Home Land War The Generals Pershing's Bridges To Victory

Pershing's Bridges To Victory

pershingIt was the Closing days of WWI. The Germans had been stalling the signing of the Armistice. If they could hold off the allied advance, perhaps they could get better terms. In one of the Sectors, General "Black Jack" Pershing (Commanding General of the AEF) had two of his Divisions (the 37th and the 91st) fight their way thru northern France and into Belgium. The first day of the next big Allied offensive began on October 30th. The Allies advanced 6 miles before they were stopped cold at Belgium's Escaut River, where the German High Command had issued their famous order : "HOLD TO THE DEATH" The French 128th Division had joined with the 2 American Divisions in the battle to cross this River. The Germans had blown all bridges, and massed their artillery and machine guns all along the East bank. So murderous was this firepower, and with the swift current, that none of these Divisions could fight their way across. After failed attempts by the American 91st and the French 128th, the American 37th Division did get their bridge up. This is the story of the first American Soldier who made it across the Escaut in a daring underwater swim, on the night of November 1/2. His spotting of the exact positions of the enemy's gun emplacements, made their elimination by our Artillery possible. His heroics resulted in General Pershing's personal award of the Distinguished Service Cross. The French also presented him with their Croix de Guerre. The Belgium's awarded the 112th Engineering Regiment the Belgium War Cross.

Significant References
Gene Small, a WWI family historian, has done extensive research on the history of the 37th Division and the 112th Engineer's involvement in the construction of this bridge. Most of his findings are to be found in the "Great War Society" web pages, and are quoted here. Joe Smithhisler (son of Sgt. Smithhisler) has also contributed the first hand information from his Father, as noted.

Relevant Quotations:

From the Diary of Pvt. Robert L. Dwight 148th Infantry, 37th Division:

"We were sent up and entrenched on the west bank of the Escaut River in the vicinity of Syugau (Syngem), where it was almost certain death to stick one's head above the trench."

From the 1st Battalion-148 Infantry Regiment (Mach) "Voodo":

"It was the Ypres-Lys campaign that saw the crowning achievement of the 148th. There the Regiment, first of all allied troops, crossed the Escaut (Scheldt) River in Belgium on November 2, 1918 and maintained the crossing in spite of heavy losses from machine gun and shell fire. It was there, too, that the regimental motto, "We'll do it", was inspired."

From the Histories of the 37th and 91st Divisions:

"The 37th Division forced a crossing of the river southwest of Heurene on the night of 2/3 November and another farther at the site of the destroyed Hermelgem-Syngem Bridge on 10 November. The 91st Division failed in its attempt to forge a crossing farther south on the night of November 2/3. They moved to begin crossing on the night of ? November on the bridges established by the 37th, but unable to complete the crossing before sunrise they took shelter and completed crossing the following night. Casualties of the two American divisions in the operations that began on 30 October and ended on November 11th totaled about 2,600. The 800 plus Americans who were killed can be visited at Flanders Field, 6 miles to the northeast."

From the Story of the 91st Division:

"the 91st attempted a crossing on rafts. They were driven back. In a similar manner, the 128th French Division, north of the 91st attempted to push a detachment across the river near Eyne. They too were unsuccessful??information had been received that in the area of the 37th division??troops of that division had been able to cross to the east bank of the Scheldt, message was sent to the commanding General, 37th Division, asking permission to push a detachment across the Scheldt". (Escaut and Scheldt are the same)

From the book American Armies and Battle Fields in Europe:

"The 37th (Ohio) Division, on the night of November 2/3 (1918), bridged the Scheldt River and firmly established part of its forces on the Eastern Bank.

The Story
It was late October of 1918, when the American 37th Division along with the American 91st Division and the French 128th Division between them, drove the Germans from northern France and into Belgium. By November 1st they had fought their way 6 miles to the Belgium town of Eine on the Escaut River, where the enemy was firmly entrenched on the other side. The Germans had blown all the bridges and had established machine gun nests on their side. The three Divisions would face heavy casualties in trying to cross the river in small pontoon boats.

Following is a direct quotation made on the back of one of Sergeant Smithhisler's sketches dated November 3rd 1918: "The Hun in their retreat across the river flooded the canal (as shown) with the river (Scheldt) and our infantry had hard opposition in crossing. ??. and many a doughboy trying to cross went down with the swift current. We couldn't get bridges up until the third day so strong was the opposition."

Faced with this opposition, the Division's 112th Engineering Regiment was called upon to construct these bridges, but completion was impossible as the hidden German Artillery destroyed them all. All attempts to locate and take out this Artillery were in vain. Regimental headquarters had asked for volunteers to cross this river under cover of nightfall. They were to reconnoiter behind the German Lines, pinpointing their Encampments and Artillery pieces, returning with this information before daybreak.

In another direct quotation from one of the Sergeant's letter's written in May 1977 to his Son Joe: "When I awakened this morning I then remembered the town of Huevel - that's where I slipped down that deep bank and started off; leaving a good kid by the name of Burke to pull me out if I ever got back".

The son relates that his Father did recall that: "the river was ice cold and the current swift, but I did make it undetected to the other side". He then spent the night dodging German sentries and patrols as he sketched exact German positions. It was just at daybreak when he reached the river for the icy return swim, with the valuable information safely secured in his waterproof pouch. Unfortunately the Germans had spotted him just as he slipped into the river. Desperately the Germans opened up with withering machine gun fire. Smithhisler also told his son that he: "had never swum underwater for so long or been that cold".

The German's by now must have been quite desperate having failed to kill him, with their machine gun fire, as he reached the allied side. It was one of the last times the German's used the dreaded Mustard Gas during the war. When Smithhisler arrived, so did the mustard gas. As Smithhisler remembered coming out of the water on the other side: "I was exhausted and completely immersed in this gas and unable to put on my gas mask". Smithhisler did remember Pvt. Burke pulling him up the bank to help in "putting on my mask before he put on his own". Pvt. Burke died shortly thereafter.. That act cost Pvt. Burke his life, and it most certainly saved Smithhisler's life.

The Aftermath
He had pinpointed the locations of their artillery, in this hostile area, where any of the enemy would have shot him on sight. If that artillery had not been located, and significantly taken out by our own artillery, the 37th Division would have been no more successful than the 91st and the French 128th Divisions. It would have resulted in significantly more loss of life, by all three of these Divisions, if they had to force their way across the Escaut, if in fact, it could even have been done before the Armistice. For certain, the men of the 148 Infantry Regiment (37th Division) who were the first to cross the Escaut, had to be grateful for the 112th Bridge.

Oh yes, the German artillery and machine gun nests were destroyed, the 112th Engineers completed the bridge for the crossing of their 37th Division. The 91st Division and the French Division were unable to construct any bridges and on the following day they crossed the River on the 112th bridge. By November 3, the 37th Division firmly established their forces on the eastern bank with the allies advancing many miles into Belgium before that Armistice was signed, just one week later.

Smithhisler continued making daily sketches (with match sticks dipped in water) of the carnage he witnessed in the French and Belgium villages during those closing days of that War. Early1919 found him being treated in a French hospital for severe hypothermia and seared lungs Upon his release, on January 25th at Alencon France, General Pershing personally awarded him the DSC. Only 25 DSC's were awarded to the 37th Division, and they were in battles whose names are familiar to this day. These were no minor skirmishes, with names like: Ypres, Argonne, and St. Mihial. They ended a war in two months, which had gone on for 4 years prior.

Upwards of 100,000 men fought in the 37th in those battles. It is certain that more than 25 men of the 37th division displayed "Extraordinary Heroism". It is logical that the circumstances, and results, of Smithhisler's actions were instrumental in this DSC award. As it was, his actions while half frozen and, sneaking around in the midst of 100,000 Germans did save the lives of numerous American and French soldiers.

In addition to his award of the Distinguished Service Cross, The French awarded him the French Croix De Guerre and the Belgium's awarded him and/or the entire Regiment the Belgium War Cross. He also received the WWI Victory Medal with three campaign bars attached for the: "Ypres Lys, Meuse Argonne and the Defensive Sectors."

Smithhisler's award of the French Croix de Guerre and the Belgium War Cross were the result of the French gratitude for this remarkable and daring achievement. On the day this war ended (11-11-18) Major General de Goutte (Commander of the VI French Army) was so grateful for the American actions, in the completion of this Bridge, that he issued:

French General Order No. 31:

"On the heights between Lys and the Escaut, the enemy was to hold "to the Death". The American troops belonging to the 37th Division..in an operation of extraordinary daring, crossed the Escaut under the enemy fire, and maintained themselves on the opposite bank. glory to such troops and to such Commanders. They had bravely contributed to the liberation of a part of Belgium territory and to the final victory. The great nation to which they belong can be proud of them."

"THE COMMANDING GENERAL OF THE ARMY (signed) Dv Goutte"

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 27 May 2008 16:57 )  

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