Lost again: Echoes of a WWI hero's suicide

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PITTSFIELD — Memorial Day, when Americans reckon with war's cost, came early that year.

It was Dec. 11, 1921. Three thousand people crowded into the State Armory in Pittsfield to honor the late Lt. Col. Charles W. Whittlesey, famed leader of World War I's "lost battalion."

Now he too was lost.

Every newspaper reader in America knew the story. Whittlesey, a tall, bookish citizen-soldier, had led 554 men of the 308th Infantry up a thickly wooded French ravine early on Oct. 2, 1918, then become trapped and isolated.

When relief finally came, just 194 soldiers could get to their feet; 107 were dead, 63 missing. And of those able to walk, only a half dozen were deemed fit to continue the advance.

Pittsfield families knew these sacrifices well. Of the 2,780 men the city sent into service when America entered the war in 1917, 85 were killed in action.

The war would be over in a month. But not for Whittlesey.

Two weeks before the standing-room-only crowd at the armory, Whittlesey had left instructions in his New York City law office and booked passage on a United Fruit Co. steamer south toward Havana. He paid his landlady for December's rent.

On Nov. 26, 1921, after dining with the captain of the S.S. Toloa on its first night out from New York and leaving nine letters in his cabin, he jumped overboard.

Whittlesey became a statistic no one was yet tallying — the veteran suicide.

"He was someone who had a lot of emotions trapped inside," said Jim Clark, Pittsfield's director of veterans services. "When you look at it now, why would that be a surprise? Whittlesey and his men suffered a lot of what we now call PTSD."

The Department of Veterans Affairs now estimates that 20 veterans die by suicide every day in the U.S. Last year, after reviewing 55 million military records from 1979 to 2014, the VA charted the depth of the problem. Eighteen percent of all suicides in the U.S. involved veterans, though they make up only 9 percent of the population.

Rising public concern about veteran suicides led the VA to hire thousands of mental health counselors and revamp its Veterans Crisis Line. That service provides 24-hour help to people who call 800-273-8255.

In April, the VA launched a new system to try to predict veteran suicides by analyzing data from health records. The hope is to identify veterans who are at a higher risk for suicide.

The 2016 study suggested that intervention helps. Since 2001, the rate of suicide among veterans who use VA services rose 8.8 percent, compared to an increase of 38.6 percent for those not in touch with the VA.

FACING THE PROBLEM

Whittlesey's suicide was national news. The New York Times stacked up six headlines on its front-page story. One said he'd left a note for a law partner saying, "I shall not return."

Another read: "WAR PREYED ON HIS MIND."

Grieving friends, as protective of Whittlesey's privacy as the man was himself, managed to keep his final letters from a hungry press corps. In a statement, though, they were clear: "His was a war casualty."

But people at the time struggled to speak openly about suicide, Clark notes.

While returning veterans were celebrated — Whittlesey perhaps more than any other, leading to his receiving one of the first Congressional Medal of Honor awards from his war — the public might have been leery of hidden wounds.

"A lot of people came home messed up," said Clark, whose great uncle, Reynold Nielson, was killed in action April 12, 1918. Some returning veterans were viewed as "not right."

A biographical page about Whittlesey filed in the local history collection of the Berkshire Athenaeum is vague about his cause of death, listing it as "sickness."

An article published in The Eagle in 1948 backed off the candor some were able to muster even at the time of Whittlesey's suicide. The World War I hero, it said, "died on a sea voyage."

In 1982, one of the letters Whittlesey had left behind in his steamship cabin reached the Williams College Archives & Special Collections. It was addressed to John B. Pruyn, a fellow Williams graduate and his former law partner. The Eagle has not previously reported its contents.

"Dear Bayard," it began. "Just a note to say goodby. I'm a misfit by nature and by training and there's an end of it."

Whittlesey apologized for asking his old friend to be his executor. The letter goes on to deal with practical matters — bank balances, outstanding bills, life insurance policies in the safe and the General Electric stock that his father had purchased for him.

"Medals etc. in safe deposit box," he wrote.

Only near the end of a practical letter does Whittlesey address what he's about to do, and even then it left one of his closest friends to fill in blanks.

"I won't try to say anything personal, Bayard, because you and I understand each other," he wrote. "Give my love to Edith. As ever, Charles Whittlesey."

He died at age 37 and never married.

ATTEMPTS TO UNDERSTAND

Inside the cavernous armory in Pittsfield, people gathered for Whittlesey's memorial service heard flowery oratory from clergy and politicians. A choir sang "The Laborer's Task is O'er," and a bugler sounded taps.

In his eulogy, Judge Charles L. Hibbard said that when Whittlesey returned, he could not simply be "Charlie."

"None of us can even imagine the horror of those days of ceaseless fighting," he said.

Since surviving the ordeal, Whittlesey had been in great demand as a speaker. Families sought him out, their grief replenishing his own. Hibbard ventured that these public demands were too much for Whittlesey.

"Try as he may, he cannot get away from it. Wherever he turns, he is Col. Whittlesey, not the Charlie Whittlesey of old days," Hibbard said, as a flag-draped caisson stood nearby — a mute symbol of the loss, since Whittlesey's body was not recovered.

"Then begins that never ceasing and most exhausting drain upon his sympathy. From every hand come appeals for help. There are funerals and hospital visits and the impact of all such experiences upon his sensitive nature are terrific," Hibbard said. "The mainspring of his life is wound ever tighter and tighter and then comes the burial of the unknown soldier."

On Armistice Day in 1921, Whittlesey had gone to Arlington National Cemetery to serve as a pallbearer at the burial of the unknown soldier. Friends recalled he was even more reserved and seemed drawn and ill at ease. Around him were dozens of war veterans, many missing arms and legs.

"This draws the last measure of reserve and with it the realization that life had little now to offer," Hibbard said of Whittlesey's attendance at Arlington. "He had plumbed the depth of tragic suffering; he had heard the world's applause; he had seen and touched the great realities of life; and what remained was of little consequence. He craved rest, peace and sweet forgetfulness."

Frederick H. Cook, the Massachusetts secretary of state, told the crowd that Whittlesey's trip to Arlington — to honor the "unknown" dead — must have been too much to bear.

"He saw in him the face of all those boys of his command who had gone to death and that burden was rolled back on him with crushing weight," he said.

Rumors about whether Whittlesey had erred in the field, other friends said, "darkened his last days."

For years after, articles probed what happened. A 1938 book by Thomas M. Johnson, based on interviews with military leaders and survivors, cleared Whittlesey of blame.

Johnson, a former war correspondent, believed Whittlesey's heart was forever with his men that were lost. "Perhaps that was why, three years later, he decided to go the full measure with them — to join these men whom he, as a simple military duty, had led to their death."

Whittlesey's own commander, Major Gen. Robert Alexander, cited Whittlesey's "extraordinary heroism" and took responsibility for all that happened, saying Whittlesey "conducted his command to the objective designated for him by the division commander he held that position with indomitable determination."

His obituary in a Williams College publication noted that in the last two years of his life, the "grief and horror" of war had pressed down upon him.

THE ADVANCE

On Oct. 2, 1918, an enormous force had assembled in the Meuse-Argonne region to break Germany's four-year grip on this territory. Other American and French units were supposed to move alongside Whittlesey's troops on this 25-mile front.

But they'd failed to advance, enabling German forces to flank and surround Whittlesey's battalion.

For five days, Germans occupying higher and better ground pounded the Army units with mortars and grenades. Despite being swept by machine gun fire and flame throwers, Whittlesey and his men held their position, as ordered, in a narrow gully that came to be called "The Pocket."

But at great cost.

The Americans scratched into the flinty ground for shelter and to bury their dead, until too exhausted to dig. Hard tack and corned beef ran out the first noon. The men knew deprivation, many having come from poor neighborhoods of New York City as members of the 77th "Metropolitan" Infantry Division, sometimes called the "Times Square Division." They wore shoulder patches displaying the Statue of Liberty, repatriating the great lady's likeness to France.

They'd already slogged through a month of hard action.

On the day they advanced, Whittlesey had asked his superiors for permission to let the men rest. But the drive began as planned, the troops moving before a promised hot breakfast and before supplies such as overcoats, blankets and food could reach them.

Whittlesey, breaking military tradition, advanced at the head of his troops, a pistol in one hand and a pair of wire cutters in the other. At 6 feet 3 inches, he stood above them all.

By 10 a.m. that first day, Whittlesey saw there was no way out. Patrols probed for options and got into firefights. Runners kept the battalion in contact with the rear for a time, but once the troops were surrounded, Whittlesey had to use carrier pigeons to send out updates and to appeal for relief.

Whittlesey's orders were to advance "regardless of losses."

He scribbled a note in the field to his company commanders. "Our mission is to hold this position at all costs. No falling back. Have this understood by every man in your command," he wrote.

With his gear, the former college literary society member carried handwritten notes on the mission. They survived and sit now in the college archives. "Go into bivouac and await orders," one passage reads. On the back of one thin sheet he'd jotted a reading list on military tactics and leadership. He stowed it all near a photo of his mother, Annie.

By the first day, one third of the men had been killed or seriously wounded.

After a route used by messengers was cut, Whittlesey used the pigeons. He wrote on rice paper and tucked messages into metal capsules affixed to the birds' legs.

"Men are suffering from hunger and exposure; the wounded are in very bad condition," read the message sent by the sixth pigeon, the next to last one available. "Cannot support be sent at once?"

Baskets of food dropped from American planes fell into German territory. Cold rain fell for several nights.

After American artillery accidentally began falling on their own forces, killing as many as 30, Whittlesey dispatched his last pigeon with this message: "Our artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven's sake, stop it."

Survivors pulled bandages from the dead to aid the wounded. Falling mortars interrupted burial parties. By Oct. 6 they were too weak to bury the dead.

On the last day, an American captive was sent blindfolded from the German line with an offer to accept surrender.

Whittlesey became famous for lines he never uttered. A higher-up in the Army told a war correspondent, after the ordeal, that Whittlesey had told the Germans to "go to hell."

Actually, he looked around a circle of officers, later accounts concluded, and said nothing. Thirty minutes later, the Germans renewed a grenade attack. The Americans were down to two of nine machine gun units and nearly out of ammunition.

Around 7 p.m. on that fifth day, a runner broke through with news that relief forces were close. The troops had gone 104 hours without food and had little energy left to repel attacks.

Whittlesey was soon furloughed by special order and given an honorable discharge. The armistice was signed before he reached New York City less than two months later. Within days, on Dec. 6, 1918, Whittlesey was in Boston being pinned with the Medal of Honor.

France awarded him its Croix de Guerre. Other European nations lauded him as well.

`WHAT I CAN'T WRITE'

In a letter written Oct. 13, 1918, a week after the battalion's ordeal, Whittlesey told a friend named Max that he wasn't yet able to talk about what he'd experienced. The letter, on onionskin paper, sits today in a folder in a protective box in the Williams College archives.

"I appreciated your last letter. If I said it any other way I'd be trying to put into words what I can't write," Whittlesey noted.

But he had something to say about what happened in "The Pocket."

"Because out here in the woods, Max, where the hidden things of life begin to show, one learns new things. Friendships that can reach across five thousand miles and jog your elbow become pretty real and fine. And believe me I felt you right at my side with your cheery voice when that letter reached me at the end of a day that had seen — oh hell, `some digging.' "

Three years later, he was finding that cheer hard to conjure.

None of his friends knew he was leaving New York. According to The New York Times account, he'd told his housekeeper, "I'm going away to be alone for a few days. I am tired."

Whittlesey's sister-in-law, married to his brother Melzar, told The Times he never spoke of his wartime experience and hadn't mentioned his trip that month to Arlington. But when pressed by Melzar, Whittlesey admitted "that it had made a profoundly deep impression upon him."

A few days before leaving, he'd visited Pruyn, his former partner, bringing a gift of pins for his year-old baby. Marguerite Babcock, Pruyn's sister-in-law, told The Times that Whittlesey seemed in good spirits. That puzzled her, because he was typically solemn.

"That is what we cannot understand, unless he had made up his mind to take his life, and felt better that he had decided it," she told the newspaper.

Whittlesey's war, it seemed, had no end.

He had told a friend this: "Not a day goes by but I hear from some of my old outfit about some sorrow or misfortune. I cannot bear much more. I want to be left in peace."

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
This story has been updated to correct a gender reference to Whittlesey's brother, Melzar. 

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