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

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Indiana, U.S.A., in the Great War

The Dramatic War Memorial Plaza at Indianapolis

The term "Hoosiers" to refer to residents of the Wabash Valley and the state of Indiana was first used in the 1820s. Unceasingly since then, there have been Hoosiers willing to serve and sacrifice for their nation and its ideals. The state of Indiana is represented in every major United States war since the state’s founding and as of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers had served their country proudly. By April of 1917, Indiana had demonstrated their willingness and capability to serve and following the United States declaration of war, Hoosiers were ready to step up and answer the call of their nation.  Zealous patriotism prevailed throughout the war. Indiana governor James P. Goodrich stated in 1918, "There can be no middle course in this war. There are just two kinds of people in America—patriots and traitors." Conformity to the war cause became closely watched and any hint of disloyalty was targeted, particularly anything connected to Germany. German instruction was banned in many schools, German-language newspapers ceased publication, and institutions with German names, such as the Das Deutsche Haus in Indianapolis, were changed. 

Enlisted Hoosiers went overseas with the first units to land on European soil. Among them, Sergeant Alex Arch of South Bend, Indiana was credited with having fired the first shot of the war for the United States, pulling the lanyard to fire the first American artillery shell toward German lines. As well as the first strike, the first blow was received by Indiana as well. The first three American casualties of the war included young Corporal James Gresham of Evansville, Indiana who died in hand to hand combat while repelling a German trench raid near Bathelemont in France. Hoosiers such as these cemented the state’s legacy as among the first to strike at the enemy and the first to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. 

Rifle Range at Fort Benjamin Harrison

As the first of the American Expeditionary Forces were arriving in France, the Indiana National Guard was quickly mobilizing. In 1906, a new military installation near Indianapolis had been officially named Fort Benjamin Harrison, after the former U.S. president from Indiana. During World War I it became one of the key mobilization and training sites in the country, hosting three officer training camps, medical training camps, and engineering specialists. In June 1917, as many as 12,000 men resided at the fort, with thousands of others passing through during the war. 

Units from the Indiana and Kentucky National Guards would form the 38th Division and the 84th “Lincoln” Division would be comprised of guard units from Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois. In addition, the famed 150th artillery regiment, which had gained a fierce reputation in the Civil War under the command of Captain Eli Lilly, was selected as one of the handpicked units to make up the 42nd “Rainbow” Division. This division would see some of the most intense fighting of the war. The 150th Field Artillery, under the capable leadership of Colonel Robert Tyndall, would take part in six major engagements throughout the war. The first day of draft registration, 5 June 1917, passed without incident in Indiana. During that first period, over 260,000 Hoosiers came forward to register. Over 400,000 more had registered by the war’s end.

Throughout the war, Hoosier men and women would time and time again prove their unwavering courage and loyalty to their country in spite of the many faces of adversity. Lieutenant Aaron Fisher of Lyle’s Station, Indiana, and the 366th Infantry would become the most highly decorated African American soldier from Indiana during the war for his extraordinary courage and level-headed leadership in the face of overwhelming odds. Fisher received the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre for refusing to retreat or surrender even while his unit was vastly outnumbered. Despite being wounded, Fisher continued to direct his troops amidst the chaos until finally reinforcements arrived and the German force was repelled. 

Medal of Honor Recipient Sam Woodfill's Dog Tag

Lieutenant Samuel Woodfill would become a national hero when he single-handedly incapacitated three German machine gun nests and earned the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor as well as military honors from several European nations. While suffering the effects of mustard gas exposure, Woodfill captured three of the gunners and finished off the rest in intense close-quarters combat where he was eventually forced to wield a trench pick as a combat weapon. General Pershing considered Woodfill the outstanding soldier of the AEF.

At home, citizens continued to support the war effort through the Red Cross and Salvation Army, raising funds and sending supplies to the troops entrenched on the other side of the Atlantic. Women filled the jobs left empty by those men that had departed for the front, eager to serve their country. Among them was Opha Johnson of Kokomo who was the first woman to enlist in the Marine Corps. She took over clerical work in the quartermaster department and was promoted to the rank of sergeant by the war’s end. This names only a few of the many outstanding Hoosiers who contributed to war effort, most of whom would not receive such recognition but who, beyond a doubt, contributed to the nation’s war effort, both overseas and at home. 

American War Mothers at the Old Courthouse,
Petersburg, IN

Indiana’s civilians also quickly mobilized for war. Organizations both public and private adapted to meet the demands of war. During the war, the U.S. Food Administration encouraged people to be thrifty with food so that much-needed supplies could be sent to Europe. The great majority of Hoosiers were fully on board with the slogan "Food Will Win the War." Sugar, in particular, was rationed, and shoppers had to present a ration card issued by a county food administrator to buy it. Retailers and wholesalers were required to sign certificates stating they would follow the laws related to the sale of sugar. 

To raise money for the war effort, the federal government sold Liberty Bonds. Many Hoosiers supported the well advertised Liberty Loan campaigns. Rallies were held throughout the state with patriotic appeals to promote the campaigns, including this bond rally on the steps of the Grant County Courthouse. In Indiana, the total amount of money raised by the war-financing efforts, including the sale of war saving stamps was approximately $500,000,000. 

World War I Liberty Loan Rally in Grant County, IN

Many Indiana companies, such as the Studebaker Corporation, placed their factories “at the disposal of the government.” In the case of Studebaker, they converted half of their plant capacity to the production of military equipment including artillery and supply chassis and wagons. The Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Company offered $25,000 in funding for medical equipment to form Base Hospital 32, which would be comprised primarily of personnel from Indiana and would treat almost 9,700 patients in France throughout the war. 

Inspired by her son's enlistment in the Army, Johnson County native Alice Moore French mobilized other women with children in the armed forces and founded the American War Mothers in 1917. The Indiana chapter was first to organize. Interest soon spread to other states and the national organization was later incorporated, with French as its first president. The organization aimed to aid soldiers, the government in home-front activities, and families with children in the military. 

Local newspapers and businesses encouraged the citizenry to purchase war bonds, to conserve supplies, and to otherwise support the war effort. Throughout the state, Hoosiers quickly got to work. Famed Indianapolis Speedway played a wartime role. Racing was interrupted in 1917–1918 when the facility served as a military aviation repair and refueling depot, designated the Speedway Aviation Repair Depot, commanded by Captain Patrick Frissell.  In 1926 America's leading air ace Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker would purchase the track and operate it through the Second World War, when racing was again suspended.

Line for Sugar Ration Certificate, Indianapolis,
August 1918

Over 135,000 Hoosiers would serve their country throughout the war. Of this number, more than 3,000 would make the ultimate sacrifice. The countless number of Hoosier soldiers, nurses, and civilians who were there to proudly serve and sacrifice for their nation, deserve more recognition than they have or could receive. They had demonstrated their commitment to the ideals of the United States and proven that, whenever their nation needed them, the men and women of Indiana would be there to answer to answer the call.

After the war the Hoosier state showed the way in commemorating the sacrifices of the nation and their state. The Indiana World War Memorial Plaza was the largest and most elaborate tribute to the sacrifices of World War I veterans constructed anywhere in the United States. It remains a testament to the patriotism of Hoosier citizens during World War I and their support for the war effort.

Much as the state had excelled in contributing to the Union cause during the Civil War, Indiana out-enlisted and out-subscribed many other states during the World War I. The U.S. War Department set a quota for Army volunteers from Indiana at 5,400, and 25,148 men enlisted, more than any other state. The Navy Department called for 800 volunteers for the naval forces, and Indiana, an inland state, contributed 5,516 sailors. After the conflict, Indiana Governor James P. Goodrich noted that the citizens of the state had oversubscribed substantially to all of the Liberty bond drives to underwrite the cost of the war and to campaigns for the Red Cross, Salvation Army, YMCA, and YWCA.

Welcome Home! May 1919

As the war ended, Hoosiers planned "Welcome Home" events for returning hometown soldiers.  Indiana officially welcomed home those who had served in a large celebration on 7 May 1919, in Indianapolis. Thousands gathered from across the state to honor the returning troops and remember those who had lost their lives during the war. The day was highlighted with a magnificent parade that stretched for five miles. 

The Hoosier enthusiasm for prosecuting the war and leading the way carried over in 1919 and 1920. Indiana members of the new American Legion veterans organization won agreement to locate the Legion headquarters in Indianapolis and for the State of Indiana to build a monumental memorial. The Plaza that resulted (photo at top), bounded by Meridian and Pennsylvania on the west and east sides and Vermont and St. Clair on the south and north sides, is a visible reminder of the role of patriotism as a primary civic virtue of the state and its capital, Indianapolis. 

Sources: Encyclopedia of Indiana; Encyclopedia of Indianapolis; Destination Indiana; World War One Centennial Commission article by Connor McBride. 

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