US Army

On this Day in 1925; The Biter (nearly) Bitten at Sing Sing.


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When heroin-loving gangsters Morris ‘Whitey’ Diamond and his brother Joey teamed up with John Farina for an armed robbery and murder, they surely knew they had a fair chance of joining him in Sing Sing’s Death House and Old Sparky as well. The 1920’s and 30’s were halcyon days for New York’s ‘State Electrician’ and his infamous contraption, after all.

What they would never live to know (and executioner John Hurlburt came to know all too well) was that Hurlburt very nearly joined them in Sing Sing’s morgue. Hurlburt’s story is no great secret (you can find my account of it here) but less is reported of the night he found himself almost as dead as any of his 140 ‘customers.’

The Diamonds and Farina found themselves awaiting death for an armed robbery committed in 1924. They stole over $43,000 from bank messenger William Barlow and guard William McLaughlin. In the process they shot Barlow (a retired NYPD officer) three times in the back. McLaughlin (a US Army veteran) managed to fire a few shots before dying.

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It might have gone better if the Diamonds hadn’t been using heroin before the job. It might have gone better still if Whitey hadn’t left a blood-stained finger print in the getaway car, hadn’t left a false licence plate where it was easily found and hadn’t falsely registered it under the name ‘Joe Samuels.’ It probably didn’t help that the address on the false registration was also where Whitey habitually collected his mail.

Further bad news came via bank clerk Antony Pantano, the gang’s inside man. For a lowly clerk, his colleagues thought, he had an unusual interest in the bank’s security \arrangements, especially those involving cash deliveries and collections. When their colleagues were ambushed and left dying in the street, they immediately pointed the finger at Pantano.

Grilled by NYPD officers furious at Barlow’s murder and no doubt wanting to avoid a seat in Old Sparky, Pantano cracked. He named the Diamonds and Farina as the shooters and Nicky ‘Cheeks’ Luciano and George Desaro as driving the two getaway cars. Luciano, no relation, takes no great role in the story. Desaro was later arrested in his native Italy, which agreed to prosecute him and gave him 30 years for his role. He was luckier than Farina and the Diamonds, but not Pantano.

Pantano also found himself going ‘up the river’ to await ‘Black Thursday,’ but his sentence was commuted. Those of the Diamonds and Farina, however, weren’t. New York’s courts had an unwritten rule of never interfering in the cases of condemned cop killers and that Barlow had been retired made no difference. The Whitey, Joey and Farina would die on the same night, April 30, 1925, one after another.

New York’s death warrants only specified a particular week for a prisoner’s electrocution. With that in mind, executions were traditionally conducted on Thursdays (barring last-minute legal appeals, stays of execution, temporary reprieves or commutations.

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As Pantano left the Death House for Sing Sing’s general population, it must have occurred to him that he’d had a very narrow escape. During its tenure, Sing Sing’s Old Sparky (New York once had three of them) claimed 614 of the State’s 695 electrocutions. For every three inmates who walked in, two were wheeled out.

New York wasn’t a State noted for its generosity to the condemned. Pantano’s information and his being a first offender had undoubtedly saved him. As career criminals the Diamond brothers and Farina knew the rules of the game. They must also have known they’d gambled their lives, and lost. John Hurlburt pencilled a lucrative date in his diary, as much as he’d come to hate the work.

Hurlburt’s contract with New York was the same as his predecessor Edwin Davis. For single executions he was paid $150 and travel expenses. For doubles or more, which weren’t unusual, he got $150 for the first inmate and an extra per head thereafter. He would leave Sing Sing with $250 for his night’s work, more than some people earned in a year. Hurlburt, however, was cracking up.

Hurlburt had taken over from Davis when Davis retired in 1912, Davis having trained both Hurlburt and another assistant, Robert Greene Elliott. Initially a believer in capital punishment, he now found himself doing the job only for the money. With his wife Mattie chronically-ill he had no other way to pay the medical bills.

In the months before his date with Farina and the Diamonds he’d become withdrawn, sullen, temperamental, aggressive and depressed. Tantrums were regular, Hurlburt throwing items of equipment around the death chamber and cursing at guards while preparing for an execution.

This time, hours before he was due to earn his fee, Hurlburt suffered a nervous collapse. Prison officials were facing a crisis. Under New York law only a State Electrician could perform an electrocution and Hurlburt was the only one they had. No electrician, no electrocution. After much soft-soaping, gentle persuasion and cajoling, Hurlburt recovered enough to do the job, but only just.

At 11pm, Morris was first in line. He walked in, sat down and died. As his body was wheeled away in came his brother Joey. When Joey had been pronounced dead John Farina rounded out Hurlburt’s triple-hitter. Hurlburt, a broken man by then, promptly  suffered another nervous collapse. He spent the next week in hospital before recovering enough to leave. Unfortunately for Hurlburt, who desperately needed relaxing, calm and above all safe surroundings, he was taken to the nearest available medical facility;

The infirmary at Sing Sing Prison.

Luckily for Hurlburt, he’d been a firm adherent to Edwin Davis’s approach to anonymity. The press had his name, but they never got a picture or any other personal details. His desire for anonymity and the safety thereof was about to save his life.

Some people just aren’t popular in prisons. Informers, ex-cops, ex-guards and sex offenders usually top the list of people considered fair game. Anyone wanting to make them suffer and possibly kill them has virtually free rein to do so if they can get away with it. Seldom, however, will you find anyone convicts hate more than an executioner.

Hurlburt must have been terrified. He couldn’t have avoided the fact (and fear) that, if anyone blew his cover, Hurlburt would be a dead man. He’d immediately be headed for the same morgue as the 140 or so inmates on whom he’d inflicted the ‘hot seat.’ If they even thought he might have been involved with Old Sparky, they’d kill him.

All in all, not what the doctor ordered. With the Diamonds and Farina dead, Hurlburt himself didn’t last much longer. He performed only two more executions, John Durkin on August 27 and Julius Miller on September 19, then resigned only hours before he was due to executed John Slattery and Ambrose Miller. on January 16, 1926. Slattery and Miller were delighted, their executions were postponed and subsequent legal action saw them commuted. Their accomplices Luigi Rapito and Emil Klatt were less fortunate.

By their date on January 29 New York had appointed the other of Davis’s two proteges, the legendary ‘Agent of Death’ Robert Greene Elliott. Another accomplice, Frank Daley, followed them on June 24. Daley played it tough until the bitter end, cursing Slattery and Ross for implicating him until the switch was thrown.

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As it turned out Hurlburt, in failing health himself, his nerves broken and grieving after Mattie’s death in September, 1928, wasn’t long in joining them. On the afternoon of February 22, 1929 he walked into the basement of his home near Auburn Prison where he’d worked as both electrician and performed his very first executions. In his hand was the revolver he always carried when visiting a prison.

He didn’t walk out.

 

Albert Pierrepoint – Master Hangman.


 Albert Pierrepoint, King of the swingers.


Albert Pierrepoint, King of the swingers.

.Public Executioner. It’s not what you’d call an everyday profession. Unusual? Certainly. Skilled? Absolutely. Dark and scary? Well, it depends on why you fancy the job, really. But it’s certainly not the sort of work that most people would consider a life’s ambition or the family business unless you happen to be Albert Pierrepoint. Albert really wanted the job and even wrote a school essay on how much he fancied doing it, possibly because his uncle and father were hangmen as well and he ended up working with his uncle quite a few times. Albert ended up having legally killed more people (at least 435 men and 17 women) than any half-dozen British serial killers combined and then, having ‘topped’ that many people (as he so quaintly put it) the ‘Master Hangman’ (as he so modestly called himself) had a sudden revelation that killing people to demonstrate that killing is wrong slightly failed any semblance of logic or common sense. Which was bit late for him (after 25 years in the job) and ever so slightly late for the 450 or so people that dear Albert referred to as his ‘customers’ (although the complaints department phone never rang, for some reason utterly unrelated to their all being dead).

 The 'Execution Box' containing the tools of Albert's grisly trade.


The ‘Execution Box’ containing the tools of Albert’s grisly trade.

For our diminutive death merchant (he was a little chap, only about five feet and six inches tall) stringing people up wasn’t a sordid, grim, depressing affair that most people wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. It was a skilled and potentially dangerous ‘craft’ at which he liked to excel with his speed and skill. British hangmen had an unofficial competition to hold unofficial records for the fastest and cleanest killings possible. Sort of a ‘Death Race’ if you like. Albert managed to ‘top’ his rivals (not literally) when he executed a prisoner and took only 7 seconds from start to finish. 7 seconds. Not even long enough to say ‘Good Morning, Mr. Pierrepoint’ before his latest dance partner was doing the hangman’s hornpipe before a bevy of (somewhat stunned) local dignitaries. Still, it was Albert’s job to make things go with a swing, when you think about it.

 Where the bottom fell out of their world.


Where the bottom fell out of their world.

Albert was always somewhat irked by the miserly pay for what he considered a skilled and potentially dangerous profession. The pay for the job was, frankly, lousy. It was a small amount that was only paid half before a job and half after and if a prisoner’s sentence was commuted then the executioners weren’t paid anything at all, not even travel expenses. Albert often went from one end of the UK to another and came home penniless and that was why he quit the job in 1956, leaving the authorities to go hang, as it were. It didn’t matter to the powers-that-be that their master butcher ended up out of pocket, just as long as they saved some cash as well as saving a prisoner’s neck (literally).

 You weren't paid a thing if they didn't have to swing.


You weren’t paid a thing if they didn’t have to swing.

Still, Albert’s job did have its lighter side. He owned a pub when he wasn’t travelling round the country performing his famous rope trick and it had an amusingly appropriate name all things considered. His pub was named ‘Help the Poor Struggler’, something Albert had made a career out of. It’s even said there was an appropriate sign dangling over the beer pumps, presumably for the benefit of more tardy customers, which read ‘No Hanging Round the Bar.’

 Albert was a professional until the last drop.


Albert was a professional until the last drop.

Albert even found time to become an unwilling celebrity. He’d always kept his ‘craft’ a secret from anybody who didn’t absolutely need to know (it tends to invite a certain amount of unhealthy curiosity when you say you kill people for a living, after all). But his best efforts to stay out of the limelight ended courtesy of World War Two when it was publicly announced that he’d be popping over to Germany to perform his rope trick on over 200 Nazis. Not surprisingly in 1945 this made him a pretty popular chap all round. His amusingly-named pub did more business than ever as voyeurs turned up in droves just to look at him, get their photos taken with him, buy him pints of beer (which he kept behind the bar and sold back to other customers) and simply so they could say they’d shaken hands with the ‘Genial hangman’ as he became known.

Albert resigned in 1956 in a dispute over money. As usual, he’d been engaged to execute Thomas Bancroft, a murderer of no particular note, gone to Walton Prison at his own expense and then Bancroft was reprieved with only 12 hours to spare. Albert, tired of being stuck with travel and hotel bills, demanded that his superiors pay his expenses and they refused. So he quit as he’d rather be dropping convicts than dropping cash every time an inmate’s lawyer managed to get them off. His bosses begged and pleaded (they didn’t have anyone else who could do the job as well as Albert and you could call him ‘Top of the drops’ really) but he held firm and even refused their oh-so-kind invitation to go back on their list and continue providing cut-price carnage on their behalf. He finally turned against his former occupation (a bit late for himself and certainly far too late for 450 convicts) and later said that the death penalty achieved nothing but revenge.

Which was nice…

John ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill


 "Yes, I'm Lieutenant Colonel Churchill. Looking for excitement, are you..?"


“Yes, I’m Lieutenant Colonel Churchill. Looking for excitement, are you..?”

Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill. Known to his friends as ‘Jack.’ Known to his fellow Commandos as ‘Mad Jack’ and/or ‘Fighting Jack.’ Probably known to the German Army as ‘Oh no, it’s him again’, He started life in the leafy, peaceful English county of Surrey. It was about the last conventional time and place Jack would inhabit for, oh, the next couple of decades. He had a public school education, went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and was posted to Burma as a 2nd Lieutenant in the well-respected Manchester Regiment. In Burma he began his love affair with all things Scottish, despite not having a drop of Scottish blood in him. He studied the bagpipes and acquired a fondness for the Scottish Claybeg, a basket-hilted broadsword that he used in battle because:

“An officer who goes into battle without his sword is improperly dressed.”

Churchill archery

Army life soon began to bore him. Jack was an unconventional man in an extremely conventional world and the British Army was about as conventional as it gets. After ten years in the service he’d had enough of living with strict rules for absolutely everything and he quit, taking a job as a newspaper editor and taking up the sport of archery. The dreaded English longbow was another medieval weapon Jack would take into battle as, after the 1939 World Championship in Norway, the clouds of impending war were darkening the skies of Europe. Jack decided the time had come to rejoin the Army and put himself in harm’s way once again.

 Jack had an individual interpretation of the military phrase 'cold steel.'


Jack had an individual interpretation of the military phrase ‘cold steel.’

Jack’s first taste of action was around Dunkirk in 1940. His regiment were headed for the port and (hopefully) passage home when a German infantry unit suddenly barred their way. Jack, being Jack, solved this little problem unconventionally by killing the enemy commander with his longbow (becoming the last soldier in military history to kill with a bow and arrows). He then led his unit in a desperate charge through the enemy ranks. Shortly after returning to England Jack heard about a new type of British soldier, the Commandos. Despite the fact that he had little idea what Commandos actually did. He signed up because their work was highly dangerous so obviously it would be a lot of fun. Jack proved a natural Commando. He had the aggression of a lion, the coolness of an experienced soldier and was unconventional even by Commando standards. The man and the job fit together perfectly and Jack was already building his legend.

 Why not have a little music between firefights?


Why not have a little music between firefights?

Jack was also keen on motorcycles. Very keen. So keen, in fact, that during one Commando raid he strapped his broadsword to his hip, his bow and arrows on his back and his mighty bagpipes over one shoulder and entered the fray by riding a 500cc monster off a landing craft and straight into the heart of the fighting while bellowing his personal battle cry of ‘COMMAND-OOOOOOOOO!’ Which left his own side astounded and the enemy staring in understandably open-mouthed disbelief. The legend of ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill was growing and now even other Commandos considered him entirely well named. 

By July, 1943 our fearless fighter was a full-blown legend and there was no stopping him. He led Number Two Commando in a raid on the Sicilian town of La Molina, hoping to silence an enemy lookout post. Jack went to reconnoitre the enemy positions with a Corporal as back-up and once again returned having added once more to his legend. He’d brought back some souvenirs of his recon in the form of 42 German prisoners whom he’d collected and marched back to the Commando positions while waving his sword at them ad threatening summary beheading for anyone trying to escape. For some reason his prisoners thought, seeing as they outnumbered him 42 to 1 and he still didn’t seem worried, that ‘Mad Jack’ was just mad enough to make his threat a reality. Can’t imagine why…

 

 "Improperly dressed? Never!"


“Improperly dressed? Never!”

Jack’s impressive run of luck finally ended in 1944. His team were wiped out and he was wounded and then captured while on a mission in Yugoslavia. Despite Hitler’s ‘Commando Order’ stating that all captured Commandos were to be shot, Jack was spared because he told them he was related to a certain other Mr. Churchill, Winston. Jack was no more related to Winston than I am but, as huge a lie as it was, it worked. Jack was sent instead to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, from which he promptly escaped, was recaptured, escaped again and made an epic 150-mile march to meet advancing American troops, surviving on rainwater he drank from roadside puddles and a can of onions he’d managed to steal somewhere along the way.

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Jack still hadn’t had enough. Within weeks of returning to England he’d managed to arrange a posting to the Far East (where war was still raging) but, sadly for Jack (though probably nobody else involved) the war ended while he was aboard a troopship. He expressed his feelings about the end of the war by blaming the Americans for intruding in European affairs (thus depriving him of further chances to get himself killed) by saying, very angrily:

“Damn those Yanks! If they’d stayed out of it we could have been fighting for another ten years!”

 

The Strange Case Of Leroy Henry


 Leroy Henry was condemned only days before the Normandy landings began. His case was a headache Eisenhower didn't need.


Leroy Henry was condemned only days before the Normandy landings began. His case was a headache Eisenhower didn’t need.

The strange case of Leroy Henry attracts me for two reasons. One is that I like to look at the unusual. Even if posting on a widely-known and common story then I prefer one with a twist. It helps keep things interesting. Leroy Henry’s case was very interesting. Private Henry was one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who flooded the UK in preparation for Operation Overlord, the liberation of Europe. He arrived in 1943 and was assigned to the 3914 Quartermaster Gas Supply Company delivering fuel to various US Army units. He was also black and so had to endure both the racial segregation in the Army at the time and no small amount of racial prejudice, particularly from his fellow Americans. He was based in Somerset, near Bristol and it was at Somerset’s Shepton Mallet Prison that he nearly, but not quite, kept an unjustified date with the hangman.

The summer of 1944 was, for obvious reasons, a rather busy time for Americans and their British hosts. Few people knew when or where the forthcoming invasion would happen, but it was no secret that sooner or later it would. Private Henry, like most young soldiers abroad, liked to spend his time off relaxing. A few drinks, a dance or a movie and maybe some time with a woman. There’s nothing unusual about that, or about the fact that he was apparently paying for her time. But Leroy Henry was a black man in a segregated US Army from a country with a long-established history of keeping people like him in what many whites thought was their place. In the South lynchings still occurred, a black defendant stood a far higher chance of conviction (especially if the injured party was white) and, if convicted of a capital crime, was much more likely to face execution. Leroy Henry was black, came from Missouri (not the most racist state in the Union, but no sinecure, either) and was on trial for the alleged rape of a 33-year old British woman. A white 33-year old British woman. Rape in the US Army was (and still is) a capital crime under Section 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and defendants at the time would be tried for their lives under the US Army Articles of War of June 4, 1920. A black defendant, an institutionally racist Army and a white alleged victim didn’t look promising for the defence. And it wasn’t.

Henry was court-martialled at a US Army camp near the town of Warminster. Under the Visiting Forces Act, Parliament had agreed that the US Army could handle its own criminal cases unless the Army waived that right and handed the case over to the British police and legal system. They didn’t. The court-martial was presided over by a Colonel, prosecuted by a Captain Cullison and Henry was defended by a Major Drew. The jury consisted eight officers, seven white and one black. 

Henry’s alleged victim (who shall remain nameless) alleged that he had appeared at her home in the village of Combe Down late one night lost, asking for directions to the city of Bristol. She also claimed her husband was present and that he had no objections when she offered to go out with Henry and personally direct him to the road for Bristol. Having left the house, she alleged that Henry had assaulted her, threatened her with a knife, thrown her over a wall and then raped her at knife-point. There were, however, some serious doubts about her having made a genuine allegation. Inquiries revealed that she had been, at least, a part-time prostitute, offering sexual favours to soldiers in return for money, food and goods often entirely unavailable to civilians due to strict wartime rationing. That in itself isn’t proof of perjury, not in the slightest, but more doubts were to follow. Chief among them being that, while medical examination did reveal evidence of sexual activity, it didn’t reveal any trace whatsoever of physical injury, signs of a struggle or indeed any evidence of physical mistreatment whatsoever. Inquiries also revealed that Leroy Henry and his alleged victim were known to each other and had been for some time.

Leroy Henry, not surprisingly gave a different version of events. He admitted sleeping with the alleged victim, but claimed he had agreed to pay her for doing so. According to Henry he had been prepared to pay her £1 (worth far more then that today) but that she had demanded twice that. According to Henry, he told her he didn’t have £2 and was prepared to pay half that, at which point she flew into a rage and threatened to report him to the Army for raping her.

So, the jury had two different stories. One came from a black defendant without any supporting eyewitnesses who may or may not have been lying to save himself. The other came from a white woman whose character would have been considered dubious by the standards of the time and who claimed to have been victim of a violent attack while having suffered no physical injuries. The jury chose to believe the alleged victim. Private Leroy Henry was found guilty and condemned to death by hanging, sentence to be carried out at Shepton Mallet Prison, using a standard British gallows operated by British executioners. Henry was shipped to Shepton Mallet, a British civilian prison loaned to the US Army by the British authorities for the duration of the war, with an armed escort and under sentence of death. 

147 US servicemen were executed for crimes committed during the Second World War, 70 of whom died in Europe. All were convicted of rape and/or murder. All were either hanged or shot, shooting being the preferred choice for purely military offences such as desertion or mutiny, with the exception of the US Army’s sole execution for desertion during World War II, the widely-known case of Private Eddie Slovik.. Having been convicted of a capital crime involving a civilian, Leroy Henry would hang unless a Board of Review rejected the sentence or a General signed a commutation. Under the circumstances, neither a sympathetic Board of Review or equally sympathetic General were especially likely prospects. 

 The then-new gallows chamber at Shepton Mallet Prison. Leroy Henry was lucky to avoid his date with the hangman.


The then-new gallows chamber at Shepton Mallet Prison. Leroy Henry was lucky to avoid his date with the hangman.

Shepton Mallet had become the US Army’s princpal military prison for the ‘European Theater of Operations’ (ETO). It wasn’t the only place in Europe where American soldiers were condemned and executed, but it was one of the more regular spots for eithet a firing squad or a hanging. At Shepton Mallet firing squads were conducted at 8am. There were two prisoners shot at dawn. Sixteen were hanged in the newly-constructed gallows room, built to British specifications and operated by British hangmen. Hangings were usually performed at 1am. Sixteen men were hanged at Shepton Mallet while two more were shot. Of those hanged, nine had been convicted of murder, six of rape and three of both. Six of them were executed standing side-by-side in three double hangings, a British gallows being designed to hang two inmates at once if needed. The average age of those executed was twenty-one years old. No officers were executed, they comprised seventeen Privates and one Corporal. The principal executioner was Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by his son Albert, Herbert Morris, Steve Wade and Alexander Riley. Albert did perform three himself, but Thomas pulled the lever most often. 

General_of_the_Army_Dwight_D._Eisenhower_1947

 

Lodged in the specially-built ‘Condemned Cell’ at Shepton Mallet, things looked very bleak indeed for Leroy Henry. At least they did until the intervention of a local tradesman, a local dignitary and 33,000 local people. Jack Allen was the local baker who started the petition. Appalled by the quality of incriminating evidence (more the rather striking lack thereof) he began to collect signatures. This wasn’t unusual in cases involving British condemned inmates and was seldom successful. In Leroy Henry’s case it was, especially when in the nearby spa town of Bath Alderman and local Magistrate Sam Day added his voice and signature to the chorus of disapproval. What resembled a case of ‘Jim Crow Justice’ now became a political and diplomatic football.

Campaigning proceeded quickly and snowballed equally fast. Faced with a petition of 33,000 names, wide local outcry, highly-connected locals like Sam Day and finally the attention of the national press, General (and future President) Dwight D Eisenhower swiftly brought matters to a head. Not only did he refuse to confirm the death sentence, he also threw out the entire case. Private Leroy Henry was now free to return to his unit without a stain on his record. It’s unusual that so high-ranking a figure as ‘Ike’ would personally involve himself in a routine court-martial, or that he would take such decisive and far-reaching action. It’s especially indicative of the pressure placed on him behind the scenes as Henry was condemned only a few days before June 6, 1944 when, for obvious reasons, this was an extra headache on top of the D Day landings that he really didn’t need.

So, justice was served after all, albeit in highly convoluted fashion.with an unexpected guest appearance from General Eisenhower… 

Bullets, Bathtubs And The Battle Of Stenay


General William Wright, who ordered his 89th Infantry Division to take Stenay so they could take a bath.

You’re a General, a Divisional commander no less. You have 10-12,000 soldiers under your personal command. You know the war is hours away from ending, that a peace deal has been agreed. It’s just a matter of ordering your men to hold their positions, keep their heads down and wait until the war officially ends. So you would, wouldn’t you? After all, there’s no sense in ordering your division to attack and cause heavy casualties, on both sides, when if you wait a few more hours they can march through former enemy territory without a shot fired.

This is exactly what US Army General William Wright, commanding the 89th infantry Division, DIDN’T do.

The commander of the American ExpeditionaryForce, General Pershing, had told his divisional commanders that the Armistice would begin at 11am on November 11, 1918. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. What Pershing DIDN’T do was give those commanders clear orders for what to do in the meantime. Of his sixteen divisional commanders, seven ordered their troops to hold their positions and wait for the official Armistice at 11am. Nine chose to continue attacking, still pushing forward, fighting even when there was no military need to do so. General Wright was one of them.

Even more bizarre than committing his division regardless of there being no military need was his stated reason for ordering his men to take the French town of Stenay. Stenay was the last French town captured by American troops. It was (and still is) just a pleasant-looking town of no real military value and didn’t have much worth fighting over. It did have public bathing facilities, though, and it was so his men could have a wash and shave that Wright sent them to take the town.

Yes, with only hours left in the war, Wright sent an entire division risking their lives so the ones who didn’t die taking Stenay could have a bath there. Orders being orders, they didn’t get to choose whether or not to risk dying so they could have a soak in the tub. They were simply handed their orders and sent into battle even after they’d been told the Armistice was only hours away. Pershing knew about the Armistice. Wright knew about the Armistice. Everybody down to the newest Private in the Division knew about the Armistice, but they were sent anyway. Assuming the attack wasn’t repulsed, assuming the Americans captured Stenay without being wiped out, assuming that the public baths hadn’t been destroyed and that they actually had enough water to cater for a division of tired, cold, wet, filthy soldiers who’d been in the line for nearly two weeks, any American who wasn’t killed capturing the baths could get to sit in one. The 89th Infantry Division would have the distinction of taking the last objective to fall to American troops during the First World War. Their commander would have the distinction of ordering one of the most pointless attacks in military history.

Despite the fact that the war was within hours of ending, Stenay wasn’t what you’d call a soft target. Although the German Army was a shadow of its previous size and effectiveness the troops holding Stenay had artillery, machine guns, large numbers of infantry and the infantryman’s most feared and hated adversary, snipers, who were operating in numbers around Stenay. Plus, Stenay was on a hill overlooking the Meuse River. American troops would have to cross the Meuse in single file, on improvised walkways, under heavy artillery, rifle, machine gun and sniper fire because the bridges had all been blown before they arrived. Stenay wasn’t in the league of the Hindenburg Line, but it certainly wasn’t a walk in the park either.

So, regardless of it being totally unnecessary, likely to cause heavy casualties on both sides and the actual objective being entirely absurd, the 89th went forward and captured Stenay. From starting their advance towards Stenay at around 8am on November 11, 1918 until the official start of the Armistice at 11am the 89th Infantry Division suffered 365 casualties. 61 men killed, 304 wounded, just because the Divisional commander thought those who survived might want to have a bath and a shave. It’s perhaps no coincidence that, while the attack on Stenay was the last action fought by the 89th, it was also the last day in command for General Wright. On 12 November Major General Frank Winn (one of the 89th’s previous commanders) arrived at Divisional HQ and immediately replaced Wright as the 89th’s commander.

When Wright’s decision to attack and his reason became public knowledge there was an outcry back home. Americans, not least the friends and relatives of the soldiers killed attacking Stenay, demanded to know exactly why Wright had made so dreadful a decision. Despite a public inquiry into events of November 11 and the pointless attacks ordered by Wright and some other American commanders, Wright himself was never disciplined. Following the war, General Wright became the Executive Assistant to the Chief of Staff of the United States Army and acting Army Chief of Staff, and then commanded IX Corps. Before his retirement in 1923 he commanded the Department of the Philippines. In retirement he resided in Washington, D.C. It isn’t just that he wasn’t disciplined over Stenay, he was rewarded with plum Washington postings.

With Remembrance in mind, it would be unfair and ignorant not to acknowledge the full scope of Wright’s culpability. The 365 Americans killed or wounded were attacking on Wright’s orders. Wright’s stated objective had no military value, the Americans could simply have waited a few hours and then walked into Stenay without so much as a shot fired. And let’s not forget the German casualties. The Germans also suffered significant casualties during the fighting around Stenay. Those Germans died within hours of the Armistice, and they died in totally unnecessary battle that only General William Wright seemed to think was a good idea.

 

This post has also been published at:

http://itshistorypodcasts.com/blog/2014/4/22/the-tale-of-the-last-american-world-war-i-battle-that-took-place-for-a-bath#.U1bN4fldWvl