soldier a letter for Whittlesey. They knew the situation was dire for the Americans, and they demanded surrender. Whittlesey read the letter and soon ordered his men to take down anything that could be misconstrued as a surrender flag. The Lost Battalion refused to give up.
In response, the Germans threw everything they had at the Americans. Flamethrowers, machine guns, snipers, and grenades were all used to try to finally break their position. The battle was grueling, but the Lost Battalion mustered every last bit of strength and held their ground. When the dust settled, they had exhausted virtually all of their ammunition, and another attack would surely bring defeat. They heard movement in the hills around them and prepared for the worst, but instead of Germans, their allies from the rest of the 77th division appeared at the treeline. After nine days of fighting, they were finally rescued.
By the end, the Lost Battalion suffered over 70% casualties. Members of the rest of the 77th said they could smell the pocket from a quarter mile away, and became sick upon reaching it. Entrails hung on trees, severed limbs were scattered across the ground, and bodies were piled up by the dozens.
The Lost Battalion was evacuated, and they became the American news story of World War I. Both Major Whittlsey and Captain McMurtry were awarded the Medal of Honor for their leadership, the first two of the war. They became celebrities when they reached home, albeit reluctantly, and were constantly being asked for interviews and appearances. Families of members of soldiers from the Lost Battalion even started reaching out and asking Whittlesey for financial help. This attention took a serious toll on them. Whittlesey and McMurtry suffered from PTSD after the traumatic events in the pocket, and they were forced to keep reliving them over and over. They pushed through by spending a lot of time recommending their men for awards, but Whitesey was particularly distraught. They were both eventually invited to serve as Pallbearers for the funeral of the unknown soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Whittlsey was hesitant about it. Gas related tuberculosis left him with a chronic cough, and the months prior had been emotionally exhausting, but they both attended the funeral.
During the ceremony, Whittlesey leaned over and whispered to McMurtry “I should have not come here. I cannot help but wonder if that may not be one of my men from the pocket. I shall have nightmares tonight and hear the wounded screaming again.”
Two weeks later, Whittlsey boarded a cruise ship headed to Cuba. On the first night of the voyage, he was invited to dinner with the Captain, and seen drinking at the bar on board. He was reportedly more relaxed than usual, and happily answered questions about his service. After that night, he was never seen again. He left 8 letters to his closest friends, including McMurtry, in his room, and died by suicide by jumping overboard.
McMurtry burned his letter after reading it, and refused to divulge its contents, saying only that it was a personal farewell, and that Whittlsey was a casualty of war.
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.