This week in American military history:
May. 24, 1818: Gen. (future U.S. pres.) Andrew Jackson and his expeditionary army march into Spanish-controlled Florida, easily capturing the Gulf-coastal town of Pensacola.
Col. José Masot, the Spanish governor, retreats to nearby Fort San Carlos de Barrancas (originally built by the British as “the Royal Navy Redoubt”) where he briefly puts up a token resistance — to save face — before hoisting the white flag there, too.
May. 26, 1917: U.S. Army Gen. John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing is named commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), which is destined for European combat the following year.
May. 27, 1967: USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) — the last conventionally powered American aircraft carrier — is launched.
May 28, 1918: Almost one year to the day after Pershing is named commander-in-chief of the AEF, elements of the soon-to-be-famous 1st Infantry Division, (“the Big Red One”) under the command of Lt. Gen. Robert Lee Bullard launch the first major attack by U.S. forces in World War I near the French town of Cantigny. In doing so, the Americans strike and the defeat a far-more experienced German army under the command of General Oskar von Hutier.
The attack opens in the wee hours with a two-hour artillery bombardment. Then at 6:45 a.m., whistles are blown along the American trench lines, and soldiers from the division’s 28th Infantry Regiment — destined to become known as the “Lions of Cantigny” — clamber over the top and into the open. Supported by French aircraft, tanks, and mortar and flame-thrower teams — the Americans advance over a distance of 1,600 yards in three waves at marked intervals behind a creeping artillery barrage. By 7:20 a.m., the German lines are reached.
Fighting is grim; one American sergeant will write: “About twenty Dutchmen [Germans] came out of the holes, threw down their rifles and stood with their hands up. The doughboys didn’t pay any attention to this but started in to butcher and shoot them. One of the doughboys on the run stabbed a Dutchman and his bayonet went clear through him.” In the town, the Germans are flushed from hiding places in shops and houses. French soldiers with flamethrowers are called up to assist in clearing the cellars of buildings.
Lt. Clarence Huebner (destined to command the 1st Infantry Division in the next great war, and rise to the rank of Lt. Gen.) watches in horror as one of his badly burned enemies rushes from a flamed-out cellar. It was “just as I had seen rabbits in Kansas come out of burning straw stacks,” he will recall.
The Germans — who, like so many others throughout history, had dismissed the Americans as not having the stomach for real fighting — develop a quick respect for their new foe.
Bullard’s headquarters will issue a statement, a portion of which reads: “The moral effects to flow from this proof of reliability in battle of the American soldiers, far outweighs the direct military importance of the actions themselves.”
May. 28, 1980: The first female midshipmen graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
May 29, 1945: Elements of the famous 1st Battalion, 5th Marines capture Shuri Castle — the palace of the Ryukyu kings for centuries — during the Battle of Okinawa.
(Coincidentally, this author served as a rifle-squad leader with 1/5. But the Battle of Okinawa took place about 14 years before he was born.)
May. 30, 1868: “Decoration Day” — the predecessor to Memorial Day — is first observed by order of U.S. Army Gen. John A. Logan, who had decreed on May 5: “The 30th day of May 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
Maj. Gen. (future U.S. pres.) James A. Garfield presides over ceremonies at Arlington Cemetery (the former estate of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee), and approximately 5,000 participants decorate the graves of both Union and Confederate dead — about 20,000 of them — buried on the grounds.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: “This Week in American Military History,” appears every week as a feature of HUMAN EVENTS.
Let’s increase awareness of American military tradition and honor America’s greatest heroes by supporting the Medal of Honor Society’s 2010 Convention to be held in Charleston, S.C., Sept. 29 – Oct. 3, 2010 (for more information, click here).