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Thousands of Ohio soldiers fought and died 'over there' in World War I

By Brian Albrecht • Apr 3, 2017 at 4:00 PM

CLEVELAND -- The day after America entered World War I, George M. Cohan wrote a song that epitomized this nation's march to war in Europe, "Over There."

The melody and lyrics mobilized America's fighting spirit with the ringing chorus, "Over there, over there/ Send the word, send the word over there/ That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming."

As it turned out, some 2 million Yanks were coming. The mobilization included more than 200,000 draftees, volunteers and National Guardsmen from Ohio.

The state provided the fourth largest number of troops of all states in the U.S., at a time when a quarter of the entire male population, ages 18-31, was in the military. Cleveland contributed 41,000.

Some 6,500 Ohioans would die in the effort, including 1,023 from Cleveland.

Ohio was the site of one of the largest military training facilities during the war in Camp Sherman, near Chillicothe. Built on former Hopewell Indian mounds, the camp (long since dismantled) was the temporary home of 40,000 trainees.

One of the state's best-known units was the National Guard's 37th Infantry Division, which came to be known as "Ohio's Own" and later as the "Buckeye Division."

The division fought in such battles as the Meuse-Argonne in Belgium and Ypres-Lys in France, suffering 992 deaths and 4,931 wounded in action.

The all-black Ninth Battalion of Infantry was consolidated with other segregated Ohio National Guard units to form the 372d Infantry, and fought with the French 157th "Red Hand" Division.

Lt. Robert C. Allen became the first African-American to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.

Ohioans would face the horror and carnage of a new, technological warfare that utilized such lethal innovations as the machine gun, poison gas, flamethrowers, tanks, submarines, airplanes and long-range artillery.

Many Buckeyes rose to the challenge, earning medals and acclaim. Others quietly did their duty, fought and mostly survived.

All were united by the closing "Over There" vow: "And we won't come back till it's over, over there."

These include . . .

America's "Ace of Aces"

One of the most celebrated American aviators of the war was Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, the son of Swiss immigrants who settled in Columbus.

He developed an interest in aviation before the war as a race car driver known as "Fast Eddie," and put his driving and mechanical skills to good use when he joined the U.S. 94th Aero Squadron at the front in early 1918.

He quickly made a name for himself, ultimately downing a total of 17 enemy fighters, four reconnaissance aircraft, and five observation balloons.

Rickenbacker flew more combat hours (300) than any other American pilot, and survived 134 aerial encounters with the enemy.

He once credited his success in the skies to "planned recklessness" and "taking all the breaks."

In recognition of his achievements, he received the Distinguished Service Cross a record eight times, as well as the French Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor.

Rickenbacker was also awarded the Medal of Honor for attacking no less than seven German aircraft at once, shooting down two.

Heroic rescue attempt

On September 27, 1918, during the second day of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Lt. Albert Baesel, of Berea, surveyed the battlefield in front of the American trenches.

The area was swept by machine-gun and artillery fire, and clouded with poison gas. But his platoon's corporal was lying out there, wounded while attacking a German emplacement.

Baesel, who had a reputation for looking out for his men -- personally leading raids from the trenches, taking coffee to outpost guards -- repeatedly pleaded with his captain for permission to go out and rescue the corporal.

The captain finally relented and watched as Baesel ventured into the fury and found the corporal. But just as he slung the wounded man over his shoulder, Baesel was hit by enemy fire.

His battalion commander later recalled, "When I saw the dead hero, he was lying on his back with both his arms around the corporal, whose body lay across that of his friend."

Members of his company used a mess kit to scoop out a shallow grave for the slain officer, fashioning a cross of tree branches tied with boot laces and attaching his identity tags.

The resting place was soon lost and not discovered until 1926, by French farmers plowing for unexploded shells, four years after Baesel had been awarded the Medal of Honor.

His remains were later brought back to be buried at Woodvale Cemetery in Middleburg Heights. Among the mourners were two fellow Medal of Honor recipients, one from the Civil War and the other from the Spanish-American War. Both had been honored for rescuing fallen soldiers under enemy fire.

A rescue at sea

Ohio's third Medal of Honor awardee was Patrick McGunigal, of Hubbard, a Navy shipfitter serving aboard the USS Huntington in 1917.

When the cruiser was passing through a war zone where enemy submarines potentially lurked, a kite-balloon was deployed from the cruiser, carrying a Navy observer.

A sudden squall forced crewmen to pull the balloon back in, but the observer's basket dropped into the water and its pilot was submerged.

The Medal of Honor citation reads: "McGunigal, with great daring, climbed down the side of the ship, jumped to the ropes leading to the basket, and cleared the tangle enough to get the pilot out of them. He then helped the pilot to get clear, put a bowline around him, and enabled him to be hauled to the deck."

McGunigal was also taken safely aboard.

The war in poetry and prose

Frank Bussian, of Cleveland, was 22 when he was drafted in World War I and served as an Army mule "skinner" (handler) in France. He didn't talk much about the war when he got back home, but he did leave a diary of poetry and prose for his daughter.

Excerpts from that diary, now part of the Crile Archive Center for History Education at Cuyahoga Community College in Parma, include:

Off-to-war optimism: "There's a long, long trail before us,/ Into No-Man's Land in France./ Where the shrapnel shells are bursting,/ And we must advance."

Front-line reality: ". . .there were eight or more dead soldiers. They were in full marching form, they must have been killed instantly as they just sank to the ground on their knees, their bodies were still erect . . ."

Come the armistice, a poem: "Now that it's all over" - "Did you ever hike millions of miles,/ And carry a ton on your back,/ And blister your heels and your shoulders, too,/ Where the straps run down from your pack?/ In the rain or the snow or the mud, perhaps,/ In the smothering heat or the cold?/ If you have, why then, you're a buddy of ours,/ And we welcome you into our fold."

Ambulance driver packs a pen for memories

Allison LePontois, an ambulance driver from Lakewood, also recorded his reactions to World War I in a diary now kept at the Crile Archives.

Among the entries recording his experiences on the Italian and French fronts were:

Oct. 25, 1918: Shorty Long's ambulance came in this morning with half its body gone. A shell hit the road and blew the sides of his machine off."

Oct. 27, 1918: "I have been driving all day. We have been hauling Marines, mostly H.E. (high explosive) wounds. The Boche [Germans] are shelling everywhere. The gas patients are pouring in."

Nov. 2, 1918: "Today we moved up and established a dressing station at Andres Ste. George, a town which was held by the Germans yesterday. All about the town were the gruesome sights of the unburied dead lying in the gutters, in doorways, everywhere, just as they had fallen."

And on Nov. 11, 1918, a day later designated as Armistice Day, and now as Veterans Day, LePontois wrote about standing in a church that had been converted to an aid station.

"Just at eleven, someone with an inspiration began the 'Star Spangled Banner' on the organ. Instantly -- except for the moans of unconscious men and the strains of the national anthem, which, although played softly, filled the room with its song of freedom -- the place became silent.

"It was a moment I shall never forget. Many a tear showed its course down an unwashed cheek. An officer, performing an operation, stopped and straightened up, his hand holding the knife shaking as if he were stricken with the palsy.

"As the organ struck the last bars of our national song, we, who were uninjured, stood proudly at attention, and as the music ceased and the work continued, I could not help to realize, as I know many others did, that after all, it was worthwhile."

Carrot slum for supper

Another war diary was kept by Henry "Hank" Kinsner, of Cleveland, who served in the Army's 54th Infantry Regiment, which saw action in the closing months of the war in 1918.

The written record of his experiences was found by his family nearly 50 years after his death in 1961.

Among the entries were:

Sept. 21, 1918: Germans was very active with pigs [mortar shells] and grenades. Nichols was shot and killed by German machine guns."

Oct. 7: "Just laying around. German aeroplane fired machine gun on us but did not hit anyone."

Oct 18: "Had carrot slum [stew] for supper."

Oct. 19, 20 and 21: "Had carrot slum."

Nov. 11, 1918: "Was walking all day. 1 man dropped dead on the road. They buried him alone side of the road. Heard all about war was over."

Saving a buddy

Two members of the Ohio National Guard's 37th Infantry "Buckeye" Division were Pvt. Frank Burke, of East Cleveland, and Sgt. Paul Smithhisler, of Mount Vernon.

On Nov. 1, 1918, the unit faced the daunting task of crossing the Escault/Scheldt River in Belgium to attack heavily fortified German troops.

The night before the attack, Smithhisler volunteered to swim across the 100-foot-wide river to sketch diagrams of enemy machine gun and artillery positions.

As he was returning from his mission, he was spotted by the Germans, who fired machine guns and poison gas shells at him. Smithhisler reached safety, but was too exhausted to don his gas mask.

Burke, who had been waiting for his buddy to return, fitted a mask to Smithhisler before donning his own, but that brief exposure may have contributed to Burke's death from influenza a month later.

Smithhisler's drawings enabled American artillery to pave the way for a successful attack across the river, and he was later awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and French Croix de Guerre for his actions.

Willoughby Doughboy died in attack

Sgt. Carl W. Roberts also served with the 37th Infantry Division and was killed during that attack over the Escault/Scheldt River, a week before an armistice ending the war was signed.

Roberts attended Willoughby High School and got married before he joined the Army in 1917. He and his wife, Mildred, had a daughter.

The bridge over the river where Roberts was killed was later rebuilt by the state of Ohio to honor its fallen soldiers, and is now known as the "Ohio bridge."

The bells of St. Stephen

Some 136 names of parish veterans are inscribed on the triple bells of the historic St. Stephen Catholic Church on Cleveland's West Side.

Among those veterans were:

Anthony Joseph (Tony) Amersbach, a Clevelander who joined the Army in 1917 but was discharged two years later to serve a sentence for an armed robbery that occurred prior to his enlistment. After escaping from prison, Amersbach became co-owner of the Harvard Club gambling joint in Cleveland, and served time for aiding nationally notorious gangsters Kate "Ma" Barker and Alvin Karpis.

Edwin J. Hart served in the Army from 1918-19, but was later killed as a Cleveland firefighter in an explosion at a truck rental business on Carnegie Avenue in 1963.

Edward (Arthur) Beumers, of Cleveland, was wounded in action in France, and worked in the family carpet-weaving business on Lorain Avenue after the war.

Henry J. (Hopy) and Elmer Letourneau were brothers who served in the Army, but Elmer was killed in action in 1918.

Combat experience pays off

Elver Porter, of Lawrence, in Washington County, saw action with an Ohio National Guard unit in the Meuse-Argonne and Ypres-Lys offensives during World War I. But he's known in Bedford for his his combat after the war when he thwarted an attempted bank robbery. Porter, owner of a tire store in Bedford, rushed to the scene as a gang was attempting to rib the Cleveland Trust bank. He shot the getaway driver, then chased down and captured another gang member.

Black military pioneer sidelined

Charles Young, born to former slaves in Kentucky but raised in Ripley, Ohio, became the third black to graduate from West Point and had a distinguished military career -- serving with the Buffalo Soldiers out west, commanding a unit in the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines, then fighting Pancho Villa's forces in the 1916 U.S. Punitive Expedition to Mexico.

Young was the first black to achieve the rank of colonel in the Army, and was also a professor of military science at Wilberforce College in Ohio.

When World War I broke out, the War Department had him removed from active duty, citing health reasons. Some believed the forced retirement was a pretext to keep him from becoming a brigadier general.

In 1918, Young rode a horse from Wilberforce to Washington to prove his fitness for combat, to no avail. Instead, he was assigned to duty as a military attache to Liberia, and died in 1922.

A monument to Young stands at the corner of Prospect Avenue and Prospect Street in Cleveland.

Ohio's last Doughboy

J. Russell Coffey was America's oldest living World War I veteran before he died in 2007 at the age of 109 in a nursing home in North Baltimore, in northwest Ohio.

Coffey said he joined the Army while he was a student at Ohio State University in 1918 because it was the patriotic thing to do at the time. He enlisted a month before the war came to an end.

According to an Associated Press story, he was disappointed that he didn't get to see action overseas, like his two older brothers. But he later said, "I think I was good to get out of it."

After the war, he played semipro baseball in Akron, and became a high school teacher and college professor.

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