One hundred years later, Ohio town remembers the 'Lost Battalion'
By GARY BROWN | The Repository, Canton | Published: October 7, 2018
(Tribune News Service) — It was 100 years ago this month that William S. Helaney and his comrades — surrounded by Germans and asked by their enemy to surrender — captured the attention of a nation as members of the "Lost Battalion."
The hell that the soldier, who later came to Canton to live and work, went through in October 1918 during fighting in France is vividly described in historian Robert H. Ferrell's 2005 book, "Five Days in October: The Lost Battalion of World War I."
"No single action of the U.S. Army in France in World War I received such attention, both within the American high command and from newspaper accounts throughout the country," Ferrell wrote in the preface to his book, comparing the valor of the soldiers to that of the men of the Alamo. "The whole affair was memorable when other events of the war blurred and became almost forgotten; Americans could not forget what it meant for five hundred men surrounded in the Argonne Forest to fight for five days, fired upon morning to night by riflemen, machine guns, mortars, and on occasion artillery, with nothing to eat after the morning of the first day save grass and roots -- what it meant to defy the German foe until relief at last came."
Filmmakers much later -- in 2001 -- would produce a made-for-television movie about the courage portrayed by the men led by Maj. Charles Whittlesey, portrayed in the film by Rick Schroder. The A&E historical film also has been shown on such cable television outlets as The History Channel. The story is well known.
What wasn't as clear, even to his family for decades, was the part William Helaney played in the historic war drama.
The father of Jackson Township resident Joe Helaney rarely spoke of his service in World War I, the younger Helaney said.
"He never talked about it. He never mentioned one thing."
Research revealed it
The younger Helaney, whose father passed in November of 1981 at the age of 92, had a vague knowledge that his father had served in the Argonne Forest during World War I in the unit that became known as "The Lost Battalion." His father kept the details of his experience to himself, the son said.
"I knew about 'The Lost Battalion' and I kept picking up bits and pieces," said Helaney. "Then they came out with the movie. And I thought it would be nice to have some information about it and my father."
As luck would have it, Helaney's nephew, Mike Wesson of Plain Township, was doing genealogical research about the family, trying to piece together information about their ancestors for himself and his siblings.
"The only reason we know any of this stuff is because of all the ancestry research," Helaney said. "When my nephew got to his grandfather it all sort of took off."
With that genealogical search, the military career of Pvt. William S. Helaney took on renewed life.
Joined the Army
Research showed that the elder Helaney, who had been born in Damascus, Syria, had come legally to the United States from Turkey in 1907, entering in Eagle Pass, Texas, and settling in Herrin, Illinois. It was there that he learned English, as well as how to be a door-to-door salesman. He also worked in a restaurant in Marion, Ill., and was an employee of the dry goods store in Herrin -- Helaney & Helaney -- that was owned by his cousins, Joseph and Mose Helaney.
From 1915 to 1918, Helaney "homesteaded" in Wyoming while continuing to live in Illinois during the winters, Wesson determined with his research. Helaney's draft registration card, obtained in Goshen County, Wyoming, when he was 28, was dated Feb. 4, 1918, and listed his home as Torrington, Wyoming. It was in Torrington that Helaney also became a naturalized citizen, another document shows.
By autumn of that year, Helaney was a private in Company C of the 308th Infantry, a part of the U.S. Army's 77th Infantry Division. Helaney's company, along with five others in the 308th and a company each from the 306th Infantry and 307th Infantry, formed the unit called "The Lost Battalion," which became pinned down and surrounded by the German forces in the Argonne Forest.
The name is a misnomer, according to a talk -- "The Experience and Meaning of the Lost Battalion" -- given on Nov. 11, 1938, by James V. Leak, an officer in Company E of the 308th, speaking to students and faculty at what was then Abilene Christian College in Texas.
"First, it was not a battalion, but was composed of seven companies of infantry and one machine gun company. A battalion is composed of only four companies," said Leak 80 years ago. "Second, it was not "Lost." We knew exactly where we were and went to the exact position to which we had been ordered."
Unfortunately, the location of "The Lost Battalion" also was known by the enemy, even though it was not for a time by the American field headquarters.
How it happened
According to an article written by Joe McCarthy in the October 1977 issue of American Heritage, the only people who were "uncertain about the location of the trapped band of riflemen and machine gunners were their own division's artillery officers, who bombarded them with heavy shellfire for two terrifying hours during the second day of the siege."
The trapped unit, organized under the command of Major Whittlesey, commanding officer of the 77th's First Battalion, was brought together from battalions that already were depleted and weary from fighting. The 77th was a New York City division -- "The Times Square Division" -- but troops from New York's boroughs, most of them foreign-born, were bolstered by draftees from the Midwest who had little training, McCarthy noted. And, by the time Whittlesey's advanced unit was cut off from the other Americans by Germans, in a battle that began with an artillery barrage on Oct. 2, 1918, all the troops were tired and hungry.
"By noon on October 3 ... a head count showed that after the casualties of the morning there were only 550 men left in the pocket, including some who had been severely wounded," wrote McCarthy.
Many of the dead and wounded were shot. Others were killed and maimed by artillery fire. Some lost their lives by way of the "liquid fire" -- oil ignited -- that was sprayed on them by the enemy.
Messages carried by military personnel in the unit didn't get through enemy lines. Other notifications were flown by carrier pigeon to the commanding officers, but there initially were no troops available to send to "The Lost Battalion" as reinforcements. Still, the unit stayed true to its mission -- "Hold this position at all costs. No falling back." -- to the point that the men refused to surrender when the Germans offered to acknowledge a white flag. So the battle raged on. Wounded and famished from lack of food, the men of "The Lost Battalion" covered their dead and tended their wounded until they were rescued Oct. 8, 1918, by a 77th Infantry relief force.
Only about 190 who had been trapped in the ravine that had been home for the "Lost Battalion" for the better part of a week were able to walk away. "Another 190 were seriously wounded, 107 were dead, and 63 were missing," wrote McCarthy.
Helaney was one of the lucky soldiers, sent home on the troop ship Maui with a case of trench foot.
Coming to Canton
Helaney settled in Nebraska. He worked as a confectioner in Omaha, and also as a tailor. He owned a dry-cleaning business and operated a tavern and a market.
"In 1948, we moved to Canton, the whole family," said Joe Helaney. "My mother's brother lived here and her mother and father were moving here from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, so they would all be together."
For years, his father owned Ray's Nightclub in Perry Township, he said.
"My oldest brother, Ray, and my Uncle Ray ran it for him," Helaney said. "My father took care of the trailer park behind it."
From 1960 until his death in 1981, the elder Helaney also owned rental property in Canton, said his son.
"I think back and wonder, 'Where did he get his enjoyment?' He worked his whole life," said Helaney. "Gardening and the stock market, those were his other interests. He was not a party person. He was not a drinker."
And, the elder Helaney was not a talker, either, at least where memories of war were concerned. The details of his days with "The Lost Battalion" went with him in death.
"I try to imagine the pain and the fearful thoughts he would have experienced by being surrounded by the Germans. They were close enough they could hear them," said Helaney. "The thing that comes back to me is, 'You didn't ask enough.' The stories I could have gotten if I'd just asked."