Local troops shipped off for World War just over a century ago

by Capt. Brian Faltinson
Wisconsin National Guard

The passenger manifest for the S.S. George Washington listing members of Sheboygan’s Company C, 127th Infantry Regiment — National Archives Image The passenger manifest for the S.S. George Washington listing members of Sheboygan’s Company C, 127th Infantry Regiment — National Archives Image EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of the Wisconsin National Guard’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 32nd Division, which formed in 1917 from Wisconsin and Michigan National Guard organizations and was part of the American Expeditionary Forces in 1918. More of the series is available on the Wisconsin National Guard website and Facebook page.

It had been an eventful two years for the men of Sheboygan’s Company C, 127th Infantry Regiment.

In late February 1917, Capt. Paul Schmidt’s unit had returned to Sheboygan after nine months of Mexican Border Service and almost immediately started recruiting for World War I. Company C departed Sheboygan in August for the Wisconsin Military Reservation where it spent a few weeks preparing for its move to Camp MacArthur, Texas.

The S. S. George Washington carried 48,000 troops to France during World War I — Wikimedia Commons Image The S. S. George Washington carried 48,000 troops to France during World War I — Wikimedia Commons Image In Texas, Company C trained for World War I as part of the 32nd Division, which consisted of 15,000 Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers and 8,000 more from Michigan under the command of Maj. Gen. William Haan.

On Jan. 22, 1918, the unit’s 238 Soldiers boarded a train for a five-day journey to New Jersey’s Camp Merritt – the Army’s port of embarkation for troops sailing to France. Company C arrived two days after the first elements of the 32nd Division had departed for France on the S.S. Tuscania.

After the excitement of a day in New York City, life at Camp Merritt quickly grew tedious as the unit completed final medical and equipment checks. Finally, it was Company C’s turn to leave.

The entire unit was set to set sail on Feb. 16; however, an outbreak of scarlet fever, diphtheria and measles quarantined many and reduced Company C to only 144 men – the rest would have to catch a later ship.

Company C rose early and boarded a 5:45 a.m. train for the docks at Hoboken, N.J., where they boarded the S.S. George Washington — a former German passenger liner seized on April 6, 1917 when the U.S. declared war on Germany. The Navy had converted it into a troop transport.

The George Washington weighed anchor two days later and Company C was on its way to France. The next day, the seven-ship convoy found some weather and many of the Army troops did not take it well.

“Quite a few of the boys were seasick, including myself,” said Sgt. Lester Schlieder in a letter home. “It was a windy day and the ship rolled.”

This was the only day of bad weather and troops during the several-week voyage settled into a routine. They passed time studying French, watching movies in the mess hall or catching some fresh air while doing light calisthenics on deck. They ate two meals a day.

“We had good meals on the boat, one at 7:30 a.m. and the other at 2:30 p.m. and we could buy candy, cigars and cigarettes on the boat,” wrote Cpl. Julius Leimetz in a letter published in the Sheboygan Press.

The S.S. George Washington celebrated George Washington’s birthday in grand style.

“The ship was in gala attire and a bounteous turkey dinner was served,” said Capt. Schmidt. “An excellent concert was performed and boxing contests were conducted all day.”

The convoy reached the submarine zone around Great Britain on Feb. 28 and troops were on edge. Only three weeks earlier, thirteen 32nd Division Soldiers died when a German submarine sank the S.S. Tuscania.

“Every man was ordered to keep his clothes on, a life-belt attached, and canteens filled with drinking water for use in case of emergency,” wrote Schmidt in Company C’s unit history.

Late afternoon on March 1, the ship’s alarm bells rang and troops rushed toward their lifeboat stations. A submarine had been spotted and the George Washington started evasive maneuvers.

“At that moment the ship’s guns were fired causing a recoil as though the ship had been struck,” said Schmidt. “The boat careened throwing the men in heaps upon the deck.”

Another ship sank the submarine and order quickly returned to the George Washington.

On the morning of March 4, the ship reached the harbor at Brest, France, but it would be several days before Company C disembarked.

“We have arrived in France but are still on the boat in the harbor of a beautiful city,” wrote Schmidt in a letter to his parents.

With their arrival in France, Company C and the other Wisconsin and Michigan National Guard units of the 32nd Division began their third year of service to the nation.

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