fbpx

A Tradition of Service Logo 75John Simon Hilgenhold

Submitted by: John Levi Hilgenhold {Great-Grandson}

John Simon Hilgenhold image

John Simon Hilgenhold was born in 1892. John Hilgenhold served in World War 1 with the United States Army. The enlistment was in 1918 and the service was completed in 1919.

Story of Service

 

My great-grandfather, John Simon Hilgenhold, was born on March 24, 1892 in a rural community, known as St. Marks, in Perry County Indiana. The grandson of Dutch-German immigrants, he was the seventh of eleven children. As a young man he completed his education after the eighth grade, as was customary for the time, and worked on the family farm with his father and three brothers.

John registered for the draft on June 5, 1917 at the age of 25. Just under a year later, on May 28, 1918 he was drafted into service of the U.S. National Army and reported to Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky along with forty-eight other Perry County men. One of whom, Carl Goelzer, would eventually become his brother-in-law. He trained as an infantryman with the 44th Company, 11th Battalion, 159th Depot Brigade and completed basic training on June 16th.

He was then transferred to Company M, 153rd Infantry Regiment, 39th National Guard Division that was stationed at Camp Beauregard near Alexandria, Louisiana. This influx of new recruits brought the division up to full strength and they set sail from Newport News, Virginia a little over a month later on August 6th aboard the S.S. Kursk, a converted British troop transport. Upon arrival in Brest, France, the 153rd traveled to the St. Florent region, southwest of Bourges, until it was dismantled and its personnel sent to replace battlefield losses in existing combat divisions.

Private Hilgenhold was transferred to Company C, 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division on September 13th. Days later, the division mobilized in preparation of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the largest battle in American history to date.

My great-grandfather’s only surviving first-hand account of the war, verbal or written, exists in the form of a letter to a friend that was subsequently quoted in a local newspaper. It says in part:

“I was transferred from the 153rd to the 126th infantry about the middle of September and then went to the front to take part in the big Verdun drive which started Sept. 26. It took us Americans to get the Germans out of the trenches and dugouts. I was not in the drive the first few days, being a short distance back of the front lines waiting to be sent to the front, and even there we were under fire from the German planes. He would come over quite often with his machine gun fire and it was great fun to see uncle's [Sam’s] men put him back to his place. Quite a few were brought down in flames.”

His brief account of the battle is accurate when compared against unit histories, however his version omits many details that chronicle the austere combat conditions. The 126th began their trek to the front lines through the village of Avocourt, to Malancourt along a makeshift road through the former No Man’s Land on September 29th. The ground churned to a swamp from years of bombardment. This sole road created a massive bottleneck, taking over an hour to travel a single kilometer that rainy night. On the night of September 30th, the 126th moved up and replaced the 37th Division, assisting many of their wounded to dressing stations. The initial offensive in the closing days of September saw large gains of nearly five miles with relatively few American losses. The Germans had strategically pulled back to strengthen their defenses, leaving only minimal troops to slow the Americans. For the men of the 126th, their advance would face a heavily fortified adversary. Dawn of October 1st marked the beginning of their baptism by fire.

“We went to the front on Oct. 1, and held them under heavy shell fire for two days and lost a few of our men. Then on Oct. 3, we went over the top for the first time and drove the enemy back about two miles until we got under heavy machine gun fire and had to dig in and stay there for the rest of the day. On the next day we went after them again and got some more land, but got under heavy machine gun fire again and had to dig in again and stay there that day and night and until about 8 o'clock the next morning.”

The attack of October 4th saw the heaviest resistance the regiment had faced up to that time to include an artillery barrage, terrific machine gun fire and minenwerfers (mine throwers or mortars). The objective for the 1st Battalion, Companies A through D, was Hill 239. It was a rolling hill with the enemy on the high ground, concealed by small patches of woods, and the attack required an advance across an open field vulnerable to enemy fire.

"On Oct. 5 we went after them again and after going about three or four hundred yards I was wounded and had to go back to the first aid station to get my arm bandaged up.”

Private Hilgenhold was shot in the right forearm while conducting an assault on an enemy machine gun nest approximately half a mile east of Gesnes. His comrades that perished that day fell a mere two miles to the South of what would become the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne; the final resting place of 14,246 souls and the largest American cemetery in Europe. The regimental losses totaled 101 dead and 498 wounded over the five days. Company C suffered 15 deaths and 48 wounded. That evening of October 5th, the 126th was relieved and John received medical treatment. He would retain full use of his arm after the war, but it was marked by a large scar. Although purely speculation, due to the loss of his medical records, the bullet likely broke his ulna or radius and required lengthy rehabilitation since he never returned to his combat unit. The 126th would return to the front on October 9th and was finally relieved on the 20th.

"When I saw my company again they were still after them. Well, this is just a sample of the front when I was there and when I get home I will tell you a lot more."

On November 11, 1918 the Armistice was signed and the Great War was over. While Private Hilgenhold remained in a field hospital, the 32nd Division marched into Germany as one of the nine divisions to occupy the country before their subsequent return to the U.S. in May.

John would spend Christmas in France before sailing from St. Nazaire on December 28th with a manifest full of “Sick and Wounded Troops” aboard the S.S. Finland. They arrived in the United States on January 10th and were transferred to a Convalescent Unit at Camp Grant, Illinois. He was discharged on February 1, 1919, a mere eight months after being drafted. This whirlwind eight months would change his life forever.

Piecing together his service left me with a paradox that I could not reconcile for quite some time: his pride in his service vs. the pain it caused him. Every family member I interviewed insisted that he never spoke of the war. In addition, his oldest daughter recalled him sobbing in the living room while listening to the radio on Armistice Day. On the other hand, he joined both the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars Posts as a charter member in Tell City, Indiana. A large oval photograph of him in uniform was displayed prominently in his home, alongside a privately purchased ornate certificate commemorating his service, and federally issued Columbia Wound Certificate. His uniforms, mess kit, dog-tag, and other wartime mementos were also preserved for future generations. In addition, his published letter at the end of the war seemed to be straight forward and void of any major negative emotions, at least none that the publisher included in print.

John would go on to marry his sweetheart, Mary Darden, a few years later. He had carved her name onto his mess kit while overseas. He would have one daughter with Mary before her death. He then remarried a widow, Katie (Goelzer) Belva, sister of fellow soldier Carl Goelzer. They had six children together and lived a simple life on a farm in Perry County, Indiana. In his fifties he developed tremors and the Veterans Administration deemed him fully disabled in 1947 at the age of fifty-five, from “non-service connected causes”. Many family members still believed that his condition was due to gas exposure during the war, however I believe it to be a correct diagnosis since I cannot ascertain any link between gas exposure and the genetic disease known as Parkinson’s. With his declining health and the passing of World War II, John struggled more and more with daily tasks to include driving, shaving, and even eating. I can only imagine that much like the rapid collapse of Afghanistan after twenty years of the War on Terror, the Second World War likely forced the Doughboys of WWI to question if their War to End All Wars had been fought in vain. The rest of his life John got very emotional and wept for every young man that left the parish to fight in the armed services.

His oldest son and my grandfather, John Carroll, served in the Army at the tail end of the Korean War, but was spared combat by an assignment to Salzburg, Austria. My grandfather retired as a First Sergeant after a combined total of 31 years in the Army, Army Reserves, and Indiana National Guard. John Simon’s next oldest son, Charles, also served in the Army, and Robert in the National Guard. His daughter Rita served in the Army Nursing Corps during Vietnam and saw considerable action in the field hospitals. She later retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. When her father died on January 6, 1969, she flew home to the funeral despite his wishes that she not make the arduous journey if he were to pass during her deployment.

John Simon Hilgenhold’s brother-in-law, Carl Goelzer, died the very same day and lay in repose at the same funeral home viewing. At the funeral, a man approached my family and stated that had it not been for John carrying him out of the gas fields, he would have certainly died in France. The story had never been heard before that time. His actions define what I call common valor, or an instinct to help another despite any risk. He may have never perceived himself as a hero, but to that fellow veteran, he clearly was. Fifty years to the day that he returned to American soil from France, John Simon Hilgenhold was laid to rest at St. Mark Catholic Cemetery. Free from the tremors and nightmares of war, he is now at peace.

My insight into the paradox between his own pride in his service, and immense pain it caused him was partially revealed to me during my deployment to the Middle-East in 2021. As a B-52 pilot, I flew many combat missions in the closing days of the war in Afghanistan. My experience was completely alien to the horrors that my great-grandfather experienced; however, the chaos of the collapse and subsequent refugee evacuation gave me a unique perspective. Every veteran’s story is different, but one truth remains the same. Civilians may ask what it was like, out of a sense of curiosity or polite invitation to allow a veteran to share an experience, but the process to properly explain the experience requires mentally returning to that place in every detail. This process is, at a minimum, mentally exhausting at one end of the spectrum, and potentially debilitating for people suffering from PTSD. The truth is that unless you were there, you will never fully understand. Although we will fall short in perceiving their struggles, we must try. Through keeping alive every veteran’s story of sacrifice is how future generations may learn from the past and strive for a more peaceful world.

John_Simon_Hilgenhold-_Roll_of_Honor

John Simon Hilgenhold Served With Honor Wounded in Action

John Simon Hilgenhold