Martin Theodore Mathisen
Submitted by: Victoria L. Nilsen
Martin Theodore Mathisen served in World War 1 with the United States Army. The dates of service are: Known 05/28/1918-06-05/1919.
Martin Theodore Mathisen was born 5 November 1889 in Brooklyn, New York to Norwegian immigrants Edvard Mathisen and Amalia Cathrine Pedersen. At the time of his draft registration in June 1917, the 28-year-old was working as an investigator for the New York Railways Company in Manhattan.
Family lore described Martin as deeply patriotic but someone who also felt a conscientious objection to war. “Religion” was cited as the reason for exemption from service on his June 1917 draft registration card. Despite this request, he received induction papers to report to duty on May 28th, 1918 at the Local Board Division #43 in Brooklyn.
Some accommodation may have been made for his convictions. After spending a few weeks at Camp Upton, New York where he received vaccinations and some drill training, he was sent to Camp Meade, Maryland where he and was assigned to the 313th Infantry, Co. K of the 157th Brigade and the 79th Division commanded by Major General Joseph E Kuhn. Shortly after this assignment he was transferred to the 313th Sanitary Detachment to provide first aid to the wounded.
Martin endeavored to keep the memories of his time in France alive by keeping notes about his daily life. He transferred those notes into diaries where he detailed his activities. He also compiled a scrap book containing more notes, post cards, and pictures which he ordered from the war photographer M.C. Sparks. This compilation of memories provides a glimpse of his experiences as a medic during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
On July 7th, 1918, Martin boarded the S.S. Leviathan in Hoboken Harbor. He was assigned the third bunk from the top of four which made him wonder what his chance of escape might be from a torpedo. His fears were calmed some after the abandoned ship drill proved that they could reach the deck in three minutes and when he saw the six destroyers that escorted the ship through the submarine area. The Leviathan anchored safely in Brest, France on July 15th. The unit proceeded to travel by rail and auto truck to Champlitte where they arrived on July 29th for training.
One franc and 50 centimes was the cost of a bed sack full of straw in a garret of an old stone house where Martin quartered on a side street in Champlitte. First aid training began each day at 5AM and continued until 4:30 PM. One week of training was dedicated to nursing and the first aid men participated in war games with litter drills and long hard hikes. Much attention was paid to Gas instruction. Each man received a gas mask and spent an hour wearing it in a gas filled room so that they could understand the dangers involved in a gas attack. The training was rounded out by lectures about disease prevention and personal hygiene. By September 8th, the unit was ready to move.
Between the 8th and 13th of September, the unit hiked, entrained and trucked their way to the front. Martin took the last opportunity to buy fruit, nuts, candy, and a lemon soda water at a stop in Bar le Duc. Then at Longeville the men were told to lighten their packs so Martin left behind personal belongings which included his song book, pictures, and a book of addresses that he never saw again.
At Camp Bretagne, the unit was held in reserve for the St. Mihiel offensive but was never called. They rested in elephant war shelters while they listened to the shells whistling overhead. Later that afternoon they advanced through a dark muddy wood toward Avocourt where they reached the support line. Seventeen men huddled together that night in a dugout where Martin managed to get a bunk with another buddy.
On September 14th, the unit reached the front line first aid station which had been dug out of a hill and painted white. Here they saw airplanes with air guns shooting at them and experienced many gas alarms. Martin wrote,
“We had a lot of excitement here this being our first trip to the front. We would jump at the least noise. One night we expected an attack. All hands up in the trenches. I was put in one row and told to look over the parapet and report anything unusual. It was funny to look along the ground in the dark at the barbed wire … All the stumps and poles and everything one looked at seemed to move, but nothing came forward so after a couple of hours at this we went back to bed.”
The unit was on the move again at 3 AM on September 22nd and experienced their first real bombardment. They stopped at Co. E PC where the Germans barraged them at close range for an hour and a half causing smoke and debris to enter the shelter. The men put on their gas masks as a precaution while the Germans came over the top. The Americans pushed them back which allowed the unit to continue the next morning to a pasture in Hesse Woods where they pitched their tents.
More personal belongings and blankets were discarded never to be seen again on September 25th while German planes dropped propaganda leaflets over them with titles like “Why are we fighting.” General Pershing reviewed the troops along the road as they advanced to the front-line trenches at Avocourt. At midnight, the allies started their own bombardment of 2,400 guns. Martin wrote,
The long day continued and Martin eventually connected with the 145th Infantry, 37th Division who had lost all their own first aid men. He dressed wounds and put on splints as the litter bearers brought in the wounded. After dark the wounded were transported by litter to the railway for removal to the rear.
On September 27th, more wounded needed attention outside Montfaucon where an aid station was established. Martin spent the day there caring for the wounded and was assigned again to help move the wounded to an ambulance station. Distances were sometimes long and it took four men to carry a litter over the terrain. The next day the aid station was moved into Montfaucon until German shells forced them to move the wounded back again. Martin reconnected with his unit in a German Dugout outside of town on the 29th where he was given a plate of tasty stew which was well appreciated after days of nothing to eat besides hard tac and canned beef. Over the five days of the offensive, Martin noted that there were 1,200 killed, wounded, or missing.
The 313th was relieved on September 30th and moved back to Malancourt. They spent a miserable night on a side of a hill in the drizzling cold rain waiting until they could move out again. For the next few days they traveled; finding places to sleep where they could find shelter or on the ground when they could not. On October 7th, they arrived at Fresnes-en-Woevre where Martin was attached to the 2nd Battalion aid station located near a German military mine on a hill overlooking Combres.
It was there that two of the Captains died. Martin wrote,
7:30 AM Captain Barber and Captain Augustine, two of our captains connected with 2nd Battalion, were looking things over in the mine when they were burned by some powder accidently. Powerful explosives shook the whole dugout. We all thought it was a German shell and the place was filled with smoke. We were afraid of gas. So went on the masks. We came running out. At first, we did not know what had happened but soon found out. Captain Barber was burned all over his body and Captain Augustine was burned on his hands and face but must have inhaled the flame.
Captain Augustine died. [Captain Melvin M. Augenstein, Dental Corps]
Captain Barber died. He had been very brave in the last offensive we were in. [Captain Timothy L Barber, Medical Corps]”
The aid station was shelled every night and Martin noted that it appeared the Germans were aiming for the spring where they obtained their water. The supply trains were also heavily shelled which resulted in lack of food and sick weakened men. The Red Cross visited them here bringing welcome cocoa and cakes. On October 25th, they left for the front again and passed through a barracks where Martin took a shower for the first time since his arrival in France.
Orders changed at Montfaucon and the unit marched to Verdun arriving on October 28th where he saw the underground caverns that were protected from German Shells. The next day they left for the Argonne Forest and then kept moving forward until they reached a valley on the Meuse river near Samogneux on November 1st. An aid station was established in an elephant iron shelter. Martin wrote,
“While here one day after, I was outside in front of the door, one of my associates came out to break some iodine bricks to make a solution for use. He had been using an instrument and needed something else so I took it inside to get it. As I was inside putting it away a piece of shell casing landed alongside where my friend was working. I went out and saw the marks in the mud. It was the spot I had just left. The shell was about 4 inches long and an inch wide. If it had hit me would have killed me or seriously injured me, but the Lord led me away.”
On Martins birthday, November 5th, the unit advanced again to aid the 158th Brigade and Martin joined the first aid men at the rear of 4th Co. In the woods between Wavrville and Brabant they set up an aid station where they were shelled every 15 minutes that night causing the shelter to jump from the ground. The next few days the unit moved forward caring for the wounded along the way and established aid stations in the recently evacuated German dugouts. On the drive, they passed through Samogneux, Brabant, Reville, Etraye, Wavrville, Crepion. Gibercy, and Moirey.
It was on a hillside aid station outside of Crepion that Martin heard news of the armistice. He wrote,
“Nov 11, 1918
I awoke at daybreak to advance again but there seemed to be some delay. We were treated to another meal from the field kitchen. Then we heard the rumor that the armistice had been signed and the firing to stop at 11 AM. This was spread by a company runner and later confirmed by a captain. We sure felt fine but took it pretty quiet. We did not know if it was really time or not. It was a welcome memo and right away we saw visions of home and home by Christmas. We shook hands and thanked God. We advanced to the front as shells still going. At 11 AM Sharp everything stopped and all troop movements ceased. We were then in Crepion and knew for sure it was time. We were quiet for about 15 minutes then we went into town to billet in shattered houses. - That night after dark the Germans sent up all kinds of fireworks flares of all colors. They were evidently jubilant over the armistice regardless of who were the victors. A beautiful sight with the sky all lit up.”
It would take longer than Christmas to send all the troops back home. On November 27th Martin was chosen along with some other members of his regiment for a leave of absence to a vacation resort in Aix-Les-Baines. For the next week, Martin slept at the Hotel Villa Dagand, dined at the Hotel du Louvre et Savoy, and was treated to tours of the local sites including a YMCA sponsored trip to the top of the mountain La Chambotte. Christmas was spent back in Verdun where they were given goody bags by the YMCA and a large meal of meat, potatoes and fruits.
For the next four months, the unit moved from barrack to barrack headed toward St. Nazaire. General Pershing inspected the unit at La Fauche as they marched by his reviewing stand. Finally, on May 17th, 1919 Martin boarded the ship S.S. Antigone for the trip home. The ship landed in Newport News, Virginia on May 29th and the men marched through Victory Arch to a welcome reception at Camp Stuart. Martin then sailed aboard the Jefferson back to New York and Camp Upton where it all began. After demobilization paperwork and a physical exam, Martin arrived home on June 5th, 1919 where he wrote,
"About 9:30 PM I arrived home. Thank God all went well. This ends my short 1-year army life.”
Martin returned to his work as an investigator and after four months married his sweetheart Esther Thorsen. He served as a lay minister at a Norwegian speaking mission church in Brooklyn, NY and then in 1947 was ordained by the Interdenominational Ministers Conference. He and Esther had four children. Olive, Edward, Ruth and Claire.
Martin T. Mathisen died 12 July 1955 in Plattekill, New York.