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Charles White Whittlesey

Charles Whittlesey, a graduate of Williams College and Harvard law School, is known for leading the so-called Lost Battalion of more than 550 men, cut off by German troops in the Forest of Argonne. Born in Florence, WI, January 20, 1884, he moved as an infant to Pittsfield, MA.

When the U.S. entered World War I, he resigned from his New York City law partnership and joined the Army as a captain of the 77th Division, often called the “Metropolitan Division,” made up mostly of men from the Lower East side of New York City, a group that spoke 42 different languages or dialects. In September 1917, he was promoted to major.

Whittlesey received the Medal of Honor for his actions over several days, beginning October 2, 1918, when the 77th, as part of a massive American attack, was sent forward against a heavily fortified German line. When units on their flanks failed to progress, Whittlesey’s troops were pinned down by German fire from surrounding high bluffs. For several days, Whittlesey and his men were without food or water. Some his crew of 544 men had never thrown a live grenade; still, for four days, they resisted snipers and attacks by German troops armed with hand grenades and even flame throwers.

When German officers sent a blindfolded American prisoner forward to ask for surrender, Whittlesey refused and even ordered the removal of white sheets that had been laid out to signal aricraft to their location, lest they be taken as signs of surrender. By the time reinforcements arrived, 107 had been killed and 63 were missing, With 190 men wounded, only 194 were able to walk away.

His second in command, George G. McMurtry, also received the medal. Whittlesey was promoted to lieutenant colonel and returned to the law in New York City. Because of the fame of the Lost Battalion, much of his time was taken up by requests for public appearances, and Whittlesey was unhappy with the public pressure. Along with Alving York and Samuel Woodfill, he acted as pall bearer for the burial of the Unknown Soldier in November 1921. A few days later, he left on a cruise to Havana aboard the SS Toloa. On the first night, he dined with the captain and retired to his room, where he wrote a series of letter to family and friends as well as instructions for the disposition of his luggage. He was never seen again.

The Williams Club in New York City has a room bearing his name. In a television film The Lost Battalion Whittlesey was played by Rock Schroder.

Citation: Although cut off for 5 days from the remainder of his division, Maj. Whittlesey maintained his position, which he had reached under orders received for an advance, and held his command, consisting originally of 46 officers and men of the 308th Infantry and of Company K of the 307th Infantry, together in the face of superior numbers of the enemy during the 5 days. Maj. Whittlesey and his command were thus cut off, and no rations or other supplies reached him, in spite of determined efforts which were made by his division. On the 4th day Maj. Whittlesey received from the enemy a written proposition to surrender, which he treated with contempt, although he was at the time out of rations and had suffered a loss of about 50 percent in killed and wounded of his command and was surrounded by the enemy.