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

Monday, May 27, 2024

Remembering Our Veterans: A Memorial Day Tale of Two Uncles of the Yankee Division

William Redican and Stanley Rakowski,
Company L., 3rd Battalion, 102nd Infantry, 26th Division

One of our readers, Dennis Redican, has shared a story with me that I think is appropriate to present on Memorial Day. Dennis had two uncles from the same hometown, one from each side of his family, who found themselves fighting in the same company in that last stages of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive just days from the war's end. Sadly, Pvt. William (Billy) Redican perished that day, and Cpl. Stanley Rakowski suffered wounds that resulted in one leg amputated above the knee and the other leg below the knee. Dennis, of course, never knew his uncle Billy, but his Uncle Stan, who spent the rest of his life fully disabled, was his hero until he passed away in 1967.

Their Final Battle

Bois d'Ormont with Hill 60 in Distance

By the time the 26th, Yankee, Division was deployed to the Meuse-Argonne battle, a case could be made that it had been the most active formation of the AEF.  By October 1918, the boys were probably hoping their toughest fighting was behind them. That, however, was not to be the case. The division was deployed on the east side of the Meuse River, given the job of fighting through a well-entrenched enemy position on the heavily forested steep slopes of the Meuse Heights. On their left flank was densely wooded Bois d'Ormont dominated by Hill 60.  Behind these hills is the flat Woevre Plain which, in 1918, was the road to the heartland of Germany.  The enemy had to hold here at all costs.

The challenge facing the men of the Yankee Division in this attack was described in an unofficial division history, New England in France. The brigade order for this attack vividly explains the tactical situation: 

[Studying the staff map]. . . one may sense what was being required, one my visualize the high, frowning ridges, seamed and scarred and blasted, see the ragged woods with their nests of machine guns, minenwerfers, and heavy wire, realize the difficulty of an advance over a country of steep slopes, confusing ravines, and deep mud, in the face of a determined resistance by troops who had been told off to hold these woods and ridges to the end.

Still Standing—A German Pillbox in Bois d'Ormont

It's hard to find details on the subsequent action, but one U.S. Army summary tersely states:

The 26th Division made determined efforts to capture Hill 360 on each of the three days, October 24, 25, and 27, but no permanent gains resulted. . . [On 25 October] at 11:30am the 102nd Infantry made another attempt, with its 3rd and 2nd Battalions, to capture Hill 360 [nicknamed by the French as Dead Man's Hill] in Bois d'Ormont, following an artillery preparation on the enemy entrenchments.  The troops met with stubborn resistance and all attempts to advance failed.  

Billy Redican was killed on the 25th and Stan Rakowski was wounded the same day.  

Uncle Billy's Story

William Redican came into the world in 1892 and grew up in Meriden, CT. He was working at Colt Firearms before America entered the war.  Possibly stirred by the Lusitania sinking on 7 May 1915, he enlisted in the Connecticut National Guard four days later and was eventually deployed to  Arizona during the Mexican border crisis. He was demobilized from the Guard when things calmed down and then was activated for federal service when war on Germany  was declared. Billy participated in all five of his division's campaigns on the Western Front up to his death. He was temporarily buried in France and his mother chose to have his remains returned home. He is buried in Meriden's Sacred Heart Cemetery.

Sacred Heart Cemetery

Uncle Stan's Story

Stanley Rakowski, also of Meriden, CT,  was born in 1896. He lived about two miles from Billy Redican.  It's not clear how closely the two men got to know each other in Meriden, or even in the service for that matter. Prior to the war, Stan made his living as a "Bore Maker" at Wilcox and White, a local organ manufacturer. He enlisted with the Connecticut National Guard a month after Congress declared war.  His service from that point closely paralleled Billy's,  although it's not clear when they both ended up in Company L. In the attack on Hill 60 he was wounded by both shrapnel and machine gun fire and was the only member of his platoon to survive. Multiple amputations followed with a long recuperation period.  Considered 100 percent disabled when he returned home from the war, he was offered jobs by many employers in his hometown. He never took up an offer because he felt like he was stealing it from someone who really needed it to support their family. He lived on the disability pension for the rest of his life. He died on 20 July 1967 at the Veterans Hospital in Newington, CT. He is buried at St. Stanislaus Cemetery about five miles from where Billy Redican rests.

St. Stanislaus Cemetery

Sources:  ABMC,  New England in France, Ferme d'Ormont Today (YouTube Video), Wikipedia

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