[Note: This article originally appeared in The Blue Devil, November 2011, number 3. This version has been edited by the author to include corrections and additional pictures.]
The 88th Division was a late addition to the WWI U.S. Order of Battle. It was activated by Congress June 18th, 1917 and officially organized August 25th with the arrival of Major General Edward H. Plummer to Camp Dodge, Iowa. The
88th was formed by utilizing reserve officers from other bases, including Ft.
Snelling, Minnesota, as well as a few soldiers recently back from the war. The Division initially served as collection point of draftees from the new Selective Service Act of 1917, providing basic training to soldiers who shipped out as replacements into other units already overseas. The first recruits began arriving September 4th and the division was in full swing later that same month. The men of the 88th trained nearly 50,000 draftees between September 1917 and February 1918. Such a high proportion of recruits were cycled through Camp Dodge and transferred to other units headed to the front lines that it led the Secretary of War to later note that the 88th Division had “trained more troops than the world had ever known.”
With the turning of the calendar in January of 1918 many officials in government worried that the end of the conflict in Europe was nowhere in sight. The War Department determined that to turn the tide of war, the U.S. would have to field more divisions. Individual replacements to units already in Europe was not enough to overwhelm the entrenched enemy. Therefore, it was decided that the 88th would no longer serve as a training unit. Rather, it would deploy to the front lines of France. As the seemingly endless stream of recruits arrived at Camp Dodge, transfers out were stopped. In March, 1918 the official buildup of the division began, in which they filled out the "square" formation that included four infantry regiments, the 349th, 350th, 351st, and 352nd, as well as several supporting units.
Drafted in May 1918, at the age of 25, musical prodigy Earl Lemmon was inducted as a member of Supply Company, 351st Infantry Regiment. Born in Troy, Iowa, and a ninth
great-grandson of Pocahontas, he was raised on a farm just outside of Pulaski, Iowa. He was a self-taught, multi-talented, musician playing violin, saxophone, and banjo, and was a member of the Pulaski Town Band. The band, founded before 1880, provided weekly concerts and was an integral part of the annual Pulaski Corn Show. Earl traded his hometown life of farming, concerts, and family, for an unknown future in military service with our country. He, along with thousands of men inducted through the Selective Service Act of 1917 from Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, were directed to the training grounds of Camp Dodge.
While waiting for the size of the unit to grow and their training to begin, boredom set in. To combat the situation, entertainment was organized around the camp. With Earl’s instrumental skills it wasn’t long before he was transferred to the 351st Regimental Band, playing baritone saxophone. By late May, the division reached the targeted level of troops and training began in earnest. As the boot camp portion of training commenced, we can guess Earl took part in the physical training and left the sax behind. During training Earl became a medical corpsman. Perhaps he was assigned this duty because just before his entrance into the 88th, Earl was an apprentice mortician with a funeral home in Bloomfield, Iowa.
The men were drilled by expert instructors, and taught about realities of war by those who had been in combat. They were put through physical conditioning at a level unheard of up to that point in the U.S. Army. The instructors believed top physical conditioning was required to survive the harsh conditions of trench warfare. At the close of the war President Wilson commented that the 88th Division was the “best trained, highest functioning” unit to be fielded in “The Great War.” After completing this extensive training (which included complicated tactical “problems”) they were ready to go. However, the “ship out” order was not received, which left the unit in a state of limbo. After all their training, it appeared that the 88th would not reach Europe before the end of the war. Entertainment began to ramp up again, commensurate with the boredom. Earl Lemmon was transferred back to the 351st band.
Suddenly, on July 25th orders arrived to move overseas. The entire division packed up onto trains, traveled to the East coast, and boarded ships for England. One ship they traveled on was the White Star Liner Olympic (sister ship of the Titanic). After arriving in England they were shipped to France where they moved from town to town, attending advanced “intensive” training courses, and filling in for rear area needs. On August 25th, a seasoned veteran of trench warfare, Major-General William Weigel, took command of the 88th Division. In early September 1918 after receiving final training on trench warfare, the division was ordered forward to relieve the American 29th Division located in a “quiet” sector. At this time Earl Lemmon had resumed his role as medical corpsman with the 351st. While there is no record of his specific movement and experiences on the front lines, one can imagine what he witnessed during the next several weeks.
As the 351st was moving toward the front lines, it was realized that the troops were poorly equipped (they lacked helmets, gas masks, bed rolls, and more) and the 88th was deemed "unfit" for survival in the trenches. Instead they moved to a rear area to await proper equipment. During this period thousands of the men were infected by what was termed “Spanish Flu Virus.” In less than one week the division had nearly 500 deaths from the flu.
Though the 351st had been most heavily hit by the flu virus it was declared to be the
“most fit regiment” in the 88th. Along with the 350th, they were ordered to be the first to occupy a stretch of the front line. On October 11th packs were rolled, ammunition
issued, dog tags inspected, and the unit directed to “step out” on the 30-mile hike through the foothills of the Vosges Mountains up to the trenches. They walked to the front as they did everywhere. Official division records note that transportation was in its entirety comprised of three horses…and that’s it. No motor vehicles, no carts, no wheeled transport of any kind. Their packs weighed upwards of 100 pounds. It rained almost nonstop, and later in November the cold air added to the misery of the wet and muddy ground. While moving up to the front, the men of the 88th observed the aftermath of an American brigade that was subjected to an enemy gas attack. Over two hundred men were directly affected. Colonel Crosby, commander of the 351st Regiment wrote:
"They were brought back to our sector. There was a French hospital there and these men were taken to that hospital and thence day by day were carried to the military cemetery. It was a very sad and a very impressive sight, so much so that the [176th] brigade commander [to whom the 351st belonged] called his officers together and said in effect: 'These are avoidable casualties. You are to see that every officer and enlisted man is thoroughly qualified in the use of the gas mask, which alone affords complete safety. We cannot avoid casualties by bullets and high explosive shells, but we can avoid them from gas.'”
In time, the 351st would itself be subjected to gas attacks, and would suffer no
casualties. This is directly attributed to these last minute preparations and drilling. The men of the 351st eventually arrived at their assigned area, which was at the southern
end of the Haiite-Alsace sector. This had been the scene of fierce fighting earlier in the war. The once heavy forest was a mass of debris. Few trees were standing and the trenches had been pounded by constant artillery fire until shallow ditches were all that remained. Acres of barbed wire and shell holes stretched out to the front. Across the deserted landscape about 1000 yards was the German front line. At least one soldier was heard to mutter: “So, this is No-Man's Land.” On their approach to the trench works, the men received their first exposure to combat. They were strafed and bombed from aircraft and fiercely shelled by enemy artillery. One corporal noted:
"…We continued our march, and when we got out of this village about 80 rods the Germans opened fire on us. Then Captain Brethorst gave us orders to get under cover the best we could, which we did, and weren’t very slow about it, either. I was a corporal and there was one of my boys that didn’t get hit, and he died of fright. I don’t remember his name for he wasn’t one of my boys until that night when he was put in my squad for replacement."
Another 351st soldier noted:
"Some 100 shells lit in both the L and M Companies’ areas. Considerably more struck the I Co.
area. These were concentrated pretty well on the main trench line. It was obliterated, shelters knocked in and equipment buried yard deep. One private was buried by the collapsing of a shelter and had to be dug out. Many of these shells were of large caliber."
During the remainder of October units of the 88th conducted trench raids, fended off assaults, and conducted day and night patrols in “no man’s land.” At the end of the war seven soldiers received the French Croix de Guerre, for special recognition of gallantry. An additional thirty-one members received special citations for bravery.
In early November, even though the action began to taper off and the war appeared to be headed to an end, the 88th was in the thick of things. They were readying for an assault on the German trenches. Records indicate that the unit was preparing to take heavy casualties. It was known that where the 88th was to go it would be "savagely held by the Germans and the slaughter would be frightful." Shortly before the attack, a soldier wrote:
"The one visible reminder of the nearby presence of the enemy was the destruction by anti-aircraft guns of a two seater German biplane that was shot down in flame, Sunday, November 10th, at 12:30 P.M., and fell in one of the towns occupied by the 351st Infantry – Villey St. Etienne. All night the 10th-11th, the guns redoubled their violence and frequency of their reports and the heavens were kept aflame with the signal pyrotechnics of all colors and combinations."
With no knowledge of an impending armistice with Germany, the men located just behind the forward trenches readied themselves for attack. The roar of battle could be heard from one 351st position:
"At daylight the rattle of musketry and machine guns supporting the infantry attack vied with the field guns of the supporting barrage and the big guns of the counter battery and harassing fire. About 10:20, the firing almost ceased, but sporadically broke out afresh just before 11 o’clock, as if a final salvo of hate was being launched by both sides. Promptly at 11 o’clock a great hush fell upon the whole line, followed by cheers and shouts of joy as both sides stood up in position and wondered that such a thing as Peace could really be."
The men of the 88th making their way to the front line to take part in the assault heard the cessation of the guns, but didn’t comprehend the meaning. A 351st sergeant later recounted that he was perplexed at the sound of silence:
"It wasn't possible, this peace business, but what in thunder did it mean? Finally a car drove by and a gleaming faced major leaned out and shouted: 'She's finee.' 'It is like hell,' some hard-boiled buck in "M" Company - retorted, 'Just wait another five minutes.'"
Then, at the end of an hour, with no more firing, it became a fact that there would be no more war. It affected the feeling of the men in various ways, but one opinion was expressed by a “tough little Missourian” in K company who merely said as he adjusted his pack, "Well. I'll be damned."
At 11:00 a.m. (local time) November 11, 1918 Germany signed an armistice which led to the end of “the war to end all wars.” It was on that morning that life for the men of the 351st Infantry Regiment took on a different outlook. They were ordered to pull back from the front lines. The war for them was over. In the words of many, it ended not a moment too soon. In little less than two months “in theater” the Division lost nearly 600 men. As for the 351st,
“The one hundred and ten casualties of the regiment were almost all from flu, a few from bullets or shell fire, and none from gas; and yet, all who ‘went west’ died soldiers' deaths as truly as though they had been classed as battle casualties.”
With the war over, the 88th located itself to a rear area where rumors grew quickly that they were headed home. Instead, throughout the end of the year the division moved from location to location, first removing the debris of war, then later establishing training schools. Even with the war over the men existed in mostly harsh living conditions, which included mud, rain, and endless marching. Later, when rosters showing the rotation of units back to the U.S. were published, the 88th wasn't on them.
To help dispel the monotony, a few of the 88th Division units formed touring groups. The 351st formed a vaudeville act and toured division areas and eventually the entire 3rd Army area. As the popularity of these shows grew with the troops and even the French civilians, the shows became more sophisticated. During January the entertainers consolidated with another part of the band and went on the road as the "Khaki Karnival Ko." When the 2nd Army area was toured "a decided hit scored." A hangar was erected in the area, and shows became nightly affairs, all very much appreciated by the soldier audiences. In March, a second entertainment group was organized and became known as the "Big Four Minstrels." After their initial success, they too hit the road, finally traveling via truck.
In late March, the 88th was authorized to write, rehearse, and perform an original
show. It was called “Who Can Tell?” and was produced in record time. It took less
than six weeks to prepare, including composing and orchestrating the music, writing lyrics, and rehearsing the cast and musicians. In an effort to form the best possible pit orchestra, they put out the call for tryouts across the entire 3rd Army. Who do you think was picked to play baritone sax? That’s right, Earl Lemmon. Earl wrote to one of his buddies back in the States:
"Now I have a real job. Am in the 88 Div Show Band…we will put on our first show next Monday night. It will take about 8 days to let all of the Div see it…When we get through here we will go to Paris for 3 weeks."
The cast and chorus numbered 125 men. “Doughboy amateurs were trained until they performed like professional actors and actresses.” Actresses?
They built and staged the entire show as a Broadway level production. John Philips Sousa had oversight of the compositions, which were created especially for this purpose. 2500 men were trucked in every night to the Division hangar that had been
converted into a theater. Later, they indeed toured Paris. In the May 14, 1919 edition of the Chicago Tribune a letter to the editor noted:
"There have only been two things of real importance in Paris since you went away – the threat of the Germans to leave the Peace Conference, and the opening Monday night at the Champs Elysees Theatre of the 88th Division Show, ‘Who Can Tell.’ Some show, boy, some show! It’s the best amateur show I have ever seen on either side of the water. There are a lot of Broadway shows getting three dollars that ought to be sent to the warehouse to let this one in for a run."
Eventually even the President and Mrs. Wilson attended. The President apparently “was first to applaud the quips and his laugh rang out with the doughboys over the funny situations developed under the direction of Dinnie McDonald.”
In May, 1919 the Division was given orders to ship back to America. The tour of “Who Can Tell?” was immediately suspended and everyone given instructions to pack for home. Upon their return, some Division soldiers wrote about their disappointment of not continuing the war on into Germany. They seemed to feel that the war would probably have to be fought again because they did not completely defeat the enemy. Generally, though, all were relieved because they felt the campaign to defeat Germany in their homeland would have been a hard fought and costly undertaking.
By the close of May, the 88th Division was stateside where the colors were brought to Camp Dodge and the unit was formally demobilized. Earl Lemmon returned to the United States on the Navy Transport U.S.S. Pocahontas and docked at Norfolk, Virginia, on May 31, 1919. Imagine the odds of sailing home upon a vessel named for your ancestor. On June 15, 1919 Earl was discharged from the U.S. Army at Camp Dodge with the rank of Musician 3rd Class.
On August 12, 1921, in Des Moines, Iowa, a memorial tablet was installed at what is now the State Library of Iowa. The caption of the large wall-mounted tablet reads: “Erected by the 351st Regiment, 88th Division US Army in Memory of Their Dead Comrades 1917-1919.” Speaking at the installation ceremony honoring the 351st Regiment, Brigadier General Beach, commander of the 176th Brigade, said:
"They did not lose their lives—they gave them—gave them willingly to their country, and for this we, their comrades, will always cherish and honor their memories and hold fast the principles for which they fought."
Twenty-three years after their return to America, the 88th Infantry Division was called into service again. Activation orders were read at a ceremony held in the sweltering heat of Camp Gruber, Oklahoma. In the July 15th, 1942 ceremony Capt. John S. Quigley, veteran of the 88th Division of WWI, and president of the Division Association, challenged the soldiers to “take up the job we didn’t get done.” The challenge was accepted by the newly appointed commander General Sloan.
Special thank you to the family of Earl Lemmon for biographical information and photos
351st Infantry – First Call, C. F. Branter, 1919
Annals of Iowa, July 1921
Memoirs of France and the Eighty-Eighth Division, Edgar J. Dwight Larson, May 1920
The 88th Division in the World War, Official Division History, 1919
The Blue Devils in Italy: A History of the 88th Infantry Division in World War II, John P. Delaney, 1947
To view the 351st memorial tablet in Iowa, visit: http://iagenweb.org/greatwar/memorials/AEF/plaqueOBM.htm