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A Youth in the Meuse-Argonne: A Memoir of World War One, 1917-1918

A Youth in the Meuse-Argonne: A Memoir of World War One, 1917-1918

by Robert H. Ferrell

A Youth in the Meuse-Argonne is a firsthand account of World War I through the eyes of an enlisted soldier. William S. Triplet was a seventeen-year-old junior in high school when, on April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war. Passed by Congress and signed by the nation's chief executive four days later, this declaration stirred


A Youth in the Meuse-Argonne is a firsthand account of World War I through the eyes of an enlisted soldier. William S. Triplet was a seventeen-year-old junior in high school when, on April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war. Passed by Congress and signed by the nation's chief executive four days later, this declaration stirred the superintendent of schools in Triplet's hometown of Sedalia, Missouri, to make an emotional plea to all eligible students to join the armed forces. "Any student who felt called upon to fight, bleed, and die for his country could receive his graduation diploma upon his return from the war." Triplet was eighteen months short of being of legal enlistment age, but the army didn't check birth certificates. The appeal of military benefits—room and board, travel, adventure, and fifteen dollars a month, plus knowing he would receive his high school diploma—was too much for the young Triplet to pass up. Thus began William S. Triplet's remarkable career in the U.S. Army, in which he served until his retirement as a full colonel in 1954.

In A Youth in the Meuse-Argonne, Triplet covers the early years of his service in Company D, 140th Infantry Regiment, 35th Division, from shortly after the time of his enlistment in 1917 to his honorable discharge in 1919. During those months he participated in several actions, most notably the battle of the Meuse-Argonne. With both elegance and a touch of humor, he masterfully portrays the everyday life of the soldier, humanizing the men with whom he served. His vivid depictions of how soldiers fought give the reader a much clearer view of the terrifying experiences of combat. He also touches on the special problems he encountered as a sergeant with an infantry platoon composed of soldiers from many different walks of life.

In writing this memoir, Triplet relied heavily on a detailed diary that he kept while he was in France in 1918. Through his annotations, Robert H. Ferrell provides the historical context for Triplet's firsthand experiences. The result is a compelling memoir that offers insight into the lives of the soldiers who served during World War I. Anyone with an interest in World War I or military history in general will find A Youth in the Meuse-Argonne of great interest.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This work contains every ingredient necessary for a successful soldier's memoir. It is written with impressive literary quality even though it is completely unpretentious. Triplet's is a soldier's memoir of exceptional quality."—Russell F. Weigley

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
At the age of 17, the author of this memoir left high school in a Missouri town to enlist in the National Guard for the Great War and found himself a sergeant of infantry in the 35th (Missouri-Kansas) Division during the closing months of hostilities in France. The 35th Division, also home to Harry Truman's artillery battery, was mauled in General Pershing's Meuse-Argonne offensive, the largest and most costly single battle in American military history (one million American troops engaged and 26,000 killed). With consistent humor and fine detail, Triplet recounts his experiences and characterizes his associates--from enlistment and training through service in several actions and the armistice. After the war, Triplet went on to West Point and served 30 years as a career regular army officer. The text of his memoir, which he apparently drafted using his extensive diaries and which continues past the period covered in this volume, was discovered two years ago at U.S. Military History Institute (after Triplet's death in 1994) by Ferrell, professor emeritus of history at Indiana University (Harry S. Truman; The Dying President: Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944-1945; etc.). While not extraordinarily wrenching, it makes informative, absorbing and remarkably effortless reading, a ready window onto a different era and a singular wartime experience--one to be continued as further installments of the text appear in the coming months. Illus. not seen by PW. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Even though it was against regulations for soldiers to keep diaries during the Great War, many did. Few, however, had the skills and took the time to turn their journals into literary productions like this one. "Slim" Triplet enlisted in the Missouri National Guard in 1917 as an underage private, trained here and in France with the 140th Infantry Regiment of the 35th Division (Kansas/ Missouri National Guard), and fought in the American Expeditionary Force's campaigns at the end of the war. He would eventually graduate from West Point in 1924 and retire as a colonel in 1954. The memoir is not in diary form but is presented as a sustained narrative. Conversations and many personal events could never be verified, but the "big picture" is a faithful record of an important military campaign. Some of the more unpleasant aspects of war are glossed over or made light of, with little loss of effect. For all libraries with patrons interested in World War I.--Edward Gibson, Langston Hughes Memorial Lib., Lincoln Univ., PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

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University of Missouri Press
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6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.10(d)
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Sergeant Triplet

On My Way

    Next morning Mr. Gass, our 320-pound superintendent of schools, called a general assembly and gave a stirring war talk to the students of Sedalia High. Carried away by his own patriotic eloquence he promised that any student who felt called upon to fight, bleed, and die for his country could receive his graduation diploma upon his return from the wars. Our principal, Miss Letts, beamed her approval from her throne on the rostrum.

    This proposition was very interesting to some of us — a most attractive offer. As a seventeen-year-old junior I could continue the study of English literature, quadratic equations, and German II with mediocre success and fifteen months later I might get my diploma. On the other hand by reporting briskly to the nearest recruiting station I would not only get my diploma but would also receive room, board, clothing, travel, adventure, and fifteen dollars a month for the duration of the war. It was a certainty that Germany could not hold out against us for more than six months so I would be ahead on all points. There were almost eighteen months to go before I could legally enlist, but the army did not insist on birth certificates so I could just boost my age to eighteen. I would enlist at once and of course there was only one type of soldiering to be considered. To join the quartermaster, the medical corps, or any service branch was unthinkable. The Allies had found that horses do not do well in barbed wire entanglements or against machine guns so the cavalry was out. Theartillery, hanging back three to five miles behind and clobbering the infantry like big boys throwing rocks at each other's little brothers, was safe but very unsporting. The army had seven airplanes but they were assigned to the signal corps for observation and photographic missions only. That left the infantry, the rifle and bayonet men, the final arm of decision.

    Obtaining parental permission was difficult. I pointed out the certainty of receiving a high school diploma via the army as opposed to probably failing in the final exams of my junior year. I cited the military career of great-uncle Launer Stith who enlisted with General John Morgan's cavalry at the age of fifteen and who almost won the War Between the States. I listed the names of the failing seniors who were going to join up to be sure of graduating. But I think that my parents finally gave me their blessing because they realized that with or without their consent I was going.

    Five seniors, all probably failing, were winning a diploma the easy way. Four of these heroes elected to join the local company of the National Guard machine-gun battalion. My chum Linton Barnett agreed with me that we would see more action with a rifle unit; the machine guns were too much like artillery.

    The nearest infantry recruiting station was set up in a vacant shop on Third Street, where the long comatose D Company of the Sixth Missouri Infantry Regiment was being revived by fat, Vandyke-bewhiskered Captain Scott. The good captain was an enthusiastic, patriotic, and persuasive warrior, and could have posed as Falstaff or one of the more sedentary Yankee generals of the War Between the States. He had considerable local clout but no previous military experience. Joe Salisbury, a robust, earthy, fun-loving carpenter contractor with a great deal of drive, was his acting lieutenant. This was also his first go at soldiering.

    The company was being formed in exactly the same manner as had remained traditional in America since the French and Indian Wars. After seventy recruits had been examined and declared fit by the indulgent local medico, and had signed the roster, the election of officers was to be held. The company would then be mustered officially into the Missouri National Guard. Finally it was expected that the Sixth Missouri Infantry would immediately be called into the federal service and dispatched to France to end the war.

    Barnett and I consulted. In order to join the Regulars we would have to go to St. Louis. It was also probable that the Regulars would be held on the Mexican border to defend the United States from further depredations by Pancho Villa while the Guard would go to France and have all the fun. So our decision was to sign up with the Guard.

    Our applications were joyfully received by Acting Captain Scott with no searching questions about age or parental permission. I perjured myself in claiming the age of eighteen and was considerably relieved when he congratulated us, handed out the usual cigars, and told us to go home and wait for orders.

    During the following two months the heroes of D Company assembled in ever-increasing numbers during the evenings in the Convention Hall. The manual of arms and close order drill on the lawns of Liberty Park occupied most of our time. We used the shoulder-tall, single-shot caliber 45-70 Springfield rifles, which had proven so inadequate during the nineteenth-century campaigns against the Sioux, Apaches, and Spaniards. We became quite expert in delivering blank volleys with the front rank kneeling and the rear rank standing, using the techniques that had been abandoned as suicidal early in the Civil War.

    I was made acting sergeant presumably because I learned the general orders of interior guard duty, mastered the care, cleaning, and nomenclature of the ancient Springfield, and could keep step in drill. The fact that I stood six feet tall at 160 pounds and had a hog-calling voice certainly helped. But my hold on this exalted position was very tenuous. This was made clear by an earnest discussion that I overheard between Captain Scott and Lieutenant Salisbury. The orderly tent was not soundproof.

    "I don't want any schoolboy noncoms," shouted Scott.

    "Well — regiment wanted our roster while you were horsing around in Ada Stevens's place for a week, and when I tried to get you on the job you weren't available. The madame said you were so polluted you couldn't hit the floor with a cannonball anyway and I —"

    "I warn you, lieutenant, you're being insubordinate," and the canvas rippled with the captain's wrath.

    "I guess I am — if you get elected captain. But I had to put the roster in and I appointed him as senior line sergeant and by the living God unless he messes up he's going to stay senior line sergeant." Salisbury's shouting was twenty decibels louder than Scott's at this point and the tent walls flapped. Couldn't make out Scott's mumbled reply so Salisbury seemed to have won the debate.

    At long last we reached the required strength of seventy men and held our election of officers. Votes were cast in order of priorities for political activity, pleasing personality, vigor and saltiness of speeches, warlike enthusiasm, military knowledge, and the ability to command. Scott was confirmed as captain by a narrow margin. Mr. Berry, a late enlistee whose qualifications were a friendly disposition, an endless fund of filthy jokes, and an ever-filled pocket flask, was elected as first lieutenant. Salisbury, the most capable of the lot, trailed as second lieutenant. Mr. Dunnica, a bookkeeper, was appointed as first sergeant. We were then accepted in the Guard as D Company of the Sixth Missouri Infantry Regiment. It was official and we were on our way. God help the kaiser now.

    We spent a most uncomfortable week of drilling in Liberty Park and sleeping on the hardwood (and I mean hard) floor of the Convention Hall in the blankets or quilts we had brought with us. Finally our orders arrived. We returned our antique rifles to the racks. Still in our slept-in civvies, without arms, one suitcase or blanket roll per man, we were one of the most unmilitary sights of the Great War as we marched behind the Sedalia band to the railroad station. After a confused period of good-bye on the crowded platform we entrained for Camp Clark near Nevada, Missouri.

    All recruit camps are miserable, of course. Camp Clark was outstanding in this respect. But since we were totally ignorant we didn't know that — thought that this was the way it was supposed to be. It wasn't until two years later when we were mustered out in Camp Funston that we learned that some soldiers lived in houses, barracks they were called, with electric lights, water, and flush toilets indoors. We had pyramidal squad tents, mattress covers filled with straw on the ground, and mess kits were our only military equipment. The kitchen force operated their wood-fired field range under a large canvas fly, and we ate their amateur offerings sitting on the ground when weather permitted. When it rained we dined in our tents. At all times we fanned the mess kit with one hand to keep the flies from lighting and the fastidious among us soon learned to exhale with each forkful so they couldn't follow it in.

    Between vaccinations we engaged in the usual calisthenics, drill, saluting, and interior guard duty. For guard we were armed with clubs, sized and hand-whittled to the user's individual taste from the cordwood billets in the kitchen woodpile.

    We were finally issued cotton uniforms — khaki shirts, olive-green coats and breeches, gray-green canvas leggings, and Munson-last tan shoes. The coat and breeches were not color-fast, and the frequent washing of the breeches gradually faded them to an off-white. The few men of former military experience boiled their breeches and leggings in a heavy salt solution and achieved an immediate chalk-white. When we formed for a formal inspection we were a motley crew, olive-drab campaign hats, coats in the original green, shoes tan to dark bronze depending on the wearer's preference for shoe polish, and with breeches and leggings in all shades between olive-green and dazzling white.

    First Sergeant Dunnica and Clerk Dowd occupied a tent in roomy splendor at the head of the company street on the right. The five members of the mess crew led or driven by Sergeant Baldwin had the tent next door. Across the street from these aristocrats were the line sergeants — six of us. The others were Porter, Herndon, Rissler, Richter, and Knox.

    Porter and Herndon were great buddies, having attended the same college for two years and being as Knox remarked "sorority sisters." Porter was the tall, dark, and handsome man of the world type. Herndon was short, dark, morose, and mean. Both had enlisted with the expectation of being elected as lieutenants and obviously resented everything about their present situation. Rissler was a languid young man of medium height, light in weight and brains, short in initiative, lacking in stamina, and indefinite in opinion. Richter was a farm type, stocky, muscular, driving, and expressed his usually sound ideas forcefully. In a feld-grau uniform he would have looked the epitome of the blond beast of British propaganda.

    I don't know much about Knox — no one did. Standing six foot three he was known as "Long Distance." His infrequent speech had a Southwest drawl so he was also called "Tex." He had obviously seen military service and it was generally supposed it was in the cavalry. Some were sure that he had been a Texas Ranger, others had heard he was a deserter from the Canadian mounted police or an escapee from Leavenworth. When questioned more or less adroitly about his past Tex would fix the interrogator with a noncommittal eye and stare him into a confused change of the subject. Always calm, imperturbable, lean, and horse-faced, he could have doubled for William Hart, the movie cowboy hero of the early Westerns.

    One Saturday, I came off a day of guard duty at 11:00 A.M. and went to my tent intending to make up six hours of lost sleep. My recitation of one of the more dramatic incidents of the tour brought no response from my tent mates. There was a noticeable coolness on the part of my peers. I was the center of attention, ranging from a speculative stare from Tex to an angry glare from Herndon. But nobody was talking — I was evidently silenced. I'd no sooner shed my equipment than First Sergeant Dunnica stuck his head in the tent door.

    "Sergeant Triplet, report to the company commander."

    I wiped some of the dust off my shoes, checked my necktie, and took off for the orderly tent.

    "Hey, Slim." Long-Distance Knox was overtaking me with his loping forty-inch pace.

    "Look, Slim, there's a stud game starting in B Company and I need five dollars table stakes to get in. I'll give you six for five on payday."

    "Gee, Tex, I've only got three dollars and I want to go to town tonight. I can let you have two, but I'll need —"

    "I'll tell you, give me five at seven to five, or half my winnings. How about that? Your choice."

    "No deal." I pulled out my wallet. "Here's two and I don't want to make anything on it. Payday's Monday. Maybe Rissler or Porter could —"

    "Sure, I'll try them. Thanks for the two, Slim."

    I reported to the captain, enthroned behind his packing-box desk with Salisbury and Berry flanking him. Dunnica was sitting in a corner with pencil poised over a note pad on his knee.

    "Sit down, sergeant." I took the campstool indicated in front of the desk.

    "Where did you get this?" Captain Scott tossed a wallet on the desktop in front of me. I picked up the pigskin wallet and looked at it, in and out. Empty and no unusual markings.

    "Where did I — I never saw this before, sir."

    "It was found on top of your stuff when your suitcase was opened for inspection this morning. How do you explain that?"

    "I can't explain it, sir. I never saw that pocketbook before in my life as far as I know." I was so stunned that I couldn't improve on that feeble statement. It looked like this was one of those drumhead court-martials I'd read about, and I was probably going to get shot at the first available dawn.

    One after the other, my tent mates were called in and gave almost identical testimony. The order had been given at reveille that all suitcases were to be opened and clothing and toilet articles displayed for the Saturday inspection of quarters. Since I was absent on guard Sergeant Rissler had opened my suitcase. There, right on top of everything I owned, was Sergeant Herndon's wallet that he'd missed two days ago. Herndon said he'd had forty-seven dollars in it but it was completely empty when they found it. Godalmighty. Sure looked like a jail term or worse since my only defense was total ignorance of the whole business.

    The last witness was Long-Distance Knox, and the bleak picture began to change. "Sergeant Knox reporting to the captain as ordered, sir."

    "Sergeant, what do you know about this wallet found in Sergeant Triplet's suitcase?"

    "I know he was framed, sir, and a sloppier job of framing I've never seen."

    "What do you mean by that, sergeant? It was found in his possession."

    "That's right, captain, in a way." Long Distance started the longest speech of his life. "It was setting there right out on top of his gear where a blind man couldn't miss it at first touch. Here's a few things I see that's wrong with that picture." He waved an accusing forefinger at each member of the "court."

    "If you was to steal a pocketbook what would you do with it? Being sensible you'd take out the money and get clean shut of the rest, drop it in the latrine would be a quick and handy way to get it out of sight. And if you was such a fool as to want to keep it, you'd have it better hid than on top of your underwear in an unlocked suitcase right across from the man you stole it from.

    "Now look at another side. If you stole the money and was afraid that somebody might suspect you if they didn't have anybody better to suspect, you could put the law on the wrong trail by stashing the wallet on somebody else. I've seen it done before. It's especially a good idea if you want to get somebody busted or sent to Leavenworth for a long hitch.

    "And as far as the money goes I'll give heavy odds he never had it. I just tried to borrow five dollars from him at seven-for-five day after tomorrow. He had three. He's got one now and don't want interest on the two he lent me. That's all I know, sir."

    "Makes a lot of sense," muttered Salisbury.

    "A Daniel come to judgment," quoth Berry.

    "Well, sergeant, who do you think put the wallet there?"

    "I don't know, captain. I've told you everything I figured and a lot more that I just guessed at. But I just don't like to see a man framed."

    "Pretty good guesswork, sergeant. That will be all. Wait, tell Sergeant Herndon that I'd like to see him." Knox saluted, about-faced, and stamped out.

    "And now, Sergeant Triplet," continued the captain, "I'm glad to see this cleared up as far as you are concerned. And you might be able to help us by noticing if anyone is unusually flush for this time of the month — it's been a long time since payday. And one more thing, I don't want any trouble among my noncoms."

    I left the orderly tent feeling like a boil that had just been lanced, still hurting but with the pressure relieved. On returning to our tent I found the atmosphere much better. I was welcomed back into the fold by Knox with unprecedented banter, Richter and Rissler with abashed cordiality, and Porter with his former superior tolerance of a college sophomore for a lowly high school not quite senior. Knox had evidently repeated his monologue. But when Herndon returned there was no change, he was just as mean, morose, and miserable a bastard as ever, so we exchanged our usual glances of mutual loathing and no words.

    By then I had a good idea of who had done what. Both Herndon and Porter didn't like schoolboy noncoms, especially those senior to them. But neither flashed any money before payday, so I had nothing to go on.

    It's too bad that this yarn can't be ended with the villain coming to his well-deserved sticky end as he invariably did in the Youth's Companion stories but such justice doesn't happen often in real life. Porter and Herndon were sent to the second officers training school and some ninety days later became officers and just possibly gentlemen.

    My only cheering thought — war is awfully hard on second lieutenants.

    Lieutenant Berry, the life of every party, wasn't with us long. I formed the company all gussied up in our brand-new uniforms one Saturday morning for a formal inspection. I took the report from the platoon sergeants and faced about. The captain and Lieutenant Salisbury were in their accustomed positions.

    "The company is formed, sir. All present or accounted for," I reported.

    Instead of directing me to take my post as usual the captain gave me another mission.

    "Sergeant, go to Lieutenant Berry's quarters and present my invitation to join us."

    Strange, the lieutenant's tent was right next door to his own.

    I went to the officers' line and scratched on the laced door of the lieutenant's tent. Not a sound. Again — silence. I unlaced the flap and stepped in and my throat was closed by a vile odor. Good God, the fellow must be dead and well decomposed. As my eyes became adjusted to the gloom I was sure of it. No, the corpse groaned and stirred. A bottle of "Tanglefoot" whiskey rolled off the cot into a pool of vomit. No, it wasn't a bottle of whiskey. It was a quart bottle, which had contained whiskey.

    I delivered the captain's invitation.

    He responded, eyes still closed. "Fornicate (synonym) the captain and the fornicating formation. I'm sick."

    I reported back to the captain. "Sir, the lieutenant is too sick to accept your invitation."

    Lieutenant Berry was last seen loading his belongings on a truck and leaving for some destination still unknown.

Camp Doniphan

    I was quite happy with my job as line sergeant leading my three skeleton squads in drill, calisthenics, and fatigue details, when fate struck a staggering blow. First Sergeant Dunnica, a neat CPA type, had been running all the company administration with quiet efficiency. Among the myriad papers he had directed Captain Scott to sign he had slipped in his own glowing, self-written recommendation and nomination to officers training school. On receipt of his orders he departed immediately with our best wishes and the outraged screams of his betrayed captain. There ensued another vituperous exchange between Scott and his dominant lieutenant about noncoms, schoolboys, experience, age, and ability.

    Immediately thereafter I found myself drafted as acting first sergeant. That was not only a tragedy, it was ridiculous, and none knew it better than I did. In keeping with the traditions of the British, Prussian, and the old U.S. armies our officers did nothing except observe drills, lead parades, conduct formal inspections, and sign the papers prepared by the first sergeant to run the company, supervising the supply and mess, furnishing the required guard and fatigue details by roster, and doing all administrative work with the help of their typewriter-equipped clerks. One can imagine the state of the company paperwork as performed by a high school dropout with no clerical experience. The morning report, which must be neatly hand-printed personally by the first sergeant, precisely accurate, and with no alterations, became a horror of inaccuracies, strikeouts, ink blots, erasures, corrections, and sweat stains.

    Worse, while I had the continuing support of my former platoon, the rest of the company understandably resented my appointment. Former friends became distant, while Supply Sergeant Martin and Mess Sergeant Baldwin were decidedly cool about my inept supervision of supply, menus, and sanitation. The company was unhappy and I was miserable.

    I still don't know how we made a successful move from Clark to Camp Doniphan, Oklahoma. There were endless trips to regimental headquarters to receive orders from the sergeant major, a hard-nosed, icy-eyed, weather-beaten type who was said to have been a corporal in the Regular Army. He ran the regiment and gave us our orders, which when issued seemed to be impossible. Company property and supplies had to be crated just so, escort wagons requisitioned from the service company for the loads, details assigned to load crates in designated freight cars spotted on the sidings in the Nevada freight yard, sand-filled brick foundations for field ranges built in express cars, and rosters blocked out for passenger car loadings at three men per double seat, with time-date tables for every move. Finally a last breakfast, tents were struck, folded, and loaded, and bedding straw was burned. Baldwin's crew cooled their field range with buckets of water and departed to set up shop on the train. Fatigue details filled the latrine and garbage pits. A skirmish line made a final police of the area and I reported the company ready to entrain.

    Actually the move was smoothly executed in spite of our amateur efforts. I learned one great truth during that confusing exercise: if you tell a group of enthusiastic young men what is to be done and give them the tools to do it with, when the dust, smoke, and corruption settles down you'll generally be amazed to find all hands present in the right places and the job finished in fairly good shape. The engineer took up the slack and we were off.

    The principal diversion of our warriors en route was engaging in sprightly conversation with the teenage females who were swarming on the station platforms at every whistle-stop. When we paused at length to let eastbound traffic by, names and addresses of future pen pals were exchanged. Some of the more daring and gymnastic lads even achieved a few kisses with the taller girls by having a couple of friends clamp onto their legs while they overbalanced through the car windows. Corporal Manning, our Don Juan, finished the trip a clear winner with a list of nineteen lovelies whom he had sworn to love, cherish, and write to daily.

    Otherwise the trip was mostly heat, coal smoke, cinders in the eyes, card games, and dozing. Baldwin's sweating crew delivered sandwiches and coffee at four- to six-hour intervals. We ground to a stop in the Fort Sill railroad yard the next mid-morning.

    "Everybody out." That was my last successful order as acting first sergeant.

    "Fall in." The second platoon formed — the rest of the company evidently didn't hear me. All hands just continued rolling Bull Durham cigarettes and gossiping in small groups.

    "Fall in." I really put my diaphragm into it. No result. It wasn't a mutiny, not even an overt demonstration. It was merely two-thirds of the company showing their profound disapproval of a teenage first sergeant, a bloodless palace revolution that had evidently been plotted in detail during the trip.

    Captain Scott was delighted. "Sergeant Triplet, take over the second platoon. Sergeant Baldwin, form the company."

    Mess Sergeant Baldwin, a mature, chunky, well-muscled Saxon type of twice my age who should have had the job in the first place, marched front and center. "Fall in."

    The stand-fast strikers of the company showed their total approval of the captain's decision by trotting into formation. I rejoined my friends of the second platoon with mixed emotions, chagrin at having failed in the job, relief at getting out of it, and delight at coming back to straight line-soldiering.

    The rest of the day was a confused unloading of baggage and freight cars, reloading our plunder in the wagons, and a march of three miles to the site of Camp Doniphan on the Fort Sill reservation.

    The Fort Sill reservation, of which Camp Doniphan occupied a division-sized portion, seemed to be a limitless plain of sand, gravel, and stunted buffalo grass, undulating toward a backdrop of low, rolling mountains in the hazy blue distance. A steady brisk breeze blew sand and dust from Oklahoma toward Kansas. At the railroad yard Private Palmer had inquired about the local weather. "Hey, Jack, "he called to a weather-beaten section hand, "does the wind always blow like this?" "Nope," answered the native. "Lot of times it blows from the north."

    The regimental camp area was bisected by a gravel road and two lines of new frame structures. Each company had a one-story kitchen-mess-supply building of pine planking north of the road and one hundred and fifty yards south a wooden bathhouse-washroom-latrine. Water was laid on at all points. We pitched our tents in two rows on either side of the company street, fighting the canvas in the fifteen-mile wind. It was sheer luxury for us. We had been cooking on field ranges of sheet-iron plates under a canvas canopy, sitting on the ground to eat, drawing our drinking water from canvas Lister bags, squatting on poles over an odoriferous pit, and cat-bathing with buckets. And now it was rumored that we were even going to have cots to sleep on too.

    At long last we were issued weapons. We drew the 1903 caliber-30 Springfield rifles, the best infantry rifles of the age and in some respects superior to modern military shoulder guns. The M-14 and M-16 fire faster, true, but with a number-six peep sight the 1903 will bring in more pounds of meat per round than any automatic and most semiautomatic firearms. The 1903 is still beloved by serious hunters who want to kill their game reliably at mid- and long ranges. With the rifle came the bayonet, which was to create so much havoc in the Meuse-Argonne — in our own ranks. But more of that later.

    Platoon and section leaders also received the .45-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver with the backhanded holster developed by the cavalry. It was no doubt convenient for a horse soldier with his saber in his right hand, the reins in his teeth, and cross-drawing his six-shooter with his left hand. But for a foot soldier making a righthand draw, this holster was an abomination. He had to turn the back of his hand into his hip to grasp the butt, raise it halfway to his armpit to clear the muzzle, swing the muzzle forward with due care to avoid shooting himself through the mid-section, and then cock or double-action the trigger depending on the situation. This could be done with efficient speed only by a man who had his right arm put on backwards.

    The .45 was also designed to use the rimmed revolver cartridges, which were not available. Instead we had three-round half-moon metal clips to be used with the rimless automatic cartridges. Aside from these two disadvantages the .45 revolver was superior to the M-1911 autoloading pistol, which was issued to more favored units. Using single action it was more accurate than the pistol and with double action it was faster on the first shot. Most important it would never jam and would continue to shoot as long as your trigger finger held out. The pistol did jam, usually minor stoppages, which could be corrected by pulling back the slide. But when you're engaged in serious shooting at pistol range it's no time to have to figure out and rectify a minor jam.

    The accompanying web equipment was especially welcome. Now we could abandon the blanket roll slung over the left shoulder, which gave us the general appearance of the Queen Anne County Rifles of 1864. The adjustable flaps and straps of the pack enabled us to load all our worldly goods to a total of seventy pounds, while the cartridge belt carried a hundred rounds, the canteen, first aid packet, and assorted tools.

    We enthusiastically removed the cosmoline from the weaponry. We carefully sanded off the camouflaging bronze paint and shined the brass snaps and buckles of the web equipment. Instead of the former interminable "squads east, west, and roundabout," we concentrated on The Care, Nomenclature, and Manual of Arms with the new weapons.

    A firm rumor went the rounds that the Third Missouri, known as the "Border Rats," were to amalgamate with us to form a new regiment at near war strength. Captain Scott vanished quietly into the limbo the War Department had for ineffective officers in those days, and the acting NCOs of the Sixth Missouri prepared to take off their chevrons. The Third Missouri were veterans, they had been on the border chasing Villa and bickering with Carranzistas. We hadn't been anywhere and hadn't done anything so we figured that we'd shortly be high privates in the rear rank.

    Came the day. D Company of the Border Rats swung into our company street, wheeled into line like the Rockettes, clicked to a halt, and smartly ordered arms with two cracks and a muffled thud.

    "Stand at hease." "Hat ease." The two D companies looked each other over with that speculative, inimical curiosity typical of all military units on their first meeting. We couldn't tell how they felt about it but we were impressed. They were obviously veterans. Their white breeches, faded shirts and hat cords, the nonchalance of their precision drill, and the efficient quiet with which they occupied the line of tents across the street proclaimed their long service.

    Next morning the Third and Sixth Missouri Rifles were reorganized as the 140th Infantry Regiment of the second brigade of the Thirty-fifth Infantry Division. The two D companies were shuffled together like two decks of cards, sized, and chopped off into four platoons of six under-strength squads each. The NCOs of the Sixth were surprised and somewhat terrified to learn that they needn't take off their chevrons after all. The new company of 175 men required almost twice as many sergeants and corporals. Also the NCOs of the Third weren't all that senior, due to the recent departure of most of their former sergeants to the officers training school. So when the dust and confusion settled down I found myself commanding the new second platoon, with Border Rats Sergeant Kenneday and Corporal Robinson as section leaders. They were two of the best men I've ever known, and deserve special mention.

    In November 1917 I was ordered to report to the new company commander, Captain Campbell. I found him in the orderly tent with Lieutenant Salisbury. Campbell was a dark, dour, well-nourished type, never seen without a cigar except on parade. He didn't remove it when he returned my reporting salute, just shifted it from right to left and talked around it.

    "Take a seat, sergeant." I sat gingerly, mentally reviewing my most recent derelictions, must be something serious to make him scowl like that.

    "I'm required to nominate one man for officers training school. The lieutenant has recommended you. Would you be willing to make out an application?"

    Whoosh. Felt like I'd been struck by lightning. Never in my wildest dreams — till now my greatest concern had been keeping my ill-deserved stripes. And now I was going to win a pair of gold bars.

    "W-why — yes, I would, sir."

    "How much schooling have you had?"

    "Junior in high school, sir." (Not quite, but near enough.)

    Salisbury broke in. "We're getting pretty hard-pressed for OTS candidates, captain. They told me at regiment that they'd waive the requirement for a high school diploma."

    "I know, we're pretty short of second lieutenants. Never will have enough. Now sergeant, what jobs have you had, what do you like to do, and what do you want to be?"

    I sorted out the answers to that triple-barreled question very carefully. The captain looked impatient.

    "In '16, I was a wood miller on the planer in the MK&T shops. I like soldiering. And I want to be a platoon leader."

    "Doesn't the responsibility of being an officer bother you?"

    "Well, captain, I've commanded a platoon for over six months now without having a lieutenant with me so I think I can handle the responsibility as a second lieutenant." I didn't add that commanding a platoon was a hell of a lot easier for a platoon sergeant without a lieutenant breathing on the back of his neck.

    "Good. How old are you?"

    I gave my army age. "Nineteen years and two months, sir."

    "Oh, oh. That's too bad," he mourned triumphantly. "They can't waive that, Salisbury. The firm requirement is twenty. You'll have to wait a while, sergeant."

    I wobbled out feeling like I'd been kicked in the solar plexus. To have one's hopes aroused, raised so high and dropped so low in forty-five seconds, must be a record of some sort.

    But I bounced back fast. I was a platoon leader in fact and would continue as such as long as second lieutenants were in short supply. Germany would probably hold out long enough for me to win a commission. And at the worst there would be other wars.

    As for the captain's query about responsibility, there was no other business or occupation I'd ever heard of where a young fellow just starting out could get to run a small business. Small business? Just considering the government life insurance value my platoon was worth half a million dollars. That's a damned good medium-sized business and a lot more entertaining than pushing 8x12x3Os through the planer for the MK&T at thirty-five cents an hour.

Meet the Author

Robert H. Ferrell is Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the author or editor of over fifty books, including Collapse at Meuse-Argonne: The Failure of the Missouri-Kansas Division and Five Days in October: The Lost Battalion of World War I (both by the University of Missouri Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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