A Perilous Crossing
BREST, FRANCE (March 6, 1918) -- After a harrowing Atlantic crossing, 1st Lt. Joseph L. Becker and most of the men of the 126th Infantry Regiment took their first steps onto French soil. It was a welcome relief after nearly two and half weeks at sea on constant watch for German submarines. A tanker had been torpedoed only 50 miles ahead of Joe's transport ship just two days before sighting land. The entire convoy was re-routed -- circling around the area of the attack.
We can look back at the doughboys' Atlantic crossing with the comfortable knowledge that the 126th Reg. made it safely, but the specter of death by U-boat attack was an ever-present guest aboard the U.S. Transport President Grant. I included a fictionalized version of the following story in my novel INTO NO MAN'S LAND, but even this just-the-facts account from History of the 126th Infantry in the War with Germany by regimental historian Emil Ganser (pg. 44-46), puts the threat into perspective.
SUBMARINE SCARE On the eighth day out, the convoy almost stopped still, and as the ships floated lazily in a calm sea for about four hours, the various gun crews engaged in a little target practice, which elicited considerable interest on the part of the troops. While it was not known to us why the convoy stopped, it was surmised that it was part of the Navy plan for transporting troops and done to deceive some waiting submarine which may have information of the convoy, its rate of progress and course, and selecting a point from which it could attack it.
At 4 o'clock in the afternoon of Friday, March 1st, while the regimental band was giving one of its daily concerts on deck, the boom of a gun was heard coming from the cruiser, which at the same time blew its whistle and immediately followed by more cannon fire and the shrill shriek of the siren sounded, followed by the sounding of the alarm on our ship. This happened so quickly and without warning that every one was taken by surprise, and as the troops hurried to their abandon ship stations, visions of a plunge in the ocean was in everyone's mind. Taking an occasional glance at the other ships in the convoy while hustling to our stations, told us something was astir, as they scattered in different directions with clouds of black smoke pouring from the funnels and their guns firing at some object in the water, which could be nothing else but the periscope of a dreaded submarine.
By the time our ship arrived abreast of the object all the other ships had made good their escape and were quickly increasing the distance between us, and we believed we were to be the victim. As our gun crews were training their guns on the object, a close examination revealed it to be a barrel and the suspense was lifted, to the great relief of everyone. This incident created considerable excitement for a few moments, but excellent discipline prevailed and there was no confusion in going to our stations, except that some of the colored troops, who were below decks at the time, fell on their knees and implored their creator to save them, and they had to be brought on deck by force. After remaining at our stations some minutes, the boatswain's mate sounded his "canary" and the scare was over.
This scare had all the elements of reality in it and many a soldier aboard will stoutly affirm that a real submarine was the cause of it all. This experience revealed another bit of the Navy plan against submarine attack, and that was that every ship in the convoy in case of attack was to make its own get away as best it can, without regard to its sister ships, and no aid would be rendered any ship which may be attacked, on the principle that the loss of one ship was better than the loss of two or more, which may be the case if the more fortunate ones loitered in the vicinity of the submarine. We knew from this experience that our ship was too slow to get away, and this bit of information was very consoling to us to say the least. It goes without saying that this scare made us more alert than ever.
We were now approaching the danger zone and word was passed out that a destroyer fleet would meet us by morning, and sure enough, early the next morning the little destroyers were sighted and in a very short time ten of them surrounded the convoy, and a little later four more appeared. These little craft were built on long and slender lines and in sailing the tempestuous waters of the Bay of Biscay, which we were now entering, they fairly jumped from wave to wave, sometimes showing daylight beneath their keels, their bows frequently pointing skyward, or plunging deeply into heavy seas, and their sides occasionally plowing along under the foamy waves. They darted hither and thither with marvelous speed, and when the sunlight fell upon their graceful sides and steel decks, they appeared like brilliant objects upon the water and gained the admiration of every doughboy. Their business-like appearance gave us all a feeling of security with them as our escorts. Upon their arrival the cruiser Huntington left the convoy and returned to the United States. During the remainder of the trip, as we were now traversing the submarine zone, the convoy sailed in a zig-zagged course, every ship changing direction at the same time.
Army life has a way of zig-zagging, too, but sometimes those courses circle back on themselves. Serendipitously, Joe would find himself aboard this same ship in 1932, as he travelled with his family (wife Lina Johnson Bachus, his daughter Elizabeth "Betty" Bachus, and his toddler son, my father, Littleton Joseph Bachus). They were being shipped from New York, through the Panama Canal, and across the Pacific to The Philippines where Joe was stationed as a company commander at Fort William McKinley.
NEXT TIME: "40 Hommes et 8 Cheveaux" 40 men or 8 horses
Postcards from Pancho Villa -- Part 3 of 3
EL PASO, TEXAS (January 18, 1917) -- This final batch of postcards that came home with Joseph L. Bachus after his Mexican Border Service in 1916-1917 with the Michigan National Guard gives us a glimpse not at the exotic and dramatic events unfolding in Mexico, but rather gives us an idea of how the United States Army and the supporting Guard units began to transform themselves from the 17th largest army in the world to a force to be reckoned with.
While the tents, tactics, artillery pieces, and trenches pictured in these 1916 postcards from Texas would not be too unfamiliar to the Civil War veterans who were still alive a century ago, we begin to see the influences of modern technology and warfare making their debut as the soldiers on the border trained and kept busy. While new machinery was still pretty scarce above the Mexican border, it's no surprise that the intrepid war photographers were drawn to the latest advances in modern warfare that appeared on the training grounds around El Paso and other garrisoned towns.
13. Uncle Sams new fighting machine on the Border (Kavanaugh's War Postals)
14. Artillery in Action on the Border (Kavanaugh's War Postals)
15. U.S. Army intrenching in Old Mexico (Kavanaugh's War Postals)
16. On The Firing Line (Kavanaugh's War Postals)
17. Holding War Council on International Bridge, Gen. Oberon # 3, Gen. Funston #2, Gen. Scott #1 (Kavanaugh's War Postals)
18. Boys in Kakhi Guarding the Rio Grande (Kavanaugh's War Postals)
19. Volunteer Truck ready for run to any threatening point on the Border, this Truck first Volunteer Truck made overland test trip from Chicago (2100 miles) in Fourteen days
This postcard holds a clue about Kavanaugh's War Postals, since the writing on the side of the truck says "Chicago to Mexico U.S.V. Kavanaugh's Transfer, Republic Truck." According to upthewoods.net, an historic postcard enthusiast website, Kavanaugh's War Postals were published by the Chicago Daily News and credited to G.J Kavanaugh of El Paso, Texas. Perhaps this truck was the mobile platform for Kavanaugh's photographic operation. According to upthewoods.net, these postcards bore a reverse side imprint: "The Chicago Daily News. G.J. Kavanaugh. War Postal Card Department" on the upper end of the message half. None of my grandfather's postcards carry the Chicago imprint, however, suggesting that it was added later when the film made its way back to Chicago.
20. Armored Truck and Motorcycle in action (Kavanaugh's War Postals)
21. The results of Watchful Waiting Columbus
This supposition deserves further research, but I believe this funeral detail is bearing the caskets of fallen troops who were killed in Pancho Villa's original March 9, 1916, raid on Columbus, New Mexico -- the last straw that drove the U.S. Army and Guardsmen to the Mexican border in the first place.
22. FIRING FROM SKIRMISH LINE (PHOTO © UNDERWOOD & UNDERWOOD)
This colorized postcard is labeled "No 1. Published by American Colortype Co., Chicago" on the back, and includes the following caption: "Probably the most important part of infantry training. While firing from the prone position, the soldier offers the smallest possible target to the enemy's marksmen. In the United States army, the men are even taught to dig shallow protection trenches while lying in this position. Each man carries a small entrenching tool -- axe, pick or spade -- in his pack for this purpose. While firing from a skirmish line, it is important that no man get ahead of the others lest the noise and concussion from his neighbors' gun do harm to his hearing. Note the semaphore flags which signal the officers' commands and sighting instructions to the men of his command."
23. PRACTICING TRENCH FIRING IN TEXAS
This next colorized postcard is labeled "No 26. Published by American Colortype Co., Chicago" on the back, and includes the following caption: "Our Infantry had a taste of genuine trench-digging and trench-fighting while guarding the Texas border last summer. Most of the boys in this group seem to be enjoying it, although there is no enemy in sight -- perhaps that's why. Anyway, the time they spent down there and the things they learned will prove invaluable to them when they get over to France and get after the Kaiser's men. Note that the dirt taken out when digging the trench is thrown up to form a sort of breastwork in front. This serves as added protection and also gives the men a rifle rest. (PHOTO © UNDERWOOD & UNDERWOOD)"
It's interesting to note that these postcards came out sometime after the army and guard units had returned home from the Punitive Expedition and Mexican Border Service. It may not have been Pancho Villa's intention, but his reckless attacks on American soil helped to turn the small U.S. Army into a force better prepared to take on the much more dangerous and sweeping challenges that lay ahead in France. Thanks, Pancho!
24. U.S. BIPLANE BEGINNING SCOUTING FLIGHT OVER MEXICAN BORDER (PHOTO © UNDERWOOD & UNDERWOOD)
Here's the detail on the colorized postcard from the top of the article, which is labeled "No 5. Published by American Colortype Co., Chicago" on the back, and includes the following caption: "The Mexican trouble proved of considerable value to our army as a practical training field in which to try out the efficiency of the several arms of the service. Here our aeroplanes were put into use for scouting purposes, and from the service they saw down there, the Aviation Corps learned a great deal regarding the demands that would be made on them in actual warfare, and just how their equipment could be improved. Our aviators have won from the cavalry their right to the title "the eyes of the army," and are demonstrating to the world every day, their effectiveness in this field."
What the Mexican Border Service and Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa lacked in decisive battles they made up for in helping to turn a largely untested mob into the soon-to-be American Expeditionary Force. For men like my grandfather, this extended exercise was an opportunity to not only size up his own men, but to demonstrate his mettle to his fellow officers in the Michigan National Guard.
Even the mighty among them learned valuable lessons. A middle-aged Capt. George Patton learned that he did, indeed, have the courage and resolve to handle a real fire fight. And an aging Gen. John Pershing learned that the era of horse-mounted cavalry troops had come to an end. Although horses would continue to play a vital supporting role in France, Mexico was the last U.S. campaign of massed horse soldiers. From then on, cavalry would become a mostly mechanized affair.
Joseph L. Bachus returned home to his wife Lina, his daughter Betty, and his traveling salesman job, but it would not be long before the Great War would call him back into uniform.
NEXT TIME: "Camp Cotton"
Postcards from Pancho Villa - Part 2 of 3
EL PASO, TEXAS (January 18, 1917) -- By the time winter weather hit El Paso in ernest, it was clear to the men of the Michigan National Guard that the excitement of chasing Pancho Villa below the border was unlikely to result in active service. Joseph L. Bachus and the men of the 31st Michigan Infantry Regiment expected orders to return home, and those orders reached the men in the later half of January 1917. On January 18th, the men struck their tents, cleaned up the camp, and packed their gear with only a handful of postcards to provide glimpses of the excitement and savagery of the Mexican Revolution that was unfolding below the Rio Grande.
Here are a few more of those postcard glimpses that Joe brought home in his duffle bag --
9. Gen. and Mrs. Villa (1-1-1914, W.M. Horne Co. El Paso, 600)
10. Triple Execution in Mexico (W.M Horne Co, Copyrighted, El Paso, Tex.)
11. Villa's troops in action (Kavanaugh's War Postals)
12. Mexican Soldiers on the Border (Kavanaugh's War Postals)
The Michigan Guardsmen and other Guard units that served on the Mexican Border during the Pancho Villa Affair may have been disappointed by the lack of direct combat action, but their efforts probably kept the Mexican Revolution from spilling across the border with much energy. And even though Gen. Pershing's wild goose chase through Northern Mexico was unsuccessful in capturing or killing Villa, the United States Army and the supporting Guard units began to sharpen their skills and modernize their equipment -- a process that would prove beneficial in the coming months as America entered the Great War.
NEXT TIME: "Postcards from Pancho Villa: Part 3 of 3"
On the Border Chasing Villa
EL PASO, TEXAS (July 1, 1916) -- One could make the case that Pancho Villa helped prepare the U.S. Army for World War I. On March 9, 1916, Pancho Villa’s renegade army of somewhere between 300 and 1,000 fighters attacked the border town of Columbus, New Mexico, killing eighteen Americans (ten soldiers and eight civilians) and wounding another eight.
It was just one of several attacks on U.S. soil that year, but it was the last straw for President Woodrow Wilson who called out the National Guard to defend the U.S. southern border and “ordered a so-called ‘Punitive Expedition’ to invade Mexico, disperse Villa’s guerilla band and, hopefully, capture or kill Villa.” (Tompkins, Col. Frank. Chasing Villa: The Last Campaign of the U.S. Cavalry. Silver City, New Mexico: High-Lonesome Books)
Four months later, the Michigan National Guard was mustered into Federal Service and sent to El Paso to help support Brigadier General John J. Pershing’s cavalry expedition.
The men of Joseph L. Bachus’ company saw little action that would help them with the upcoming fight in France, but Mexican Border Service helped to turn an army that was only the 17th largest in the world into something a bit more formidable.
While Pershing’s punishers chased after rumors of Pancho Villa’s whereabouts south of the border, the Michigan National Guard was garrisoned on the north bank of the Rio Grande. The soldiers of the 1916 “Mexican Border Service,” as it was later called, had lots of time to kill, but they filled their days with marches, training, sports, and the duties of keeping an army in the field.
A photo of my grandfather on a rickety bridge over the Rio Grande speaks to me about the kind of experience the maturing U.S. Army was gaining through its border service of 1916. He’s working with the locals, at ease on a flimsy-looking structure, and possibly using his growing language skills. This German-American, farm-boy son of a blacksmith had already picked up Spanish during his Marine Corps stints in Cuba and the Panama Canal Zone. I wonder what these three are talking about. Securing good local food for the men of his company? Scouting reports from south of the river?
While the Michigan guardsmen started out in tents in the summer of 1916, they began to swap canvas for wooden planks by this time 100 years ago. Pershing’s men may not have captured Pancho Villa, but the U.S. Army’s Mexican Punitive Expedition may have helped prepare the various National Guard units for future action in France.
NEXT WEEK: “Postcards from Pancho Villa - Part 1 of 3”
Postcards from Pancho Villa - Part 1 of 3
EL PASO, TEXAS (August 10, 1916) -- While Gen. Pershing was tearing around Mexico trying to find Pancho Villa, my grandfather Joseph L. Bachus got his best glimpse of the conflict south of the border through a series of postcards, the most popular of which were called Kavanaugh's War Postals.
What strikes me about these photographs is that they show the growing mechanization of modern warfare that would become all too familiar to the doughboys as they prepared for WW I and joined the fighting in France. While some scenes of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 did look like something out of an western movie, including Lt. George Patton's famous gunfight with Villa's second-in-command, these postcards reveal the use of sophisticated military weaponry and tactics that were cutting edge for their day. Tanks, planes, and machine guns all made their appearance in these postals. There was a lot more to this bloody Mexican conflict than the stereotypical image of bandolier-chested banditos roaming the countryside. And the massive American build-up of forces and weapons shows that President Woodrow Wilson was more than just a bit concerned that the violence to the south would continue to spill over into the United States.
In August, Joe sent a batch of postcards home to his wife back in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which I've included below. In this heyday of postcards, the captions were typically written on the front of the card. Joe never sent these individually or wrote on them, but kept them together in a set for his wife. I've done my best to decipher any writing that appears on either side of the cards.
1. 1177 Yaqui Indians of Mexico
2. Unidentified Villistas
3. Part of the crowd gathered _________ (illegible) executions at Juarez
4. (W.M. Horne Co. El Paso, Tex.) 10th Cavalrymen who were captured at the Battle of Carrizal. Released by Mexico
5. (Kavanaugh's War Postals) Old Glory on Border Backed up by 200,000 Fighting Men
6. (Kavanaugh's War Postals) Mexican Raiders
7. (Kavanaugh's War Postals) Barberious Mexico
8. (Kavanaugh's War Postals) After the raid
It's important to remember that many of these postcards came from entrepreneurial photographers who may or may not have had historical integrity in mind when they took these pictures. I'll come back and add as much historically accurate detail to these as I continue to research this era for my next book, which I am calling CAPTAIN BECKER'S BORDER.
In the meantime, I recommend the book that my Latin American history professor friend, Eric Zolov of Stony Brook University, cites as the premier biography on Pancho Villa -- THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PANCHO VILLA by Friedrich Katz. Our fear of danger from south of the border, whether misplaced or not, casst a long shadow upon our nation's history.
NEXT WEEK: "Postcards from Pancho Villa: Part 2 of 3"
A Seasoned Recruit: Joe Joins the Michigan National Guard
EL PASO, TEXAS (Aug. 3, 1916) -- What does the U.S. Army and National Guard do when a veteran soldier shows up on its doorstep to enlist? Joseph L. Bachus joined the Michigan National Guard on June 12, 1916 as a buck private, but he had recently served in the Ohio National Guard when his sales job forced him to leave his recently adopted home state of Michigan.
When Joe joined the Ohio National Guard, he had already served a year as a naval apprentice, three years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and a year as an Isthmian Canal Commission police officer. He quickly rose in rank with the Ohio National Guard and was elected captain by his company, but he resigned his position when he and his wife, Lina, moved back to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
It didn’t take long for the Michigan guardsmen of the 31st Infantry Regiment to realize what they had in the tall 30-year-old veteran who joined their ranks. Shortly after signing up and shipping out for active duty on the Mexican border during the Pancho Villa Affair, Joe was honorably discharged as an enlisted man and appointed as 2nd Lieutenant at Camp Cotton, El Paso, by Capt. Albert C. Wilson, commanding officer of Company I, 31st Inf. Regiment.
His “Enlistment Record” identifies Joe’s health as “Good” and his character as “Excellent.
NEXT WEEK: “On the Border Chasing Villa”
Capt. Joseph L. Bachus
Joseph L. Bachus spent the better part of four decades in nearly every branch of the U.S. military, but his combat experience in the trenches of France during WW I solidified his decision to dedicate his life to professional soldiering.
His men called him "Smokey Joe" -- not only for the smoldering pipe that was his constant companion, but for his fiery method for turning a rabble of undisciplined recruits into a tough fighting force. Some may have hated him back home during the rigors of training in Michigan and Texas, but he was "the idol of his men" by the time his unit reached the fighting in France.
Joe served with the 126th Infantry Regiment of the 32nd Division for most of 1918. As a 1st Lt., Joe took command of E Company for his unit's first month of combat duty in the "Quiet Sector" of the trenches in the Diefmatten area of Alsace-Lorraine. His company endured countless artillery shellings, gas attacks, and regular raids, sniping, and strafing from the German forces across No Man's Land.
When Gen. Pershing came to inspect the regiment, he kept referring to Joe as Capt. Bachus. Each time, Joe would politely correct the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces with "it's Lieutenant, Sir" to which Pershing finally asked, "do you object to being called Captain?" Whereupon Joe answered, "No sir, it would please me greatly."
Joe's battlefield promotion would later help him transition from the Michigan National Guard to a captaincy in the regular U.S. Army, but the attention it brought him was soon noticed by the brass back in Washington, D.C., and Joe was tapped for his experience as a bayonet instructor and sent to Camp Kearny in California where he helped bring a new level of reality to his recruits with the use of goat carcasses for bayonet training.
Joe went on to a full-time army career serving in Panama, with the Taca-Arica Plebiscite Commission, in the Philippines, as a Civilian Conservation Corp commandant in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and as Commanding Officer of the Armed Forces induction Station in the Midwest.