Saturday, October 11, 2014
31 Days of Courage: Walter J. Baldwin and The Lost Battalion
It was called “The War to End All Wars”, and if only it had been.
World War I is remembered in our time for the way it changed war. Barbed wire, armored tanks and The Great Influenza are some of the markers of that devastating darkness that left great sadness on the earth.
But where there is great darkness there is also great courage. And I am utterly honored to devote this particular day of 31 Days of Courage to my husband’s grandfather, Battalion Sergeant-Major Walter J. Baldwin, a survivor of World War I’s “ Lost Battalion”.
Battalion Sergeant-Major Walter J. Baldwin
Much of the information below can be credited to Smitty’s uncle, Tom Baldwin, who took all of his father’s papers and published a book for the whole Baldwin clan. I am grateful to him for understanding the value of words…that they live, and are mighty to change lives.
Grandpa Baldwin’s own parents died before he reached his teenage years. He had an 8th grade education, proof that character is completely independent of social status or outside opinion. Clearly Walter was self- educated. His memoirs are clear and detailed. Like many of the great men in the wars of the past, he really never spoke of his time as a soldier. Thankfully though, he believed the record of his time with The Lost Battalion was worth preserving.
For 18 months, during 1918-1919, Walter Baldwin was part of the 77th Division of New York State’s Statue of Liberty Division, made up almost entirely of men from New York City. For six months he was involved in the U.S. drive from the trenches of central France through the fortress of the Argonne Forest. And according to Uncle Tom, he was unable to even change his shirt during those 6 months. Hardship was a constant companion. For six interminable days during that time, Grandpa Baldwin survived what most people could not. For six days, 24 hours a day, he and the other men of the Lost Battalion were shelled constantly, subject to fire from their own side and the enemy’s. Without food or water in a spot called “the pocket”, 554 men were surrounded by German forces with their location unknown to the Americans battling on behind and unaware that the French advance had been stalled.
Cut off from communication and help, men of the 77th Division suffered terrible loss of life and unimaginable suffering. They also performed awe inspiring feats of valor.
Grandpa Baldwin received the Silver Star for pulling a fellow soldier back to a “funk hole”, during one deadly mortar attack, saving his life. Sleepless and afraid, these men carried on without surrender, making the higher cause their bedrock, and though no doubt longing for relief, refusing to relent.
That, my friends, is courage.
Longing for relief, but refusing to relent.
Roughly 197 men were killed in action and approximately 150 missing or taken prisoner before 194 remaining men were rescued by American forces. Grandpa Baldwin survived. If he hadn’t, Smitty wouldn’t be here. Or Joseph, Hannah and David. Nuf said.
I’ve been writing these October days on the subject of courage to become a little braver in my own life. And to hopefully encourage you to be a little more brave in the everyday. But there are some acts of heroism, some duties fulfilled with such courage, that they drop me to my knees. And I ask the Hero of Heroes to help me be brave enough, should the time ever come, to be willing to do the right thing no matter the cost. Like Grandpa Baldwin. And the great men of The Lost Battalion.
Still, there is value in the courage of small things, every day. And I’d bet the farm that Walter J. Baldwin had plenty of practice in small acts of valor before he ever advanced to the Silver Star.
Such a debt of gratitude I owe this man who died long before I even met my husband.
I pray his courage will live on in my children.
And in their mother.
Your friend on the pilgrim road,