The personnel of the Signal Platoon represented a cross-section of American citizenship. Its commander, Second Lieutenant Lloyd H. Benning, received his commission in the Reserve Officer's Training Camp at Fort Riley. In civil life, he was a salesman of Armour's Star Hams and Bacon. The 76 men of the enlisted personnel were selected for their technical knowledge of the various phases of communication. Before being called into the service, ten of them had followed wiring; ten were telegraph operators; the others ran through approximately thirty vocations ranging from electrical engineering to the study of theology.
The problem of this group was to form an organization capable of keeping up communication at all times under battle conditions. They began work along the line of their specialty by installing and operating a complete telephone system of sixty stations within the regimental area at Camp Funston. The equipment was secured largely through the efforts of Captain Keim. This was the first system of its kind installed in any national army cantonment. Through the kindness of Mr. Don Shepard of St. Johns, Kansas, and
the efforts of Sergeants Richard Fisher and Walter Vercoutere, a powerful commercial radio set was installed and operated. During this training period, too, the signalmen wired the regimental building. Whatever needed to be done in the form of electrical service found ready ingenuity in the Signal Platoon for its accomplishment.
But communication under battle conditions was to be quite a different proposition from undisturbed commercial construction. "Up where the big boys shriek and howl," the regiment would be scattered over a large sector. Telephone lines would be knocked out. Pyrotechnics, projectors, sometimes called search-lights or blinkers, earth telegraphy, carrier pigeons, and finally runners must be available as substitutes. Each of these methods has its short-comings: visual signals may not be observed through the fog or smoke of battle; earth telegraphy has but a short range; pigeons go astray; runners may lose their way or be killed. The lives of many men frequently hang on a single message. Every means, therefore, must be available to guarantee delivery. Something of each of these methods, the men learned in the schools at Camp Funston in connection with the 314th Signal Battalion. But the intensive training, necessary to battle efficiency, had to wait until the Regiment arrived "Over There,"
Two days after arrival in the training area, the Signal Platoon found itself in St. Blin attending the Divisional Signal School. The Signal Battalion of the Division had not yet arrived, and Major Franklin placed Lieutenant Benning in command of the school. Word was passed along in confidence that the 89th Division expected to go into the line in six weeks. So great was the importance of communication, however, that it would first be necessary for the Signal personnel to demonstrate its proficiency. Lieutenant Benning at once divided the platoon into details representing the various specialties. Each man now applied himself to definite task. Lieutenant Rene Hoffman of the French Mission secured an excellent training field and gave many helpful suggestions. His Sergeant, Cosman, gave expert advice on the radio. At the end of the week the men staged in miniature a divisional maneuver.
The 314th Field Signal Battalion arrived and took over the school for the rest of the training period. Lieutenant Benning with two non-commissioned officers and like personnel from each of the other regiments in the Division, left for Langres, France, to take a final course in the Army Signal School. Approximately six weeks after arrival in France, Lieutenant William B. Goebel took the signalers, the first detail of the Regiment, into the line. At the first whine of a German shell, the signalmen dived head-long from the moving truck into the ditch. The shell landed several hundred yards away. This incident remained a secret until long after the men had become veterans in the service.
The regimental area in the Lucey Sector was seven kilometers in depth from the outpost in Limey to Regimental Headquarters at Manonville. Its width of front varied, but it is said that it required
more than a half hour for Captain Portman to cover the interval between extreme outposts. The system of communication was maintained practically as established by the signalmen of the 82nd Division. Lieutenant Benning returned with Sergeant Barnes and Sergeant Bennett on August 14th and took charge. In addition to the Regimental Signal Platoon, sixty-five men of the 314th Signal Battalion were attached to the 353rd Infantry and placed under his command. Because of the great extent of the area, there was work for all. Telephone communication to the front led over two different routes. Part of the way, the lines were exposed to enemy shells. In order to patrol these lines effectively, it was necessary to establish a station for linemen at Chauvin, within a kilometer of the front. Here the signalmen took turns in learning the lines and getting a taste of the trenches.
A relay of projectors extended from Limey on the front line to Division Headquarters at Lucey. Because the Germans were able to read messages from the flank, the station was moved to Lironville. In this location, it was destroyed by shell-fire.
On account of natural difficulties, the use of the T. P.S. or earth telegraphy was limited to checking up conversation over the telephone. Every one was supposed to communicate in code but it was hard to keep up with all of the regulations these days. The dispatcher of the narrow gauge railroad was detected in the following violation of this order:
And this in the face of the fact that Fritz was supposed to keep his ear always to the ground. Because of the fact that the Buzzer-phone, a telegraph instrument, is practically proof against "listening in," it was used in the forward positions.
The radio station was located in the tower of the old Chateau Manonville. Our station was not only able to get any messages sent within divisional area but also to copy press from Paris and Berlin. Sergeant Vercoutere copied the French and Sergeant Britain the German messages. The French communiques at this time were devoted chiefly to the victorious advances of the Allied Armies, while the German messages invariably showed that their army was retiring for "strategical purposes," The following was received from Paris, September 1st:
At about the same time, this propaganda for the benefit of the German troops at the front was picked up:
Thus, every member of the Signal Platoon kept in practice, even the pigeon man. Many a doughboy smiled as he saw him coming down the trench with his wicker basket of pigeons, but no one knew at what moment an emergency would arise which could be relieved by the pigeon as it carried a message at the rate of a mile a minute to its loft in the rear.
As the day for the big offensive neared, duties of the signalmen increased in number and intensity. On the morning of September 7th, the Germans threw a box barrage around Company "D" on outpost. Signalers in the company sent up a rocket. Telephone men gave the word to the French artillerymen. On occasions of this kind, it is necessary for the artillerymen to place his barrage immediately. But the French artillerymen were so surprised at a call for a barrage in this "quiet sector" that it took them twenty minutes to respond. It was too late to help the infantrymen but the signalmen had done their part and left the explanation to the Frenchmen.
All in all, the experience in this sector was very profitable to the Signal Platoon. During the time that he was in command of the regiment, Colonel Babcock did everything possible to strengthen the service of communication. He had led the 28th Infantry at Chateau Thierry and Soissons and lost no opportunity to give to the personnel of the 353rd Infantry the benefit of his earlier experience in the World War.
On September 10th, Lieutenants Eades and Benning went to the front to pick out a jump-off P. C. for Regimental Headquarters. The Signal Platoon had already carried much of its equipment forward and in the night preceding the drive, a final truck-load was stored in a dugout near Limey. All day preceding the drive, signalmen constructed telephone lines connecting the new Regimental P. C. with the advanced P. C. of the brigade. They did their best to protect the lines from traffic in the trenches as well as from the German counter-barrage. In spite of their efforts, the assembling troops trampled the lines into the mud. It was a hopeless task to get them in again and a half hour before going over the top, there was no telephone communication with the brigade. The radio, too, was out of commission, and the muddy, crowded trenches were almost impassable for runners.
At last the fateful hour arrived. The signalmen were to run a telephone line to Brigade Headquarters immediately, but the dough-
boys advanced so rapidly and General Winn, the brigade commander, kept so near the front that it was impossible to keep up with him. In the meantime, Colonel Reeves had sent Sergeant Bennett back with the following hastily scrawled message:
This was the first official news from the front since the attack had begun. The Sergeant now guided the General to the spot where he had left Colonel Reeves. Colonel Reeves was gone. The radio squad was on the ground. The general directed the men to set up a station for him in the field and sent the following message to Colonel Babcock, commanding officer of the 354th Infantry, Divisional Reserve:
After sending these messages, the radio squad advanced with all of their equipment to Bouillonville.
Although communication was very unsatisfactory, the Americans had supremacy in the air and were able to prevent German observation from that source. Moreover, infantrymen were able to give their
positions with panels which they displayed on the ground. In one instance, an airman flew so low that his observer leaned out of the machine and signaled a warning to the advancing doughboys of a danger point ahead. But communication now was of secondary importance. Perhaps it was the instinct of the chase that carried the men forward. Whatever it was, one thing was sure, every man did his best to stay in the lead.
Not often in modern warfare does a regimental commander have opportunity to command directly any large part of his men during battle. But this is exactly what came to Colonel Reeves at the fifth objective of the St Mihiel offensive. Here there was a pause of an hour to allow the artillery to bombard certain strong points ahead and to give the units on the left sufficient time to bag the prisoners in the great pocket just closed. The Second Battalion which had led the assault to the fourth objective and the Third Battalion which had just passed through to take up the assault were both drawn up in the open field. Rank after rank of section columns were reforming. The men were standing close together as in "chow" line, scorning any danger from enemy bombardment as they chaffed and fretted over being held back.
It made a beautiful picture, the greater part of the regiment drawn up in battle array while allied airplanes swarmed overhead, but it was dangerous. The men had not yet learned the necessity of "digging in" at every halt. The retreating Germans now finding themselves less hard-pressed, had whipped a battery around and suddenly brought its fire to bear, causing more casualties. Colonel Reeves immediately took matters into his own hands. Mounting conspicuously to the top of a small knoll, he shouted forth with his far-carrying voice, forcing the units to spread out, take whatever cover they might from the folds in the ground and commence "digging in." This was a lesson that the men of the 353rd Infantry never forgot in the future.
The signalmen had had enough to do to keep up in the drive without carrying rolls of wire and heavy accessories. Hardly had plans been laid for the establishment of communication on the final objective of the first phase when orders were received to continue on to the army objective. No one was familiar with the terrain of the latter objective and it was getting dark. In the hurried advance much of the equipment had been left behind. Communication was all but hopeless for the night.
Early on the following morning, the signalmen laid the first line from the Regimental P. C. to the Brigade P. C. in Boullionville; and a little later another to the "Pill Box" in the support positions which was first used as an advanced Regimental P. C. Before night, communication was established with the Third Battalion just outside of Xammes, with the 355th Infantry on the left, and the 354th Infantry in reserve. Thus, extensions continued until a complete net-work of lines tied the 353rd Infantry together and linked it up with other organizations. This task was unusually difficult because most of the equipment had to be salvaged. A major ordered the corporal in
charge of the equipment stored in the dugout near Limey to abandon it and move forward. So the signal platoon must first of all find equipment. The Germans had left a switch board and some telephones in their hasty flight. After the development of the telephone system in this sector, the platoon had in its possession twenty-four telephones and fifty kilometers of wire. They had also salvaged a German projector, much superior to our own. Wherever a piece of signal property appeared, a man of the Regimental signal platoon was on the ground to "make arrangements" for its use in the Regimental sector.
A serious situation occurred in the vicinity of the "Pill Box" early in the morning following the drive. Different organizations were trying to find their positions in the army line. A battalion of the 354th Infantry supporting us had advanced too far and were withdrawing. Instead of a few men coming at a time at wide intervals, the whole battalion started back in a mass. This congestion made an excellent target for the enemy artillery. Just at this moment Colonel Reeves accompanied by Lieutenants Dienst and Benning arrived at the "Pill Box." In the emergency, the Colonel's life training showed itself to good advantage. He saw the danger in an instant and knew how to deal with it. He ordered his two officers to the end of the line to stop them, while he checked the center in no uncertain terms. Not until the men were "digging in" like fury did Colonel Reeves discover that they were not his own men. This situation demanded immediate correction and it got it in the exact terms of field service regulations.
No sooner was communication thoroughly established than the regiment shifted to the Beney sector. The wire had to be strung along the trail through the Beney Woods on an old German pole line. Through observation or accident, Fritz caught the detail at work. He chased them with his artillery the full length of the trail. It was a race for life. As a shell reared, the men went down until after its explosion. Immediately, they were up and continuing the race until the next one was heard coming. The signalmen won the race.
Because of the unusual activity at this time, close communication with the advanced infantrymen was imperative. In this sector, the 89th Division was supported by its own artillery. The signal for fire was a three-star rocket. Fritz had a trick method of testing our signals. He sent up the proper rocket. The artillerymen were on the alert and opened fire. At the same time, a call to verify the signal saved waste of precious ammunition on "No Man's Land." Again, when a battalion of the 356th Infantry raided the enemy's lines, the artillery was to fire until notified by rocket signal that the raid was complete. The rocket did not appear. Firing continued. Through the efforts of Linemen Darnell Pigman and Walter Durham our lines were kept in operation. The Brigade Commander was able to direct Major Peatross of our Second Battalion to check up the raiding battalion. Investigation showed that it had returned badly disorganized by the severe fighting. In a few minutes the barrage was stopped.
The Signal Platoon of the 353rd Infantry established its reputation in this sector for communication at all times and under all conditions.
In the St. Benoit sector, the radio section fell heir to a good station. Poles were already available for the aerial and there was a light, dry room to work in. It was a small wooden shack in an open field within a kilometer of the front lines. A single shell would have demolished the station but evidently the Germans could not believe that we would dare to occupy it. The radio men considered the communiques worth the danger. On October 6th the following was received:
The real test of the Signal Platoon came in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Bantheville Woods was in the form of a salient that projected nearly four kilometers ahead of the rest of the line. There were two trails to the front. One of these was so continuously shelled that our line was cut faster than it could be repaired. The signalmen concentrated their efforts on the trail marked by white tags which led the way to the aid station. Construction on this line began immediately after the infantry had mopped up the woods. Between 4 and 11 a. m. on the following morning, the line had been cut in nine different places between the advanced Battalion P. C. and the first aid station, a kilometer back.
All hours of the day and night, the linemen followed along with the wire in their hands. They dared not let loose for fear of losing the way. During the short period of occupation in this sector, seven signalmen were gassed and two seriously wounded in keeping up this single line. The following message from the Intelligence Officer indicates the severity of artillery fire:
In addition to telephone communication, Corporal Farrell maintained a projector station on Hill 262 in the First Battalion's position. He was able to transmit emergency signals, a distance of four
kilometers, to our receiving station near the Regimental P. C. The projector was located in a tree top but operated by a key in a small dugout P. C. German artillerymen registered on the point in the morning of October 30th. A large shell tore up the earth immediately beneath the tree and demolished the projector beyond recognition. Wherever a signalman appeared German artillerymen seemed to have his location.
The radio station was in the only remaining room of a rustic, summer cottage. Here the operators worked steadily on without a thought of danger until the aerial was torn from its supports and left hanging in the tree. Private Gill continued to copy his message. Presently another shell tore up the board sidewalk just outside the window. This was getting too close. Taking the receivers from his head, he announced that there would be no more messages that day. But no sooner had the bombardment subsided than he was back again at his post. These experiences made up the training for the last great offensive of the war.
When November 1st arrived, the Signal Platoon was ready and anxious to leave Bantheville Woods. Lieutenant Benning had worked out the "Axis of Liaison." It was carefully placed upon all available maps so that all runners would be able to find the various headquarters along this line, thus avoiding the confusion of the St. Mihiel Offensive.
The radio squad had arranged to operate in a dugout. Telephone lines were all O. K. when the barrage began. In their reply, the Germans shelled all areas of the regimental sector with a special concentration in the vicinity of all advanced Regimental P. C. Linemen followed their wires through it all and communication appeared to be satisfactory until shortly after the real bombardment began. Suddenly all lines to the rear were out. The radio now had to handle all messages. There was a frightful explosion just outside of the dugout and when the radio operator had recovered speech, he stated that the aerial was cut. Another message must be sent before going over the top. All telephone lines were hopelessly beyond repair. It must be sent by radio. The radio men, led by Sergeant Britain, stretched the reserve aerial between two trees. So violent were the explosions that Corporal Bonnon was wounded by a shell fragment as he worked away in the tree. The message was transmitted and an answer received before "H" hour.
The drive was now on and the signalmen were over the top with Regimental Headquarters running two grounded circuits a hundred yards apart as they followed the advancing troops. This plan worked out well. The Brigade detail under Sergeant Wendler kept its axis well forward. Almost constant communication was maintained between Colonel Reeves and General Winn during the advance. Other methods besides the telephone were used. Pigeons carried back three messages. The radio detail operated successfully twice in the field. Signalmen had profited by their experience in the St. Mihiel Offensive and refused to be cut off this time. The telephone detail kept
within fifty yards of Colonel Reeves and brought up the line with it. When General Winn reached the town of Remonville, a new circuit was established with Brigade Headquarters. Regimental Headquarters was established in connection with the headquarters of the Third Battalion in support. As soon as communication could be established with the Second Battalion Headquarters, the men "dug in" for the night.
Daylight of November 2nd was accompanied by severe shelling. Our telephone lines to Brigade Headquarters in Remonville were cut several times and communication by this means was uncertain. Two pigeons were dispatched with messages calling for artillery support and the supply of pigeons was exhausted. The storage batteries of the radio set had run down and supplies were not available. It was necessary for the most part to resort to the costly human agencies--untiring, fearless runners. Corporal Farber, Buglers McGee and Tomanek earned distinguished service crosses in the emergency.
After much delay, the Second Battalion with the Third closely in support attempted to move out of Barricourt Woods at 12:55 p. m. Artillery was unable to get up so the infantrymen had to attack without a barrage. The first report that came to the Regimental P. C., a kilometer in the rear, told of severe resistance from a strongly organized line of enemy machine gun nests. The second report, a few minutes later, stated that "H" Company on the left had lost every man who attempted to step out of the woods and that Companies "G" and "F" had not been successful in their advance.
Colonel Reeves was on the wire with the Brigade Commander and Colonel Lee, Division Chief-of-Staff, urging an artillery barrage. Presently they were able to supply a battery of "lights" and a battery of "heavies." Fire was to commence at 2:40 p. m. Colonel Reeves immediately sent Lieutenant Benning forward to notify Major Peatross to wait for the artillery. It was now 2:15. With Bugler Tomanek as a guide, Lieutenant Benning hurried to the Second Battalion P. C. It was abandoned and a straggler in the vicinity said that the Battalion had gone forward. He continued to the edge of the woods and there saw the Second Battalion advancing rapidly on the heels of the retreating enemy. In an instant, the situation dawned upon Lieutenant Beaning. The men were advancing right where the barrage would fall, He glanced at his watch. It was 2:28. Just twelve minutes remained in which to stop the barrage. The two ran full speed along the edge of the woods until they came to a road which led directly to the P. C. Here the mud was almost boot-top deep. They were almost in despair when they came to the Third Battalion P. C., about half way between the Regimental P. C. and the edge of the wood. Sergeant Lane was disconnecting the telephone to start forward with his line. In feverish haste, it was again connected. Colonel Reeves had not yet left the telephone. In a moment, the artillery had the information and Sergeant Lane hastened forward with his line.
When Lieutenant Benning reached the Regimental P. C. he learned that the artillerymen had been instructed to put down a barrage eight hundred meters in advance of the first line. It was considered this advance would allow for the progress already made by the troops. Colonel Reeves immediately sent Lieutenant Benning forward again for a report on the situation. An artillery liaison officer who accompanied him stated that the firing was entirely by map. A glance from the edge of the woods showed the disastrous results of the barrage. The Infantry had advanced so rapidly that the "lights" were falling on the assaulting wave while the "heavies" were falling on the support wave. A rocket promptly went up from the center of the line but the artillerymen were behind the woods and could not see the signal.
At this point, the party recognized a telephone wire of the Signal Platoon. It was broken. Lieutenant Benning quickly spliced the ends and hung the wire over a bush. At the Battalion P. C. it was learned that this good line, which had been run out by Sergeant Cato's Second Battalion detail, refused at first to respond but had come in again in a short time. Major Blackinton had seen the explosion of the shells as well as the signal and asked the artillery to stop the barrage.
A little later, the assaulting troops reorganized and advanced to the army objective. At midnight, Captain Masseck, operations officer, telephoned co-ordinates of the new position from the Regi-
mental P. C., a muddy shell-hole in Barricourt Woods, to Brigade Headquarters. The day's work was still not done for signalmen. Although a fourth of the platoon were casualties, the line must be checked and communication established.
After a few busy days of trying to keep in touch with the ever-shifting units of the Regiment, orders came on the night of November 10th to follow on to Stenay. The Signal Platoon spent the night in taking over communication within the new sector. Linemen ran a wire from the Regimental P. C. in Remonville to the Brigade P. C. in Boucq and another to the river toward Stenay. The radio squad accompanied the Second Battalion as their only means of communication with Brigade Headquarters from across the river. All were ready for the attack.
At 9:20, November 11th, a telephone message announced that all firing would cease at eleven o'clock. The armistice had been signed. Almost at the same instant came an order to take Stenay before that hour. Stenay would not only mean a great convenience for our troops but it would also be of tremendous military advantage in case the terms of the armistice were not carried out. The First Battalion had spent the night in planning to cross the river. Company "A" led the way. Lieutenant Benning with a detail of one Sergeant and five men followed the platoon with a telephone. The crossing was difficult for the doughboy with his rifle. It was almost impossible for the signal detail with their bulky reels of wire. No sooner were they across than the telephone was connected and the 353rd Infantry was reported in possession of Stenay. And the Regiment's part in the fighting of the World War was over.
If there was one quality above all others that characterized the 353rd Infantry it was the spirit of co-operation.
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