Wednesday’s Our Daily Bread , with a look toward Labor Day, briefly recited the story of Charles Whittlesey.
Whittlesey initially graduated from law school and joined a law firm partnership. However, he felt a duty to join the military when the United States entered World War I. He left his partnership and shipped to France as a captain.
At one point, he and his battalion were behind enemy lines as he commanded 554 soldiers. They were cut off from supplies. At one point, his unit was dubbed the “Lost Battalion” because all contact with the U.S. Army had been lost.
On October 7, 1918, the Germans sent a blindfolded American prisoner of war carrying a white flag toward the battalion. He was carrying a letter that said the following:
“The suffering of your wounded men can be heard over here in the German lines, and we are appealing to your humane sentiments to stop. A white flag shown by one of your men will tell us that you agree with these conditions. Please treat Private Lowell R. Hollingshead [the bearer] as an honorable man. He is quite a soldier. We envy you. The German commanding officer.”
Whittlesey would not allow his men to surrender. Instead, he ordered that the white sheets that had been placed as signals to the Allied troops be removed, just in case the Germans would think that they were surrendering. That night, a relief force arrived and rescued the Battalion. Whittlesey received a battlefield promotion to lieutenant-colonel and ultimately received three medals of honor.
He was considered a war hero of heroes. .
His Wikipedia story summarizes the ending of his life with the following:
In November 1921, Whittlesey acted as a pallbearer at the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, along with fellow Medal of Honor recipients Samuel Woodfill and Alvin York. A few days later he booked passage from New York to Havana aboard the SS Toloa, a United Fruit Company ship. On November 26, 1921, the first night out of New York, he dined with the captain and left the smoking room at 11:15 p.m. stating he was retiring for the evening, and it was noted by the captain that he was in good spirits. Whittlesey was never seen again. He was reported missing at 8:00 a.m. the following morning. He is presumed to have committed suicide by jumping overboard, although no one reported seeing him jump and Whittlesey’s body was never recovered. Before leaving New York, he prepared a will leaving his property to his mother. He also left a series of letters in his cabin addressed to relatives and friends. The letters were addressed to his parents, his brothers Elisha and Melzar, his uncle Granville Whittlesey, and to his friends George McMurtry, J. Bayard Pruyn, Robert Forsyth Little and Herman Livingston, Jr. Also in his cabin was found a note to the captain of the Toloa leaving instructions for the disposition of the baggage left in his stateroom. He left the famous German letter asking for surrender to McMurtry.
This life story of this hero is fitting as a remembrance, as we head into Labor Day. As Our Daily Bread referenced, Charles Whittlesey was publicly strong. Because he took his life, inwardly he must have been dealing with such emotions of despair.
Maybe it’s a good reminder to us that just because someone says that everything is great, doesn’t mean that “everything is great”. That they sure could use a word of encouragement. Also, that those returning from the battlefield many times need more than a welcome home.
I hope you have a great weekend. Back on Tuesday.
And for pic o’ day, I felt the need to go a bit on the light side… in changing places: