WWI Centennial: Americans Attack the St. Mihiel Salient; the Flu Turns Deadly

Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 318th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here and buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

SEPTEMBER 12-16, 1918: AMERICANS ATTACK THE ST. MIHIEL SALIENT; THE FLU TURNS DEADLY

“Something is going to happen,” wrote Katharine Morse, an American volunteering as a canteen worker, in her diary on September 9, 1918. “We have been used to seeing the French Army go by … But now, by day, by night, it is the Americans who are passing through… Coming home from the canteen in the evening one hears the heavy rattle that means artillery on the move, and standing by the road-side peering through the darkness one can just discern horses and caissons, slat wagons, supply wagons, and, looming ominously in the dim light, the formidable bulk of the great guns.”

Morse was right. Three days later the U.S. First Army launched its biggest American offensive of the war so far, a pincer movement coordinated with French forces to liberate the St. Mihiel salient—the triangular strip of German-occupied territory jutting into free France south of Verdun, with the village of St. Mihiel at its apex on the River Meuse.

Long a thorn in the side of the Allies, the Germans’ possession of the St. Mihiel salient gave them a bridgehead over the Meuse and denied the Allies full use of the important Paris-Nancy-Metz rail line, impeding movement of troops and supplies. However, like Lorraine and the Vosges Mountains to the southeast, this part of the front had been relatively quiet ever since a disastrous French attempt to liberate the salient early in the war.

Following a series of stunning Allied victories in July and August, when the doughboys proved their fighting spirit at Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, and the Second Battle of the Marne, and while the British crushed the Germans near Amiens, Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch and U.S. commander John “Black Jack” Pershing turned their attention to the St. Mihiel salient—an obvious next target, although there was some disagreement about strategy.

Western Front, September 1918
Erik Sass

On one hand, Pershing proposed a massive offensive by up to 20 U.S. divisions from First Army, followed by an immediate attack across the Franco-German frontier to capture Metz, which would deliver a major blow to German morale. Foch countered that this was too ambitious, in part because the Germans almost certainly knew the attack was coming while many U.S. troops were still untested. He instead proposed a limited attack, with 13 American divisions and eight French colonial divisions converging on the village of Vigneulles from north and south, followed by redeployment of U.S. forces under French commanders for a general offensive further west.

Determined to keep American troops under American commanders, Pershing refused Foch’s broader plan outright. This resulted in a compromise that was, paradoxically, even more ambitious than those previously discussed. After conquering the salient with Foch’s proposed limited operation, the U.S. First Army would stay together and immediately redeploy 60 miles northwest to launch a new offensive against the Germans in the Meuse-Argonne region, west of Verdun, in late September. Meanwhile, the planned U.S. Second Army would concentrate along the frontier for an eventual attack on Metz, as Pershing still hoped to execute.

“THE VERY HEAVENS SEEMED TO BE ON FIRE”

Although loose lips among inexperienced doughboys had already given away the coming attack, the Americans still did their best to at least keep the enemy guessing about precisely when and where it would fall. That meant another round of night marches to evade German aerial reconnaissance, typically made by exhausted doughboys in miserable conditions. “The rain was pouring and everyone got drenched. Carried ammunition all night of 10th and 11th until everyone was broken down. Raining and black as pitch each night,” Robert Hanes, an American artillery officer, wrote in his diary on September 10, 1918. On September 12 Hanes noted, “No rations for men or feed for horses was sent up with us so we had to live on what we could pick up for about two days.”

To top it off, like their peers in European armies, the American soldiers carried a backbreaking amount of equipment. Emmet Britton, an American soldier, described a doughboy’s typical shelter and kit, which he carried in addition to a rifle, ammunition, grenades, gas mask, entrenching tools and other equipment:

“Each man carries one-half of a shelter tent, one pole, and five pins. This shelter half is a piece of canvas six feet by four feet, and forms the outside of the roll a man carries. To make up a roll the shelter half is spread on the ground, the one blanket is laid on it and inside of the blanket are placed the poles and pins, the one suit of underwear, and three pairs of socks, which make up all of a man’s outfit with the exception of the toilet articles which include one comb, one tooth brush, one piece of soap, one razor and one shaving brush. Add to that one can of bully beef and eight pieces of hardtack and you have the contents of a man’s pack.”

In another vain attempt to maintain the element of surprise, the Americans also replicated the recent Allied practice of foregoing a prolonged preliminary bombardment, in favor of a short, incredibly intense barrage just before the infantry went “over the top.” At 1 a.m. on September 12, 1918, around 3000 artillery pieces (most of them on loan from the French) opened up with some of the fiercest shelling of the war, firing a stupendous 1.1 million shells by 5 a.m, for an average rate of around 76 shells per second. One awestruck American soldier noted in his diary:

“At about 1 a.m. one of the most terrible barrages I have yet witnessed begins. The noise is deafening. The sky as light as day, words of mine can never describe the scene … The very heavens seemed [to] be on fire, the light of the bursting shells and the roar of the countless guns produced an unearthly uproar and tumult of noise so great that men had to shout into each other’s ears in order to be heard and understood.”

Hanes, the American artillery officer, left a similar account of stunning contrasts:

“You can never imagine the amount of noise made when the artillery opens up in one of these drives. It had been raining for two days steadily and we were all wet and muddy from head to foot. I had fallen down on an average of every 10 minutes for the two days as the ground was so slick I couldn’t stand. My men had been carrying ammunition to the guns for two of the blackest nights you have ever seen when suddenly everything was made light by the blazing of hundreds of guns all over the sector. We poured thousands of shells into the bloody rascals for about four hours and then started our barrage for the Infantry to advance under. They say it was a dandy and it certainly did the work as the Infantry met very little resistance and took thousands of scared and bewildered prisoners. One German officer was found dressed in his dress uniform, bag packed and orderly, waiting with him to surrender.

As it happened, the majority of the German forces occupying the St. Mihiel salient, who had plenty of warning about the impending attack, managed to withdraw just as the offensive was launched—in many cases retreating within view of the advancing doughboys. Altogether the advancing Americans captured around 13,000 German prisoners, a middling number for a major First World War battle. Thus the St. Mihiel offensive counted as an American victory, but one that fell short of Allied expectations (below, American troops in liberated St. Mihiel).

Entering St. Mihiel, World War I
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although only a few hundred French light tanks were available for the St. Mihiel offensive, the advancing infantry were supported by the largest concentration of air power ever assembled to date. At least 1500 Allied planes scoured the skies, attacked enemy forces on the ground, and harried German lines of supply and communication to the rear. Eddie Rickenbacker, the most successful American ace of the war, described carrying out a ground attack against the retreating Germans:

“Guns, stores, and ammunition were being hauled away to safety with all possible speed … One especially attractive target presented itself to us as we flew along this road. A whole battery of Boche 3-inch guns was coming towards us on the double. They covered fully half a mile of the roadway. Dipping down at the head of the column I sprinkled a few bullets over the leading teams. Horses fell right and left. One driver leaped away from his seat and started running for the ditch. Halfway across the road he threw up his arms and rolled over upon his face. He had stepped full in front of my stream of machine-gun bullets! All down the line we continued our fire—now tilting our aeroplanes down for a short burst, then zooming back up for a little altitude in which to repeat the performance. The whole column was thrown into the wildest confusion. Horses plunged and broke away. Some were killed and fell in their tracks.”

Although the St. Mihiel offensive was a relatively easy “walkover” by the blood-soaked standards of the First World War, it was some American soldiers’ first introduction to battle, and many were clearly horrified by the gruesome sights they encountered. One soldier described the carnage wrought by German defensive shelling of the advancing troops:

“A large shell had made a direct hit upon four boys. All were dead. Limbs were mangled, bodies were torn. It was a sight revolting beyond description. Of one of my comrades I could only find small fragments of his poor body. None were larger than my hand … with the exception [of] his head, jerked completely from body. The powder-blackened face of a young Jewish boy stared immobile into eternity. Nearby was his hand which had been popped off at the arm just [at the] back of the wrist.”

Others however found themselves becoming hardened to horrors of war. Lieutenant Phelps Harding noted his acclimation to gruesome sights in a letter to his wife recounting the advance. “We passed dead men of both armies, but many more Boche than Americans,” he wrote. “I was surprised at the indifference I felt toward dead Americans—they seemed a perfectly natural thing to come across, and I felt absolutely no shudder go down my back as I would have had I seen the same thing a year ago.”

Conditions continued to be extremely challenging, as the supply service struggled to keep up with the advancing troops and American troops scrambled to redeploy to the Meuse-Argonne front for the next planned offensive. On September 22 Hanes recorded an excruciatingly slow advance. “The distance was only about seven kilometers but we were on the road about seven hours making it on account of the terrific traffic jams. The rain poured all night and the wind blew a gale. This is the most horrible night I have ever had,” he wrote.

On the other side, St. Mihiel was another nail in the coffin of German morale. Although the occupying troops had withdrawn successfully under fire, there was no way for the German high command to cover up the plain fact of another retreat before superior enemy forces.

Ominously, both German officers and rank-and-file troops were now eager to be taken prisoner for the short remaining duration of the war. Some likely reasoned that there was no point in sacrificing their lives for a lost cause. In a letter home dated September 19, Hanes wrote, “the prisoners as they came back seemed to be very well satisfied. Some of the infantrymen said, when they captured them, they shook hands with each other, laughed, and seemed to be most pleased that they had been captured.”

Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, may have been describing the same surrendering officer recounted by Hanes: “One German major was found with his kit all packed up, his arms folded, waiting to go to prison camp. He was furious with his high command... So, in high dudgeon and righteous indignation, he made no effort to escape.” And a German intelligence report from September 1918 noted an informant’s warning, based on conversations with ordinary soldiers, that there was no doubt “these men wanted to find out about the best way to get taken prisoner without any risk and attracting attention, and how to act as a prisoner in order to be treated well.”

INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC BECOMES EVEN DEADLIER

The first phase of the misnamed Spanish flu, which emerged in spring 1918, had been extremely virulent but relatively benign. The epidemic killed only a small proportion of those who became ill. However, in fall 1918, the second, far deadlier phase began with simultaneous outbreaks among troops in transit camps in Boston, Massachusetts; Brest, France; and Freetown, Sierra Leone—all within a few weeks in early and mid-September. The first report in Boston noted high mortality among wounded soldiers arriving back from Europe for medical treatment in the U.S. on September 5, 1918.

It’s unclear what caused the flu epidemic to suddenly become so deadly, but scientists speculate the virus may have undergone a “genetic recombination event,” in which two different strains of the virus infect the same cell and then swap DNA, creating a strain that is even more virulent and dangerous.

By some estimates, the flu may have killed as many as 100 million people around the world, far more than the war itself. While it ravaged combatant and noncombatant nations alike, its impact was worst in war-torn Europe. Contemporary accounts leave a frightening picture of rapid, widespread infection leaving whole communities powerless. Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer with the French Army, wrote home in October:

“This disease is certainly quick and deadly in its effect and creates a panic among those who have it, as they die frequently in three or four days. My chauffeur is just recovering. He was so scared, two days ago, when I went to see him the hospital, lest he die in France, that he was almost speechless. Four friends of one of the French officers in my office dined together last week, and now two are dead and buried."

Morse, the American volunteer, remarked on the incredible speed of the epidemic. “Curiously enough, it hit the camp all in a heap after dinner,” she recalled. “Thirty percent of the boys, the two officers, the building detail, and myself were all laid low between one and six o’clock.” Richard Wade Derby, an American medical officer, noted that the flu accounted for the vast majority of hospital admissions: “The evacuations mounted to four or five hundred a day, of which only a fifth were battle casualties.”

The flu was especially devastating for Germany, now at the limits of its manpower and suffering severe shortages of food and fuel. In October 1918, Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, wrote in her diary:

“Whilst depicting the last agony of the country at large, one is apt to forget the sufferings of the individual, but what the war is not destroying in human life, the terrible grippe epidemic is carrying off. One hears of whole families dying out in a few hours, and it is an extraordinary fact that most of the victims are young girls and women. An uncanny idea, death thus restoring the balance between men and women for life.”

After devastating the cities, the flu epidemic swept through the countryside, according to Blücher:

“There is hardly a family that has been spared. From our housekeeper at Krieblowitz I hear that the whole village is stricken with it, and the wretched people are lying about on the floors of their cottages in woeful heaps, shivering with fever and with no medicaments or anyone to attend them. The doctor from Canth is unable to come, as he is absolutely overworked, having the whole district to look after, his colleague being already dead of the grippe. I wired at once to the Convent of the Grey Sisters at Breslau, asking them to send a nurse, which they did immediately, and I heard this morning that from the moment of her arrival she only had three hours’ sleep for the next 48 hours, there were so many people to attend to.”

At a major Berlin department store, Blücher heard the following horrifying detail, reminiscent of medieval Europe’s Black Death:

“They told me that hundreds of their staff were at the moment laid up with the grippe, and that 70 of their girls had died last week of it. Herr B——, who has just arrived from Hamburg and lunched with us today, says it is like the plague there, 400 people dying in one day; and as they have not coffins enough to put the corpses in, they have used furniture vans to carry them to the cemetery … We are returning every day nearer to the barbarism of the Middle Ages in every way.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

Thomas Franklin Vaughns, 99-Year-Old Former Mechanic for the Tuskegee Airmen, Just Received Five Army Medals

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

After his service in the Korean War, Thomas Franklin Vaughns was so desperate to come home that he didn’t stick around to collect his National Defense Service Medal. The Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports that now, at the age of 99, Vaughns has finally received it.

Along with the Korean War medal, Arkansas Congress members also presented Vaughns with four replacement awards for his service in World War II: the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal-World War II, the Good Conduct Army Medal, and the Honorable Service Lapel Button. Vaughns had initially received these after the war, but misplaced them in the decades since.

Vaughns was a mechanic for the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, serving the U.S. at a time when the military made it difficult for African Americans to do so. Segregation in the armed forces didn’t formally end until 1948, two years after Vaughns was discharged the first time.

“You are the ultimate patriot and the ultimate hero because you served when even by law and by practice many said you couldn’t and you shouldn’t,” Arkansas state representative Vivian Flowers said during the ceremony. “There was discrimination on every level of society and you served despite that.”

After the Korean War, Vaughns returned to Arkansas and started setting community youths on the path to success through his work with AmeriCorps VISTA, Delta Service Corps, and 4-H Clubs of America. Some of his former mentees even attended the medal ceremony. Ben McGee recalled how Vaughns helped him and his two brothers through college at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB).

“I had 20 cents in my pocket. I got on this campus and never got a penny from home in four years,” McGee told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette. “I got on work study, got in the agriculture department, and worked every evening on the college farm.”

Vaughns firmly believes in the importance of education, and estimates that he’s probably helped 80 to 90 students pursue degrees at UAPB; he refers to them as “my kids.”

"He’s a hero in every sense of the word," Arkansas senator John Boozman said of Vaughns. "Not because of his military service—that’s part of it—but he’s a hero because of the way he’s lived his life."

12 Surprising Facts About Red Dawn

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

On August 10, 1984, Red Dawn stormed into theaters. The Cold War-era film envisioned a WWIII-like scenario of what it would look like if Communist Soviets and Cubans invaded a small Colorado town, and what might happen if a group of teenagers fought back with heavy artillery. The cast included then-unknowns Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson, and Charlie Sheen, plus rising stars Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell (who had co-starred in 1983’s The Outsiders), plus veteran actors Powers Boothe and Harry Dean “Avenge Me!” Stanton.

John Milius, who had been nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Apocalypse Now and who had co-written and directed 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, directed Red Dawn from a script—originally named Ten Soldiers—written by future Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds. With a budget of $17 million, the film—the first to be distributed with the newly formed PG-13 rating—grossed $38.3 million. Here are some things you might not know about Red Dawn.

1. John Milius rewrote the script of Red Dawn.

Kevin Reynolds wrote Red Dawn while still a student at USC film school. MGM optioned the script and asked Milius to direct it. “I brought the writer in and said, ‘This isn’t going to be easy for you to take because, you know, you’re kind of full of yourself, but I’m going to take this and I’m going to make it into my movie, and you’re just going to have to sit back and watch, and it may not be too pleasant,” Milius told Creative Screenwriting. “My advice is to take the money you have and spend it on a young girl. Enjoy getting laid and write another script. Because this isn’t going to be fun to watch.’”

Milius said Reynolds’s script was similar to Lord of the Flies. “I kept some of that, but my script was about the resistance. And my script was tinged by the time, too. We made it really outrageous, infinitely more outrageous than his vision. And to this day, it holds up, because people ask, ‘What’s that movie about?’ And I say that movie’s not about the Russians; it’s about the federal government.”

2. Milus had a very unique way of auditioning actresses for the film.

Red Dawn co-casting director Jane Jenkins explained that Milius would ask each auditioning actress “What would happen if you were in the wilderness and you were starving? Could you kill a bunny?” “And he’d always say a bunny, not a rabbit,” Jenkins said. “And he’d say, ‘Could you kill a bunny and skin it, and eat it?’ And the girls were horrified at that suggestion, and needless to say didn’t go any further. The girls who said, ‘Well, if it were life or death …’ got to go on and read for the parts they eventually were going to play.”

3. Red Dawn was described as "the most violent movie ever made."

After the movie was released in 1984, The National Coalition on Television Violence deemed Red Dawn “the most violent movie ever made.” They said it contained 134 acts of violence an hour, and they rated it X. “This summer’s releases are the most violent in the history of the industry, averaging 28.5 violent acts an hour,” the Coalition said. They also gave X ratings to Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

4. Milius put Patrick Swayze in charge of Red Dawn's cast.

Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton, Brad Savage, and Doug Toby in 'Red Dawn' (1984)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Because Patrick Swayze was older than most of the actors, and because he had more acting experience than them, Milius trusted Swayze to control his co-stars. “Milius is a very intense director,” Swayze said in the Red Dawn commentary. “He’s a very wonderful director, but we had to call him the General and he called me, he says, ‘Swayze, you’re my lieutenant of the art. I’m directing these little suckers through you.’ He put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, and I took it really seriously.”

5. The U.S. military named an operation after Red Dawn.

In 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, Army Capt. Geoffrey McMurray named the mission Operation Red Dawn. “Operation Red Dawn was so fitting because it was a patriotic, pro-American movie,” McMurray told USA Today. A commander in the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division had already named the target farmhouses Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2, so McMurray said the name made sense.

6. Milius knew Hollywood would "condemn" him for making the film.

“I knew that Hollywood would condemn me for it,” Milius said in the Red Dawn commentary. “That I’d be regarded as a right wing warmonger from then on, uncontrollable and un-housebroken.” Milius supposedly left one of his guns on his desk while journalists interviewed him, so he demonstrated his ideals well.

“I was the only person in Hollywood who would dare do this movie,” he said. “Hollywood was very left-wing. But I have a lot of contractions. I’m a militarist and an extreme patriot at times, so I believe in all of that rugged individualism hogwash.”

7. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey did not get along.

Not all the actors were thrilled with Milius's decision to put Swayze in charge of the cast. Swayze told Daily Mail that he butted heads with Jennifer Grey in particular, who disliked how he ordered her around. “At the end of Red Dawn, however, when we shot her character’s death scene, she seemed to warm to me,” he said. “It's a tender scene and, as I stroked her hair, it was truly emotional. I think it endeared me to her, and it was clear she and I had chemistry together.” Almost exactly three years later, the pair’s chemistry would ignite the dance floor in Dirty Dancing.

8. Patrick Swayze got frostbite.

Filming in Las Vegas, New Mexico, sometimes meant extremely cold conditions. So cold, in fact, that Swayze ended up with frostbite. “I got frostbite so bad in my hands and my toes, that now if my hands and fingers get the slightest bit cold it feels like someone’s shoving toothpicks under my fingernails,” he said in the Red Dawn commentary.

C. Thomas Howell had a different perspective on the cold temperatures. “You know it’s cold when you’re forced to spoon Charlie Sheen,” he said. “That’s what we were forced to do: to huddle together and pretend we liked each other.”

9. William Smith frightened Charlie Sheen.

William Smith played the Russian Colonel Strelnikov, but in real life he had been a Russian Intercept Interrogator for the CIA. “He was terrifying,” Sheen said in the Red Dawn commentary. “I don’t know if he was in character the whole time, but you couldn’t talk to him on the set. You just kept your distance. But it worked in the movie—look how brilliant he is in the film. He’s an imposing force.”

10. Milius thought Red Dawn was a "zombie movie with Russians."

In the ‘80s, the Cold War was in full swing, and the world lived in fear of a nuclear attack. (Not totally unlike today.) “Red Dawn the film was about the impending possible reality, which at that time was an actual fear of the Soviet Union invading this country,” Milius told Mandatory. “People actually thought that way. That’s why I made that movie, that’s why people liked it. The fear was real and it played on that. That’s what made it an exciting movie.”

Milius compared the film to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “In this case, I made a movie of the same vein but with Russians. It’s like a zombie movie with Russians. That’s what it was like at the time. People were paranoid about aliens and people were paranoid about Russians. It was Close Encounters with Cold War Russians.”

11. The studio cut a love scene between Lea Thompson and Powers Boothe.

In the Red Dawn commentary, Thompson described a “beautiful love scene” between her and co-star Powers Boothe, who was 13 years older than her. “I say, ‘I’m going to die before having made love. Will you please make love with me?’ We said okay, and disappeared out of frame. And they took the scene out of the movie, which was sad because it explained my character. It was a nice scene.”

12. Fans still yell "Wolverines!" at C. Thomas Howell.

Charlie Sheen, Patrick Swayze, and C. Thomas Howell in Red Dawn (1984)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

One of the most iconic lines in the movie comes from C. Thomas Howell’s character, Robert. From a mountaintop he shouts “Wolverines!” which is the name the guerilla group gives themselves. It’s also the name of their high school mascot.

“I get that about twice a week in real life,” Howell told USA Today in 2012. “And about 40 times a day through Twitter.” He said in real life he doesn’t shout back, “but on Twitter, I cannot help typing a ‘Wolverine’ with a few exclamation points on it.”

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