Monday, March 19, 2012

In the Trenches With Daddy Con

Daddy Con served in the US Army in WWI.  I’m not sure exactly what motivated him to join, but he was able to gain US citizenship by doing so.  He was in Company C of the 321st Regiment of the 81st Division.  To get a good idea of what his experience was like, I recommend reading Fix Bayonets by John William Thomason, Jr., which he wrote just after the War.  Thomason’s book is about the Marines, but the Marines and the Army had very similar experiences and assignments in the “Great War.”

Some of the soldiers in Company C were from Massachusetts and some called it the Massachusetts Company.  Although there were men from all over the US in these all of its units, the bulk of both the 321st Regiment and the 81st Division were made up of men from North Carolina.

When the Division was put together in the Spring of 1918 they trained at Camp Jackson, S.C.  There is a stream nearby called Wildcat Creek. During their training they created “Wildcat” shoulder patches so they could identify each other quickly in combat. When they went to France in August 1918 they called themselves the “Wildcat” Division.  With a few short breaks they were in combat from that time until the war ended on November 11, 1918.


81st Division Shoulder Patch

The Division participated in the Meuse-Argonne & Alsace-Lorraine campaigns.  A short book about Daddy Con’s Regiment – The History of the 321st Infantry: with a Brief Historical Sketch of the 81st Division, was written by Clarence Walton Johnson just after the War.  Daddy Con’s name is on page 167.  This book is still in print and available for purchase.

Company C's most intense day of combat was November 11, 1918.  The Armistice wasn't assured and the Army's attacks went forward as planned.  Just before dawn, the infantry of Company C prepared to go "over the top." Knowing nothing about the armistice, they climbed out of the trenches and attacked the Germans at 6:00 A.M. The advance had scarcely begun when the Americans were met with heavy machine gun and artillery fire.

“We were lucky that morning. . . . ” many soldiers of the 81st Division recalled. “They would have killed us all if it had not been foggy.” Under intense fire, they attempted to run forward a few times. But every time they started, the Germans “cut weeds down around us” with machine gun fire.

The men of Company C were having a difficult time, “We were taking machine gun fire and we were crawling on the ground. The shells were bursting overhead and the machine gun bullets were hitting all around.”

The soldiers of the 81st Division endured five long hours of combat. Then, all at once, everything stopped. It was exactly 11:00 A.M. no one knew what to do. Some remained on the ground until they saw officers walk out in front of them. One officer hollered, "It’s all over, the war is over, it’s all over and you can go home now!" They started getting up pretty fast after it got quiet, and some of the boys were hugging each other.

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Map of 81st Division travels
after landing at Liverpool
Daddy Con told several stories about his time in the trenches.

There was a Sergeant who made it obvious that he had a great dislike for Daddy Con and a few other soldiers in their squad (Daddy Con suspected that this dislike might have been triggered by their penchant for filling their canteens with wine instead of water.).  One day the Sergeant selected a group of men to go on a "night raid" -- a patrol to reconnoiter enemy positions and to capture a prisoner (for interrogation) if possible.  Everyone knew that these were dangerous and that it was possible to run into a great deal of trouble. 

Here is how one WWI combat veteran described these raids: "[A] raiding party with blackened faces and armed with wire-cutters, grenades and bayonets would crawl across no-man's-land to its assigned target...  [O]nce the raiders reached the target they would charge [the enemy] and immediately bring back as many prisoners as survived."

While they were on the patrol Daddy Con realized that all the soldiers sent on this assignment were men that the Sergeant had expressed his contempt for.

As it turned out, the patrol was uneventful and no prisoners were taken.  Daddy Con and another soldier reported in to the Company HQ afterwards to give their report.  While they were reporting to the Company Commander, the Sergeant who had sent them walked it.  Daddy Con said his face showed obvious surprise to see them. Daddy Con believed that the Sergeant had expected/hoped that some of them would not come back.
81st Division Infantryman

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During an artillery shelling Daddy Con and another soldier were huddling together in one of the trenches.  The shelling was noisy and frightening, but they’d been under fire before and felt pretty safe as, unless there was a direct hit, the trenches offered pretty good protection.  Some of the shells the German fired were “airbursts.”  They exploded while they were still in a the air, a set distance above the ground, sending warhead fragments (shrapnel) down on the target, spreading out much like shotgun pellets (only much bigger and traveling faster).

Moments after one of these “airburst” explosions, the rifle (an Enfield M1917) Daddy Con’s companion was holding across his lap broke into a thousand pieces.  A piece of shrapnel had hit the rifle, destroying it.  Neither of them were injured, but they both knew that if the fragment had followed a slightly different path, they could have been seriously wounded or killed.

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One day during WWII Daddy Con showed Mom a picture in the local paper of a French town recently liberated by Allied troops.  Daddy Con told Mom, “I was on that street during WWI.”  He pointed out a restaurant in the picture.

During a time when his Company had been pulled out of the line, some had been given leave in this town.  Daddy Con wasn’t given leave – he was put on Guard Duty.

John with M1917 .30'06 Rifle like
the one Daddy Con carried.
“My job,” he told Mom, “was to parade (march back and forth) in front of that restaurant and not let any soldier get in there to get a drink.  I didn’t feel too good about that as I thought, after what we’d been through, that if a man wanted to wet his whistle, he ought to be allowed to.  But I didn’t want to get sent to the stockade for disobeying orders either.

“But I knew that they couldn’t punish me if someone snuck in when I wasn’t looking.  So I’d march down the street.  When I got to the end of it, I’d stand there, with my back to the restaurant, for about 30 seconds. Then I’d turn and march back to the other end of the street, and again, I’d stand with my back to the restaurant for a time before turning around.  I never saw a single soldier go through that door, but every man who wanted a drink managed to get one.”

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This website has some good information about the 81st Division.

SS Manchuria - the ship Daddy Con came home on.
After the war Daddy Con returned to the Boston area.  He mostly worked as a “fireman” tending the steam engines that powered the equipment in the textile mills in the area.  He was working for Maverick Mills when the company decided to relocate to South Carolina (this was probably in the 1950’s) to be closer to the cotton growing areas and to take advantage of cheaper labor.  The company was happy with his work and wanted to employ him in a similar position in the new location.   Daddy Con decided not to go.

His decision was at least partly based on his experience in South Carolina when he was training there during WWI.  He didn’t like the way the people there treated Blacks and Catholics.

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