So last week, Donald Trump flew over to France to represent the U.S. as the rest of the world, especially the European powers, commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
During its brief participation in the conflict, the U.S. suffered 53,402 combat deaths and a grand total of 116,708 deaths from all causes. Another 204,002 soldiers, sailors, and marines were wounded. As things go, that wasn’t an overwhelming total of fatalities—more than 600,000 died during the four years of the Civil War and the nation would suffer 407,300 total deaths during the upcoming Second World War, along with another 672,000 wounded.
But the U.S. only participated in World War I for 19 months, and suffered about the same casualties as in the war in Vietnam, which lasted 18 years, 10 months and 23 days between the first death on April 8, 1956 and the final two men killed in action on April 29, 1975.
World War I really ushered the U.S. onto the world scene, and while our nation’s part of the conflict was relatively brief, it also involved brutal, fierce combat. In Europe, the war resulted in an entire generation of young men being killed, maimed, and mentally injured. For them, it was a horrific, seemingly never-ending series of battles that gained no ground and resulted in no resolution. Not until the fresh troops supplied by the U.S. arrived at the front did the Germans and their allies finally come to the conclusion they could not win the war. And so at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, the Germans capitulated, finally ending the horrific bloodshed.
For our current European allies—and even our foes during that long-ago war—this centenary commemoration was a major event. Which made it doubly disappointing that our current President found it inconvenient to attend solemn ceremonies honoring all the war’s dead, including those tens of thousands of young men and women from the U.S. who served. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he likewise found it inconvenient to attend ceremonies here in the U.S. marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the war. Which made it seem an awful lot like he simply didn’t care about those who paid the ultimate price in defense of their nation—including the three men from Kendall County who were killed in action.
World War I, it seems, is no more familiar to most Americans—including, it seems, the current President—than the Civil War. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s remember elderly World War I vets riding to the cemetery on Memorial Day—still called Decoration Day by our grandparents—escorted by the color guard of young World War II and Korean Conflict vets, much like those World War II and Korean Conflict vets are escorted today by honor guards of Vietnam War and Desert Storm vets. Armistice Day—today’s Veterans Day—was an even more somber celebration, originally commemorating the service of those who went “over there” to fight the Kaiser.
It was hoped World War I would be the “War to End All Wars.” Several Kendall County residents lost their lives during the conflict, most dying from disease including the devastating worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic. But many others were killed in action during the conflict, including three county residents, one each from Plattville, Oswego, and Plano.
After the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Fred P. Thompson, a 34 year-old Plattville blacksmith, was determined to do his part. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at Aurora on May 28, and was assigned to the 16th U.S. Infantry Regiment, one of four regiments comprising the 1st Expeditionary Division, later renamed the 1st Infantry Division.
Thompson, in fact, was among the first U.S. troops to land in France. Though virtually untrained, they were enthusiastically welcomed by the French people, who were exhausted after years of seemingly unending war. On Independence Day, July 4, 1917 the 16th Infantry’s 2nd Battalion paraded through Paris, where one of General John J. Pershing’s staff is said to have announced, in a reference to France’s assistance during the Revolutionary War, “Lafayette, we are here!”
On Oct. 21, the 1st Division was assigned to the Allied line in the Luneville sector near Nancy. Two days later, Corporal Robert Bralet of the Sixth Artillery fired a 75 millimeter artillery round at the German lines, the first U.S. soldier to fire a shot in the war.
It was while the 16th Regiment was in the Luneville sector trenches on Jan. 22, 1918 that Thompson was killed in action, among the first to fight, and the first Kendall County soldier killed in action during the war.
Leon Burson, 26, a lifelong Plano resident, was drafted in 1917. He left from Plano in September for Camp Dodge, Ia., then on to Camp Logan at Houston, Tex. to join the Illinois National Guard’s 1st Infantry Regiment. The 1st Illinois had served in the Spanish American War and later had helped U.S. Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing chase Pancho Villa along the Mexican border for three months in 1916. With the declaration of war, the 1st Illinois was federalized. Redesignated the 131st Infantry at Camp Logan, they were assigned to the 33rd “Prairie” Division.
At Camp Logan, Burson was assigned to the Medical Corps. In early May 1918 after finishing rigorous training, the regiment traveled to New Jersey, boarded the ocean liner SS Leviathan, and sailed for France on May 22. Arriving at Brest on May 30, the regiment entrained for Oisemont, where they underwent combat training under experienced British officers before joining the 3rd Corps, 4th British Army.
The 131st helped capture Hamel on the Fourth of July then helped reduce the Amiens salient. There, on Aug. 9, the regiment lost nearly 1,000 men at Chipilly Ridge and Gressaire Wood before advancing to help take the Etinchem Spur on Aug. 13.
Burson, behind the lines, was stocking an ambulance for the front a day later when he was killed by an artillery shell, the second Kendall County man killed in action in the Great War.
“It is my sad duty to write you of your son Leon’s death, the evening of August 14, 1918 due to the explosion of a shell,” Lt. Herbert Pease wrote to Burson’s parents. “Death no doubt was instant. He was on duty, having talked to me only two or three minutes before. He was buried today at Vayux, France under the direction of our Chaplain, Lieut. Egerton, in the American cemetery.” Years after the war, Plano’s American Legion Post would be named for Leon Burson.
Archie Lake grew up in Oswego but the young man and his family traveled to find work, eventually winding up in Hinsdale. When the U.S. entered the war, Lake, then 22, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was assigned to the 97th Company, 3rd Battalion, in the newly formed 6th Marine Regiment.
In France, the 6th Marines, the 5th Marines, and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion were formed into the 4th Brigade of the U.S. 2nd Division. Nicknamed the “Marine. Brigade,” the unit was assigned to the Toulon Sector near Verdun in March 1918. There, the 6th Marines lost 33 men, most killed when the 74th Company bivouac was attacked with poison gas on April 13.
In late May 1918, the Marine Brigade was ordered to help shore up crumbling French lines near Château-Thierry. On June 6, southwest of Belleau Wood, the 6th Marines were ordered to seize the town of Bouresches and to clear the southern half of Belleau Wood itself. The push started a bloody 40-day struggle in which the 6th lost 2,143 Marines. For their effort, the Marine units were all awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm. And the French renamed Belleau Wood “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.”
But bloodier fighting loomed when the Marine Brigade was ordered to counterattack near Soissons in mid July. The 6th Regiment was held in reserve during the initial July 18 assault, but on July 19, they advanced alone through heavy artillery and machinegun fire from Vierzy toward Tigny suffering catastrophic 50-70 percent casualties in most units. First Lt. Clifton Cates (a future Marine Corps commandant) reported only about two dozen of more than 400 men survived: “… There is no one on my left, and only a few on my right. I will hold” he reported to his superior office at headquarters.
One of the Marines lying dead on that battlefield was Archie Lake, the last Kendall County man to die in combat in World War I.
World War I and its heroes have largely faded from modern consciousness. But brave men and women did great things in our country’s name in the muddy, bloody trenches of France. It’s a shame–bordering on a national disgrace–that, on this 100th anniversary of the end of that devastating conflict, our nation’s elected leader decided to disregard his duty to honor of all those who perished during the conflict—including three young Kendall County men,.