Thursday, December 21, 2017

Joseph Leonard's Service in World War I: Just in Time for Meuse-Argonne

I "discovered" Joseph Leonard when I attended the dedication of Veterans Memorial Park in my new hometown of Cohoes, New York. In the park there was a memorial dedicated to Joseph and his service during the Philippine Insurrection for which he had been awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor.

Sgt. Joseph Leonard memorial in Veterans Memorial Park,
Cohoes, New York; personal collection

I wondered why Joseph Leonard had enlisted in 1897 using the name Joseph Melvin and wanted more details about his service. During my research journey, I learned Joseph led a very eventful life with several tragedies along the way. I also learned that he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps a second time and served in World War I.

On 19 April 1918 Joseph Leonard, at the age of 41, walked into a Marine Corps recruiting station in Cleveland, Ohio, and re-enlisted as a Private. He was given 5 days furlough and stationed to the Marine Barracks in Brooklyn, New York. In New York he was assigned to the 12th Co. until he was transferred to the Marine Detachment aboard the USS North Dakota (BB-29), a battleship, on 13 June. The dreadnought was based at the Brooklyn Naval Ship Yard and the York River in Virginia. She was tasked with training gunners and engine room personnel. The Marine Detachments aboard naval ships were responsible for the brig, defense of the ship and attack operations against the enemy ashore. Private Leonard would have participated in gunner training.

USS North Dakota (BB-29); courtesy of Wikipedia

On 17 August 1918 Private Leonard was transferred to Co. A in the 1st Separate Machine Gun Battalion at Quantico, Virginia. Sometime prior to 1 October the battalion was transferred to France where it was designated 1st Training Machine Gun Battalion as part of 1st Training Regiment. The regiment was stationed west of Tours in Chatillon-sur-Cher and Billy. On 16 October Private Leonard was transferred to USMC 5th Regiment as a replacement soldier. The regiment was near, Chalons-sur-Marne, south of Reims, and fighting in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The 5th Regiment fought primarily as part of 4th (Marine) Brigade, 2nd (Army) Division.[1]

On 19 October the brigade of which 5th Regiment was a part was detached from 2nd Division and assigned to the French IX Corps to relieve its 73rd Division near Attigny, about 40 miles north of their position. About 5 miles from Attigny, the regiment received orders to return to 2nd Division. The plan was for the American Expeditionary Forces to force the Germans back across the Meuse river.

The remainder of Private Leonard's battle chronicle is told in A Brief History of 5th Marines, by the Historical Branch of the U.S. Marine Corps:

"From positions six miles southeast of Buzancy, the Marine brigade and 23rd Infantry (on the right) moved out in the attack early on 1 November. Throughout the day, resistance remained light, and each of the 5th's battalions had a hand in the successful advance. On 2 and 3 November, the 5th Regiment (minus the 2nd Battalion, attached to the 9th Infantry) was in support of 3rd Brigade. On 4 November, the 5th returned to the lines and sent out strong reconnaissance patrols to the Meuse. During the next four days, the regiment continued to move forward in the right of the division zone. Plans were made to cross the river on the night of 9-10 November, but were postponed because of the difficulty in obtaining bridge-building materials.

The 2nd Division had been ordered to cross the Meuse at two points, Mouzon on the left (north) and Letanne, five miles to the south. The 6th regiment, with the 3rd Battalion of the 5th attached, was to make the Mouzon crossing, while the remainder of the 5th Regiment, plus one battalion of the 89th Infantry Division was to accomplish the Letanne movement. At Mouzon, attempts to gain the opposite bank on 10 November failed when the enemy discovered the site and brought all available fire upon it. The thrust at Letanne, however, did not share the same fate.

Floating bridge at Letanne; courtesy U.S. Marine Corps Archives

Beginning at 2130 on 10 November, the 2nd Battalion started crossing the cold river. Despite heavy fire from German machine guns and artillery, treacherous footing on the board covered logs that served as floating bridges, and the uncertainty in the dark of night, the battalion crossed in one hour. Casualties and the scattering of units brought about by the difficulties in the crossing cut the battalion fighting strength to about 100 Marines by early morning. It reorganized, nevertheless, and moved out to the northwest, removing any enemy that remained. These efforts by the 2nd Battalion made the 1st Battalion's movement to the east bank less difficult. When both battalions were across, they joined forces in a sweep along the river towards Mouzon. At this time, word on the armistice reached the Marines.

Accounts of the reactions of Marines and Germans to the the news of the armistice differed. Some said that both sides celebrated, even together, while others stated that the friend and foe alike received the report joyfully, but in silence. Regardless of sentiments, the 5th still had much work ahead of it; realizing that the cessation of hostilities might be temporary only, the men began organizing the ground for defense. Then, on 14 November, after being relieved, the regiment moved south to Pouilly, on the Meuse opposite Letanne, to re-fit and re-equip for the last phase of its European operations.

The 2nd Division, of which the Marine Brigade [including 5th Regiment] was still a part, was one of six American divisions immediately ordered to move into Germany for occupation duty. The march to the Rhine began before sun-up on 17 November, and the 5th had the honor of providing the advance guard for the division. The first phase of the movement -- to the German border, approximately 60 miles away -- was made in six marching days and one rest day. The route to the border took the regiment southeast through Montmedy, France, across Belgium, and into Luxembourg to its eastern border with Germany. Here, the regiment participated in a defensive alignment of the division until crossing into Germany the first day of December...

...The 5th Regiment crossed the Rhine river at Remagen on 13 December and on the 16th moved to permanent winter quarters in the Wied River Valley just to the southeast [in Datzeroth]. Here the regiment began its mission of occupation. This duty involved not only a military preparedness to counter and defeat any riotous or warlike action of the German people, but also, a civil 'know-how' to supervise the local governments of the various towns in the regimental area.

8th Machine Gun Co., 5th Marine Regiment in Datzeroth, German; courtesy
of U.S. Militaria Forum

Training, of course, constituted the most important event in the day's activities. Schools, range firing, maneuvers, and reviews prevailed. To take advantage of duty-free time, Marines of the 5th took part in educational programs and availed themselves of the opportunities for leave in the larger French cities or for tours along the Rhine. Continuous emphasis was placed upon the physical readiness of the troops."

While stationed in Datzeroth, Germany, Private Leonard was promoted to Sergeant. On 24 March 1919 Sergeant Leonard was transferred by Special Order No. 79 to Marine Barracks, Washington, DC. From there he was transferred to Casual Co. 3912 in preparation of being discharged. He was discharged on 3 July and issued an honorable discharge button.

[1] During World War I 2nd (Army) Division was twice commanded by Marine Corps generals, the only time in military history Marine Corps officers commanded an Army division.

Joseph Leonard was born in 1876 Cohoes, New York, to James and Mary (Melvin) Leonard. He served in the USMC from 1897 through 1902 during the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in the Philippines. After being discharged, he migrated to Fergus County, Montana, and married Grace Cunningham in 1911. They had two children before her death from complications related to pregnancy. He homesteaded 160 acres near Stanford in present day Judith Basin County. At the time the area was called Coyote, which had a post office from 1909-1914 (thank you, Dave Wallenburn!).

After World War I Joseph returned to Montana where he worked as a copper miner and lived in a boarding house in Butte. His children were raised by their maternal grandparents. Joseph died at the California Veterans Home-Yountville in 1946 and was interred at Veterans Memorial Grove in the same town.

A Brief History of the 5th Marines, Marine Corps Historical Reference Series No. 36. Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps, 1963), pages 10-12.

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