With the 100th anniversary of U.S. involvement in World War I on Nov. 11, I remember the stories my father told me about his service in France in 1917-18.
My father, John William Bowser (1893-1960), and his younger brother McKinley “Mack” Bowser joined the U.S. Army on April 7, 1917. That was one day after President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany.
They were attached to the 42nd Infantry Division “Rainbow,” 3rd Ohio Machine Gun Battalion. It was not unusual for brothers to be assigned to the same units in World War I. The World War II tragedy of the Sullivan brothers on the USS Juneau had not occurred as yet. The War Department gave an order after the five Sullivan brothers were killed on the Juneau that no brothers would serve in the same combat units.
My father and his brother were trained at Camp Mills on Long Island, N.Y.
Dad was a first sergeant in the 3rd Ohio Machine Gun Battalion. His unit was part of the 42nd Infantry Division. It was called the “Rainbow” Division. The division was comprised of National Guard units from all over the country. Units like the 14th Alabama, 3rd Ohio Machine Gun Battalion and the 69th New York all fought together, side by side in defense of our country.
In the early days, machine guns were not part of the infantry squad. They were used the same as artillery units. The machine guns were also used for barrage fire, when artillery was not available for short-range attacks or when both front lines were too close and it made explosive shells dangerous to both sides.
My dad told me they were behind the lines getting some rest and their officers came up and told them they would have “Archie” duty. The French supplied the heavy machine guns and the British supplied the anti-aircraft mounts for the guns.
“Archie” was a slang term for anti-aircraft gunnery, coined by the British. Dad said they used the French Hotchkiss 11mm. The normal caliber for the Model 1914 Hotchkiss was the 8mm Lebel. The 11mm version used a rimmed cartridge called the 11mm Gras. It was the first cartridge used by the French in their infantry rifles in the 1870s. The only differences in the modern 11mm cartridge was, it had a jacketed bullet and was loaded with smokeless powder.
The larger caliber allowed the French to develop effective incendiary and explosive rounds for anti-aircraft and anti-balloon use. It was a Hotchkiss design and used trays or strips of ammunition to feed the guns. The loader would hook the fresh strip under the last cartridge in the strip before it entered the gun.
It sounds like a difficult process, but it was more reliable than the cloth belts our machine guns used. This gun was also used in a limited amount by the United States. It was called the Benet-Mercie, after the gun’s designers.
The “Archie” duty was protecting an ammunition train from German airplanes. The Germans would attack trains and strafe them with tracer and incendiary rounds.
Dad’s job was to mount his anti-aircraft mounted machinegun on the top of a freight car and try to keep the German planes at bay. When they left the train yard there were three men assigned to each gun, a gunner, loader and ammunition carrier.
It wasn’t very long before they were called to action. German airplanes spotted the train and the attack was on. The 11mm French bullets were incendiary explosive and he said they made short work of two of the German planes.
Unfortunately, the German pilots set the car in front of the car my father was protecting on fire and the train stopped suddenly. When it did, my father and his two comrades jumped off the train and ran from the potential explosion.
As they ran away, the car blew up and they were hit with debris. My dad was slightly injured by shrapnel and was taken to the aid station.
Medics removed several small pieces of German steel and he spent three or four days recuperating.
An incident happened later that would be a sharp reminder to my father of the train explosion. Thirty-eight years after he was wounded, a piece of German steel worked its way out of my father’s back.
We were living in New York at the time and he went to the Veterans Hospital for treatment. The piece of steel they removed was 11/2 inches long and about as thick as a 14-gauge wire. Dad had no more problems with this wound. As a matter of fact, he went to work after three days of recovery.
My father finally told us of his experiences in France. It seemed as though the terror of warfare was tempered by time. He was 65 when the steel worked its way out of his back and it seemed at that time he opened up and told us of his days in France. Before this happened, he never mentioned it.
Surviving gas, bayonet attack
The 42nd Division had four Battle Stars to their credit: Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, Battle of St. Mihel and the Meuse Argonne Offensive. They served 267 days in continuous combat in these battles.
At the Meuse Argonne Offensive, the Allied Forces had 550,000 men in this offensive; 117,000 of these men were either killed or wounded. This was also the battle that Sgt. Alvin York won his Medal of Honor.
Dad told me it was the end of October and the Germans had launched gas canisters into the area. He said the gas masks made it difficult to see. The gas was phosgene. Phosgene is a derivative of chlorine gas and it turns the fluid in your lungs to hydrochloric acid.
He was a gunner on a Colt-Marlin (Browning-designed) .30-’06 Model 1895 air-cooled machine gun. It was originally manufactured as a .30 U.S. Army (.30-40 Krag) and was called a potato digger because of the gas piston arm that flipped down from the bottom of the barrel when each round was fired. (I realize the potato digger was not usually used in Europe, but this is what he told me. The story was passed on to me over 40 years after the incident happened.)
The gun was used with cloth belts and required a two-man crew — a gunner and a loader — to operate at full efficiency.
The Germans attacked through the gas and his loader was shot in the neck. My father had to load his own belts and try to fire the gun at the same time. This was not an easy task.
For whatever reason, the gun jammed and he drew his 1911 .45. A German soldier came into his position and thrust at him with a bayonet on his rifle. The thrust cut him on his cheek and tore open his gas mask.
The German soldier was going to give him a horizontal butt stroke and he pointed the .45 at the German’s chest. He fired and hit the German three times. This individual fight was over.
He quickly grabbed the German’s gas mask and put it on. He said to me, “He had no more use for it.”
Dad was taken to the field hospital due to phosgene gas poisoning. He was shocked to see his loader there. Although he was shot through the center of the side of his neck, he was still alive. The bullet passed through without touching anything vital.
My father’s war was over; the ceasefire was declared on Nov. 11, 1918. Because my father’s family in Pennsylvania was of German descent and spoke German in their home, he was kept in Europe as an interpreter until 1919. They called it the Army of the Occupation.
He returned from Europe on the USS Oklahoma. When the Japanese sunk the Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor, he tried to enlist in the Army in 1941. He was 51 years old and was told he could not serve due to his age. He wanted to get back at the Japanese for sinking “his” ship.
We must be thankful for the sacrifices our veterans have made for us. Without them, we would have nothing.