Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, October 19, 2013

While Europe Fought: America Deploys on the Mexican Border

Contributed by John Cervone, U.S. Army, Retired

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Battery A, Ready for Movement

On 15 May 2006, President George W. Bush announced the initiation of “Operation Jump Start,” a plan to use National Guard troops to assist the Border Patrol in restoring order to the region.   When Operation Jump Start concluded in July 2008, over 30,000 Army and Air Guard personnel in all 54 states and territories had served on the border. The National Guard  had also been deployed to the Mexican border 90 years earlier,  and many units repeated the experiences of their predecessors. Here is the story of one of those units.

In 1916, as the United States watched World War I unfold in Europe, General John J. Pershing led an expeditionary force against Pancho Villa. Light Battery A, Rhode Island Field Artillery, was called into federal service 19 June 1916 for duty with General Pershing during the Mexican border conflict. Members of the same unit would repeat history in August of 2006, when they were again deployed to the Mexican border, as part of "Operation Jump Start." In 1918 the Rhode Islanders also saw action during WWI with the American Expeditionary Force re-designated as the 1st Battalion, 103rd Field Artillery, an element of the 26th "Yankee" Division.

History records that only one regiment of the National Guard, the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, actually entered Mexico with Pershing's Expedition. The Rhode Islanders along with the bulk of the National Guard troops would not cross the border into Mexico but were used mainly as a show of force. But be that as it may, as you have previously read, activities on the border were far from dull. The troops were on constant alert as border raids were still an occasional nuisance. As it later proved, the expedition was an excellent training environment for the officers and men of the National Guard, who were recalled to federal service later on in 1917 for duty in World War I. Many National Guard leaders in both World Wars traced their first federal service to the Mexican Expedition.

Military deployments are not always as simple as they are presented by Hollywood and those who have never been deployed. A deployment is hard work with little appreciation. A deployment to the desert can be both dangerous and strenuous. Only someone who has faced this type of danger truly understands the meaning of the word “deployment.” Remaining in the rear with the gear does not qualify even one iota. The troopers of the 103rd Field Artillery experienced this type of danger in 1916 and later on in 2006. Here are some of the situations they endured while in Mexico. Not everyone is wounded or killed in battle. Sometimes the daily rigors of life in the desert can also take their toll on soldiers.

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Battery A, on the Mexican Border

The unit left Quonset Point on 9 June 2016 and had a very rapid trip to the border. The trip took only four days in all. While deploying to the border, they experienced firsthand how unprepared the nation was for transporting troops to their designated positions.  They were among the many units heading to the border, by train, who did not receive proper berthing accommodations until reaching Kansas City.  The railroads seemed to lack even the proper number of trains necessary to move thousands of troops from one section of the country to the other.  They even encountered delays upon arriving in El Paso. They had to wait hours before vehicles arrived to shuttle them to Fort Bliss.

The 103rd arrived at Fort Bliss after midnight and did not unload their gear until the following day. They were assigned to an area known as “Morningside Heights” and were greeted by fifty-seven varieties of cactus, snakes, lizards, scorpions, tarantulas, and hot burning sand. A large ravine ran right through the middle of the camp which was later to be found out became a raging river whenever it rained hard for more than fifteen minutes. As it rained about four or five times a day needless to say the area was not suited to an artillery unit. 

So they set up camp in this wasteland and with temperatures of over 120 degrees went to work with shovels, picks, and axes to set up a suitable camp. It took them over ten days to actually become acclimated to the heat and drinking water was always in high demand. After much hard work the camp was finished only to be told by a camp inspector that they had been assigned to this area incorrectly and were ordered to move to another location. They were moved twice more after clearing land and making it habitable for living.

All of this sounds very familiar to anyone who has been involved in a military deployment. Hurry up and wait or hurry up and move. I imagine that in many ways this keeps a soldier on his toes and never gives them any time to become complacent or bored.

One of the biggest problems facing the troops in El Paso was receiving the supplies they needed. Many of the outfits stationed there were poorly equipped when they arrived and were in the same state of disrepair when they left three months later.  Much of the equipment that was furnished was old and antiquated. The 103rd had to wait six weeks for cots for the men to sleep on. Before that many of them slept on the ground. As the 103rd was equipped with their own cooks, their meals were not as bad as some other units, but still lacked in quantity and taste.

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Battery A, in France, 1918

One of the daily missions for the troops was breaking in “green” mules. The key to surviving this type of training was to avoid their hooves. Many a trooper discovered to their chagrin that a mule kicks with his front and rear hooves. The unit had over 68 mules attached to it so everyone was given a chance to prove their prowess and stamina with these four-legged troopers.

Another hazard to the troops was sandstorms, some of which could be compared to miniature cyclones. These weather events would come whirling through the camp taking up to whatever came in their way from clothes to tents. Hats would disappear never to be found again. These miniature cyclones were coming at such a constant rate that the men began setting up betting pools on when they would strike.

The general health of the men was good and on the whole most came back in better health than they arrived with. There were serious — and one fatal — accident from kicks by mules and falls from bucking horses. The days were spent waking to reveille, then mess call, cleaning out the stables and then feeding and watering the horses and cleaning equipment. They drilled with their horses, practicing leg signals and various riding movements including hurdling obstacles.

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Battery A, North of Ch√Ęteau-Thierry

By November of 1916, the Rhode Island unit returned home, but not for long. They were called back into federal service on 25 July 1917. The unit was then drafted into the U.S. Army on 5 August 1917.  The unit was stationed at Camp Curtis Guild, Boxford, Massachusetts, where it was assigned to the new 103rd Field Artillery, 26th Division, AEF.  They were deployed to France, where they served with distinction during the Second Battle of the Marne and the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives.  The unit was demobilized at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, 29 April 1919.

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