"I'M COMING TO GETCHA ... AND I'M GONNA GETCHA!"
Medal of Honor Winner to Open Meuse-Argonne Gallery
Honoring the 91st Division, October 14.
The Fort Point Salvo
Newsletter of the Fort Point and Army Museum Association
Volume 4, No. 3
That shout from SGT Phillip C. Katz, Company C, 363d Infantry, "San Francisco's Own", as he ran through machine gun fire to bring back wounded Corporal Page the first day of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, September 26, 1918, said a lot about the 91st Division. It unwittingly was a pretty good no-man 's-land description of the strategy that ended World War I, as well.
The Meuse-Argonne gallery in our Presidio Army Museum will display an exact scale model of the battlefield together with a life-size section of the kind of trenches from which the attack was launched. At l o'clock, October 14, the Sixth US Army Band will be on hand. A horse drawn French 75mm gun will pul I up to the Museum. A 91st Division Color Guard will post the colors. And Brig. Gen. Frederick Lawson, Commander of the 91st, will join Phillip C. Katz, now 90, and still traveling the world, to welcome all who would like to join in honoring the unstoppable " Wild West Division."
General Pershing's Strategy
The Meuse-Argonne offensive was planned to drive the enemy out of his strong positions in Lorraine and force his withdrawal in a vast pivoting movement based on Metz. This would shorten the front considerably and also threaten severance of the rail line skirting the Argonne Forest to the north, through Malmedy and Sedan. That line represented nearly one-half of the supply and troop-moving capability of the German Army. Its imminent loss turned out to be the controlling reason for the withdrawal and plea for an Armistice.
In planning the strategy General Pershing was convinced that the bloody stalemate of trench warfare had to be broken. He resisted efforts to brigade his troops in with the French and British, insisting that they were trained to fight in the open. They would attack on their own, carry the fight to the enemy- go out and get him.
The Attack that began at American Lake
Preparation for the great Meuse-Argonne battle really got underway at American Lake, Wash., renamed Camp Lewis when the first draftees began arriving September 5, 1917. They were from California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska. They made up the 91st Division organized into four Infantry regiments, three regiments of Field Artillery, three Machine gun battalions, an Engineer regiment, two companies of Military Police, a Signal Corps battalion, and necessary Medical Department and ambulance units.
The 361st Infantry regiment was manned by Oregon, Washington and Alaska men. The 362nd belonged to Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming; the 363rd and 364th were from California. The 363d had so many men from the Bay Area it became known as "San Francisco's Own".
"Wild West Division"
The troops started drilling in civilian clothes before their uniforms caught up with them. Training was rigorous and unending. But morale was so high nothing mattered. One day somebody asked some Montana troopers slogging along where they were from. They yelled back, "Powder River! Let 'er Buck!" From there on the 91st was the "Wild West Division". Its troopers didn't know what it was to get licked and they weren't about to find out.
Phillip Katz enlisted in October 191 7. He was 30 and had been around. He shipped out to Alaska at 17 and had sailed up and down the Pacific Coast. The rugged Camp Lewis training didn't faze him, but the food was something else! "I enlisted in October and it was the following Easter Sunday (1918) when I saw my first egg in the Army," he chuckles. But there was no time for egg rolling. The 91st was getting ready night and day. Every man knew he was going overseas and he knew what for.
91st Moves Out June 19, 1918
The Division started moving out of Camp Lewis for Camp Merritt, New Jersey, June 19th, less than one year after it was inducted into the Army. Says the little book, "The Story of the 91st Division": "On their trip across the continent, the soldiers from the Far West had an excellent opportunity to acquaint themselves with the patriotic unity which ultimately was to bring about the defeat of Germany. The motherly gray-haired old lady standing in front of her little cottage on the broad prairie of Montana, alternately waving a flag and brushing away the tears she could not restrain, contributed as much to this feeling as did the impromptu receptions tendered the men in the great cities through which they passed."
The 91st stayed at Camp Merritt until July 5th. There they were issued their battle uniforms - from steel helmets to hobnailed trench boots. PVT Katz recalled spending the 4th in New York City walking around in his combat boots. "We called 'em trench slippers."
July 6 - Two Liners Slip down the Bay
That day two fast liners quietly eased out of their berths and headed for England, relying on their speed instead of destroyers to protect them. They were so tightly packed with men "I envied the sardines in their cans, they looked so comfortable," Katz says. The full 91st sailed in convoy a day later.
When the troops reassembled at Le Havre July 21 after a few days in England, and a 10 hour zig-zag crossing of the English Channel, they were packed like sardines again. This time in the famous French side-door Pullmans stenciled “40 hommes – 9 chevaux”, the 40 and 8’s. “When we got off they put us up in a barn loft full of hay. That was the most comfortable sleep I ever had. It was Heaven,” says Phil Katz – now CPL Katz. The troops were at and around Montigny-le-Roi for final training.
On September 7 the Division left “for the front.” It was part of the reserve of the First American Army in the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient which opened September 12. When the salient was obliterated from the war maps after three days the 91st moved north and learned it definitely would "go over the top" in the smash through the Meuse-Argonne.
At the front the troops were moved by night marches with great secrecy until all were bivouacked in the Foret de Hesse - a few kilometers to the right of the Argonne.
September 25 - The Bombardment
Final orders were issued that day. In the afternoon General Pershing came to the Division Command Post. He asked Major General William H. Johnston, Division Commander, to express his confidence that officers and men of the 91st would do their duty. A memorandum was prepared and read to all before they marched to their attack positions. It pleased the officers and men to know that the Commander-in-Chief was with them at the front.
How did now Sergeant Katz feel as he went to his jump off spot? "Excited - I didn't have sense enough to be scared." Also, he didn't know how tough a task confronted the 91st.
The going was against positions of great strength. Four lines of deep trenches with broad fields of wire before them; thoroughly organized woods; machine gun emplacements by the score; battery on battery of artillery; ground observation posts connected by wire with all battalions and most machine gun emplacements; a terrain from which the Germans could look down on the attackers; balloon and aviation observation support. And the whole system manned by the 1st Prussian Guards and the German 11 7th, two crack shock divisions.
At 23-1/2 hours (11:30) the night of the 25th, our heavy long range guns opened fire. The bombardment grew in power and intensity through the night. "At 2:30 o'clock, all the guns of the corps and divisional artillery, silent up to that moment, went into action together. It is useless to try to describe that bombardment; those who lay under it during the hours before the "jump off' will never forget it. It was so vast, so stunning, and the noise was so overwhelming that no one could grasp the whole. The German trenches were marked in the darkness by a line of leaping fire, punctuated now and then by the higher bursts of some particularly heavy shell. The retaliatory fire by German batteries passed over the heads of our leading regiments."
September 26, the First Day
With daylight the barrage began to lift. At 5:30 the 363d leading the way passed over La Cigalerie Butte. SGT. Katz and his men were in the line. They entered the valley of the Buanthe in a cloud of smoke and mist that hid them from the Germans, less than half a mile to the west. They got across no-man's-land without casualties, and found the battered front line trenches with few defenders left after a hasty evacuation. From then on the air was alive with machine gun bullets.
The 363d helped crack the second German line and penetrate part of the third suffering the highest casualties of any unit as they advanced. By afternoon they had gotten out ahead of the regiments on either side and had to draw back 400 years.
"The machine gun fire was pure murder and we were getting it from both flanks," recalls Katz, " I jumped into a shell hole with another guy. We were rubbing elbows when I heard a 'thunk' like somebody thumping a watermelon. I looked around; the guy had got hit and was dead. Why he got it and not me I'll never know. "
It was during the pull back that someone told SGT Katz that CPL Page, one of the outfit, was hit and lying out in the open. " I went after him," says Katz. " I didn't see him at first but he saw me and started yelling, "Go back! Go back! No use two of us getting it." And what did you say? Katz was asked. "I don't remember exactly, but I think something like 'Go to Hell! I'm coming to getcha and I 'm gonna getcha!"
He did and hoisted Page over his shoulder. How long did it seem covering the hundred yards or so getting back? A smile rippled across Katz' face. “Just short of 2,000 years!", he said. For this "act of conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity, above and beyond the call of duty," he was awarded the Medal of Honor. But medals were the last thing on SGT. Katz' mind just then.
The 91st kept up the attack the second day. However, the enemy reinforced and strongly located in a thicket of machine gun nests threw back the 361st time after time. The 363d and 364th did better on the left. By late afternoon they were able to break through a broad belt of wire swept by machine guns and capture the ruined village of Eclisfontaine.
The 363d went on the attack again the third day. Enemy artillery fire increased in severity all day and kept up during the night. Rain came down in buckets. The men had no blankets to protect them from the cold. And because of their rapid advance it had been impossible to get any hot food to them since before the jump-off. But they hung on and kept pushing.
Advance ... Regardless of Cost
The fourth day the order came through to move at 7 a.m. " Divisions will advance independently of each other, pushing the attack with utmost vigor and regardless of cost." The 91st was assigned the key task of "carrying the ball right up the middle!"
The 363d regiment passed through the 364th and crossed open ground in the face of harrowing fire from Tronsal Farm, "that bloody place", as Katz recalls. The farm had to be taken and held. This took time. But by early afternoon the 91st was ready to advance again. The 362d was ordered to take the town of Gesnes. It was met at the jump-off by a terrific artillery counter barrage and the hardest kind of machine gun fire from the front and right flank. It went grimly on despite heavy casualties, and finally drove the enemy out of Gesnes.
During the afternoon the 35th and 37th Divisions on either side of the 91st were forced to withdraw. This left the 91st spread too thin. It had to pull back and shorten its line. That night a few rolling kitchens per regiment got up to the front. The men got the first warm food they had had in four days.
The Fifth Day
The 91st Division's new line of resistance was to be held in anticipation of a strong enemy counter-attack. One battalion lost I 0% of its men to the enemy artillery barrage that went on all day and through the night. More ambulances got up that night and more wounded were carried back.
Having evacuated its wounded and fed its men, the 91st was ready to attack again. It had to wait until the 37th Division had been relieved by the 32d and the 31st by the 1st Division. These new divisions advanced brilliantly and established combat liaison with the 91st.
Many men were suffering from diarrhea due to five days exposure without warm food, heavy coats and blankets. They were using water-filled shell holes as shelter from small arms fire, but these were little protection against artillery.
Despite mounting casualties from a bomber attack and the heaviest enemy artillery fire the offensive positions were stubbornly held through the sixth, seventh and eighth days.
Relief on the Ninth Day
This day, Oct. 4, the 91st Division was relieved. With the enemy forced into his last retreat, the rugged mission was accomplished! The Commanding General of the 91st released a letter from the 5th Army Corps Commander which stated in part:
" . . . At a time when the divisions on its flanks were faltering and even falling back, the 91st pushed ahead and steadfastly clung to every yard gained.
"In its initial performance, your Division has established itself firmly in the list of the Commander-in-Chiefs reliable fighting units. Please extend to your officers and men my appreciation of their splendid behavior and my hearty congratulations on the brilliant record they have made."
In the nine days of the Meuse-Argonne offensive the 91st "Wild West Division" lost 1,019 officers and men killed, 3,916 wounded, a total of 4,935 casualties, or nearly one-fourth of its original strength. Only 11 of its men were captured.
On to Belgium in the Final Push
After receiving replacements, supplies and a few days rest, the 91st went up into the line of the French Army of Belgium for the Ypres-Lys offensive. Four days later a special order from Major General Massenet, Commanding the 7th French Corps had this to say:
"Transported from the Argonne to Flanders, the 91st American Division has again been thrown into battle, a few hours after its arrival.
"Under the energetic influence of its Commander, Major General Johnston, the 91st American Division reached all its objectives on the 31st October and 1st November, with remarkable dash and energy ...
"The brilliant way in which this Division has just fought is a sure guarantee that it will gather fresh laurels during the next operations."
It did. And pushed on crossing the Scheidt River and occupying the City of Audenarde. It was set to attack again at daybreak November 11th, the day the Armistice ended the war.
Time for Medals and Honors
After the Armistice, SGT. Phillip Katz, Company C, 363d Infantry stood at attention to receive the Medal of Honor, America's highest military award. He was awarded the medal by General Pershing himself. On the record, the whole 91st Division could be commended for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity, above and beyond the call of duty" in the service of its country.
Oh, but how about CPL. Phillip Page whom SGT. Katz rescued the first day of the Meuse-Argonne offensive? He recovered and served his country well. Although the two met for the first time in no-man's land, it turned out that Page and Katz had lived about two blocks from each other in San Francisco-Page on Sacramento Street and Katz a block or so east and around the corner on Parker Avenue.
General Orders No. 7 - Names, Insignia, Mottoes
By this order, Jan 29, 1919, "Wild West Division" was officially recognized as the name of the 91st.
The distinctive design, a green fir tree, emblematic of the foliage of the states from which its men were drawn, was adopted as a personal badge to be worn by each officer and man. (It is said that green felt ripped from a pool table was cut up to make the first shoulder patches.)
And, continued Order No. 7, " Since the 91st was ready to participate in the St. Mihiel operation while standing in reserve of the First American Army, since it was ready to attack in the front line ... when the Commander- in-Chief launched his attack against the enemy's line of communications between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest ... since its units never hesitated to attack the most formidable of the enemy's defenses in Belgium ... the phrase 'Always Ready' is adopted as the divisional motto."
The best words of all, however, were those of the officers and men who wrote "The Story of the 91st Division". In their Forward they said: "We hope that we can justly feel that we gave all and the best that was in us …"
Mayor James Rolph Meets "San Francisco's Own in New York
When the 363d Infantry sailed into New York harbor in the Spring of 1919 it was met by San Francisco's Mayor Rolph. He offered SGT Katz a job in his shipping office which was accepted.
"San Francisco's Own" 363d returned to the Presidio of San Francisco for mustering out. "We tried to have a parade for our home coming," Mr. Katz recalls, "But then a lady ran into the street to kiss her son, then everybody did it. And the whole thing was shot to hell," he adds with a smile.
Serving San Francisco for 30 Years
After four years in Mayor Rolph's shipping company, Mr. Katz ran for Supervisor and was elected in 1923. Two years later he became Public Administrator of San Francisco and served his City for 27 years until his retirement in 1953.
Tickled by the "itchy foot" that led him to ship out for Alaska at 17, Mr. Phillip Katz travels every year. And he still embodies the "Always Ready" motto of the 91st - at 90.