Into Oblivion

The untold story of the Reed freshman who fought in the last major offensive of World War I.

By Ian Buckman ’18 | December 1, 2017

For the men of the 361st Regiment, the morning of October 9, 1918, dawned soggy and solemn. The sun crept above the horizon at 7:50, but was obscured behind the thick layers of mist and clouds that shrouded the French countryside. Few of them had gotten any sleep. It wasn’t the dull crash of artillery that kept them awake, nor was it the sudden bursts of tracer shells or flares which lit up the nighttime sky, announcing the intrusion of a German patrol. Even the dysentery which had been wracking them for weeks was by now just a routine misery. What haunted their thoughts that night was zero hour. The regiment had seen near constant combat for almost a month, but nothing like the orders they were expected to execute come morning. As the minutes ticked away, the men exchanged tired jokes and damp cigarettes. Some looked out across no man’s land, a sea of grassy mud. They could almost feel the gaze of German soldiers, watching them from the hills several hundred yards to their front. Everyone understood that before the sun went down, this pockmarked sliver of land could well become their grave. The moments slipped away, slowly, but not slowly enough. At exactly 9:40 a.m., the shrill blasts of whistles sounded across the American lines, and the 361st began their march into oblivion.

Whether we know it or not, we all leave behind a trail of clues for future historians. Americans at the dawn of the 20th century left birth certificates, census documents, photographs in someone else’s scrapbook. The longer they lived, the longer the trail: diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, court records, land deeds, and tax records. Sometimes, however, history has other plans. Between 1914 and 1918, World War I claimed the lives of over 18 million people, of whom almost 120,000 were Americans. Most of the slain died before reaching their mid-20s. Some left behind diaries. Some left behind children. But most went to the front childless, and their diaries were churned into the mud of the battlefield. 

As a result, the war not only annihilated them from the earth, but also obliterated their historical footprint, like a wave sweeping over the sand at low tide, leaving behind only vague indentations. Their stories may be difficult to reconstruct, but that is all the more reason to try. To forget them would be to forget the human cost of one of the greatest cataclysms of world history. Of the millions who died, 12 were Reedies. Of these 12, one was Pvt. George Henry Otte ’20. 

Otte hailed from Falls City, Oregon, a small town close to Salem. The first mention of him at Reed is in the catalog for the 1916–17 school year. We know from an issue of the Quest that he liked to play basketball. We also know that he lived in Quincy 246, then referred to as “Room 7.” At the time, Reed had only existed for eight years, and had only offered classes for five. Campus consisted of little more than Eliot Hall and what we now call the Old Dorm Block.

On April 6, 1917, Congress voted to declare war on Germany. From then until November 11, 1918, the war would dominate American life. Newspapers were splattered with stories of enemy atrocities and tales of daring heroism on the front, pro-war posters plastered buildings, and the Committee on Public Information, a government agency, both bombarded Americans with pro-war propaganda and rigorously censored information coming back from Europe, keeping public enthusiasm at astronomic highs. 

Like the rest of the country, Reed was quickly caught up in a flurry of activity. No one was more passionate about service than President William T. Foster [1910–1919]. Though a vehement pacifist beforehand, Foster became a loyal supporter of the war effort once he realized that America’s entry was inevitable. In addition to helping found the Student Army Training Corps, a precursor to the ROTC, Foster traveled to France to work for the Red Cross, and returned to give a lecture, displaying pictures he took in France in order to “secure… willing cooperation in the nation’s great task.” Foster would even sometimes be seen strutting around campus in a military uniform. 

Duty through military service was presented as a necessary facet of manhood, and this message was beaten into the minds of young men in many ways. Popular songs called on men to honor their duty and fall into the ranks. Recruitment posters equated manhood and duty, and often depicted a burly soldier beckoning with open arms, telling men to stand up for their country. Others relied on the persuasiveness of shame.

If intense social pressure failed to entice your enlistment, there was always the draft. The Selective Service Act of 1917 required all men between the ages of 21 and 30 (later expanded to 18-45) to register for service. The draft would thrust 2.8 million men, a majority of Americans who served in the war, into the military. Draftees were from all parts of the country and all walks of life, men whom the historian Joanna Bourke describes as largely “civilians first, and soldiers by historical mishap.” 

Otte doesn’t seem to have been in a hurry to sign up. It wasn’t until April 20, 1918, that the Oregonian proclaimed him as one of Polk County’s 23 newest draftees. A few days later he was spirited away to Camp Lewis near Tacoma, where he became part of the 361st Regiment in the 91st Division. This division was composed of men from western states, earning it the nickname “the Wild West Division.” Despite its aggressive moniker, much of the outfit was composed of inexperienced draftees. They weren’t given much of an introduction to military life either. Training at Camp Lewis was a whirlwind, and within a couple of months, they were already shipping out to France.

On September 7th, the 91st Division marched toward the Western Front. Not only were the troops green, they were also woefully underequipped. The division suffered from a shortage of radios, flares, telephones, and other vital gear. Allied Command knew that the result of these shortages would probably be high casualties, but decided that the manpower of the 91st was needed on the front—ready or not.

On September 24, the division was ordered to the Argonne Forest. Soon they would be participating in a massive operation to smash through the German lines and drive north towards the city of Sedan—a key military objective. Sedan was a rail hub that allowed the Germans to keep resupplying their forces throughout France and Belgium with troops and equipment. Allied generals hoped that the capture of Sedan would strike a decisive blow against the German army and end the bloody stalemate. This battle would become known as the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and would be the largest in American military history, with more than one million American soldiers taking part, but all Otte and his comrades would have known is that their time to go “over the top” would be September 26 at 5:30 am. 

One of the common explanations for the unprecedented carnage of the Great War is the imbalance between tactics and technology. Generals who had earned their commissions back when soldiers could only fire off a few bullets in a minute, now faced weapons which could mow down companies in seconds. Of these weapons, perhaps none was more transformative than long-range artillery. Advances in metallurgy and ballistic science had lengthened the range of shells and mortars. In Napoleon’s time, cannonballs could be shot a maximum distance of around a mile. By 1918, standard heavy artillery could be fired with deadly accuracy over 15 miles. With long-range artillery, mortal danger was no longer confined to the front lines. The risk of being blown to pieces was now shared by their reserves, as well as any officers, nurses, engineers, drivers, or civilians within a 15 mile radius. Anyone was a potential target. 

A week into the offensive, German artillery was pounding American troops. The entire area occupied by the 91st was subjected to a brutal daily bombardment. Most concerning was the fact that the enemy seemed to know exactly where to hit. On October 2, German artillery shelled division headquarters in the French town of Épinonville, reducing much of what was left of the town to rubble. In a single hour, 35 Americans were killed and 115 more wounded. Worse, German shells had begun to crater the narrow road connecting Épinonville with the larger Allied staging base of Very. The shelling prevented key supplies from reaching troops at the front, and severely hampered the ability of the Americans to evacuate their wounded. This bombardment made the position of the 91st unstable, and the generals uneasy. Command knew that although the shells themselves were coming from over the horizon, their deadly accuracy indicated that the Germans had established an observation post on a small ridge overlooking the town, labeled on the map as Hill 255. 

Hill 255 had already proven an immense headache. On September 29, the 362nd Infantry had attacked the area around the hill. Over 100 Americans were helplessly gunned down in the first 200 yards of the advance. High Command’s frantic attempts to order a retreat were confounded by a lack of communications equipment. When the smoke cleared, the 362nd was missing over 500 men, including several high-ranking officers. The traumatized survivors were grumbling that their lives had been “thrown away in a new charge of the light brigade.” The 362nd was so thoroughly brutalized that it was immediately sent to the rear for reorganization, forcing the horrified 361st, with Otte among them, to spread out and plug the gaps left in the line.

The 361st was already battle-hardened. They had “jumped off” with the rest of the Division in the first wave of the offensive, and had seized Épinonville from the Germans, allowing American generals to set up command there. Battered by weeks of near-constant battle, the 361st had lost over 800 men from its original strength of 3700. However, High Command, panicked by the German shelling, was not yet ready to grant the weary men a rest. Sudden orders reversed the direction of the march, and the 361st struggled back to the front lines, slogging through eightmiles of driving rain before finally digging in, under fire, in preparation for an assault. 

As they surveyed the muddy, shell-beaten landscape which stretched out before them, they could not help but think about the slaughter which had occurred here a mere week before. Despite their experience, the men of the 361st knew they were about to face their most challenging encounter yet. 

With the ability to fire up to 10 bullets a second, even a single German machine gun was a force to be reckoned with; Hill 255 was bristling with them. To make matters worse, more machine guns were concealed on the neighboring hill, commanding the terrain the 361st would need to cross. In the event of an attack, these guns were ready to turn this open space into a maelstrom of bullets, cutting down anything and anyone in their path. This space had also been thoroughly presighted for artillery. Against this fearsome arsenal, the Americans had barely more than their bayonets.

Regardless, at 9:40 a.m. on a waterlogged October morning, George Otte and his companions rose to their feet and crossed the line of departure. The assault became a bloodbath almost immediately. Gunfire swept the open space and the men crossing it. One man, Corporal Carl Larson, was hit and flopped down in the open. His sergeant, thinking he was taking cover, screamed at him three times to keep advancing before finally running over to discover that he was dead. As the advance stalled, some men tried to hide themselves by lying still in the grass while the bullets whistled over their heads. One solider, Elmer Van Lew, was hiding behind a bank when an American close to him was raked by a machine gun burst. Van Lew cautiously disturbed his stillness to help his comrade, but as soon as he moved his arm he was shot in the forehead and killed instantly, apparently having revealed himself to a sniper. Another man, John E. Boche, struggled to find his commanding officer in the chaos of the attack. Staying as low to the ground as he could, Boche rolled over and over along the wet and muddy grass like a child playing a game until he finally came across his sergeant’s prone corpse. 

In order to confound the deadly accuracy of the machine guns, the Americans tried deploying a smoke screen—this, however, was no use against the German shells which now began to scream overhead and smash into the pinned American ranks. Often jagged bits of shrapnel would slash into a body but leave only a small entry wound, concealing the true gravity of the injury. Frank May was shot in the arm and was dragged, screaming, along by his friends, who thought his wound wasn’t serious. Finally his cries of agony prompted his friends to take off his shirt and examine him more closely, upon which they found a small hole in his side. May died later that night on the operating table. 

The weight of so many deaths must have piled steadily upon the American command until it finally broke their resolve to continue. In the end the 361st retreated and Hill 255 was pummeled with artillery until any German defenders had been blown beyond the point of resistance. By the next day it was safe to advance once more. The assault was significant enough to merit a mention in the memoirs of General George Pershing, the supreme commander of American forces. On the massacre, Pershing simply recollected: “The 91st Division… fought all day on the 9th for possession of Hill 255, suffering heavy casualties, and on the following day occupied the position.” 

From atop the freshly captured hill, the 361st’s survivors began to realize how deadly the assault had been. Roll calls were taken as officers quickly tried to determine who was present and who had been left on the shell-contorted field below. Otte was found to be unaccounted for. It wasn’t until December, after the end of the war, that his name made it into an official list of casualties, where he was listed as “killed in action.” 

The Meuse-Argonne offensive, and the broader “hundred days offensive” of which it was a part, turned out to be the crushing blow that the Allies had hoped for. By October 31, the Americans had advanced almost 10 miles. To their north, the French had advanced 19 miles—magnificent gains in a war which, until then, had mostly been measured in yards. As the Allies descended on Sedan, the German army was thrown into full retreat. Less than two weeks later, the war was over. Final victory, however, came at a terrible toll: the cost for each foot gained in the American advance was about two and a half American lives.

My attempt to tell Otte’s story is far from holistic, and hardly complete. Given what we know, it’s possible to say where he was, but it’s hard to say what he did. Given information about his brothers-in-arms, I’m able to provide context to his death, but I don’t know how he died. With documents and records I can say that he was a soldier and a Reedie, but I can’t say who he was: what his aspirations were, what hobbies he enjoyed, how he liked it at Reed. These details are elusive, and they may even be lost forever to history, but despite that hole in our understanding, we can still remember him. 

Three years later, in 1921, Reed unveiled a tablet commemorating the students who died in the war. At the unveiling, Norman F. Coleman, an English professor who would go on to become president of the college, remarked on the seven million young men slain on the battlefield and reflected that “millions are weak and hungry for lack of those young men.” Prof. Coleman urged the gathered mourners to “give effect to our resolution made in the presence of these dead, it must not be again.” 

Now, a hundred years after 1917, it’s easy to feel like things have changed. The campus has grown, and new buildings have sprung up. However, the core of the campus remains the tall stone hallways and expansive classrooms of Eliot Hall. The Old Dorm Block, where I lived my freshman year, remains a place that many Reedies call home. The serene greenness of the canyon remains the natural heart of the campus. All of these spaces, taken for granted as we muddle through our daily lives, have been shared by a community that spans a century. These spaces were once inhabited by Otte and the other Reedies killed in the Great War. They kicked back in common rooms, hurried to class through the hallways of Eliot, and admired the colors of a Portland sunset above the canyon lake. When we remember that these fallen once, too, shared the timeless experience of being at Reed, the magnitude of their loss becomes more immediate. The tablet that bears their names still guards the entrance to Eliot, next to the list of Reedies killed in World War II, a reminder that this time, for certain—it must not be again

Ian Buckman is a history major who is writing his senior thesis on World War II. This is his first article for the magazine.

reconstruction aides image

President William T. Foster established a program at Reed in 1918 to train reconstruction aides, young women who would provide physical therapy and occupational therapy for injured veterans of the war.

Among Those Who Served

At least 93 Reed students, professors, and alumni served in WWI. Twelve students died in the line of duty; many more were wounded. Among them:

Anna Haight Ames ’18 hailed from Los Angeles and graduated from Reed’s reconstruction aide program, which trained women to provide phys-ical therapy and occupational therapy to wounded war veterans. She died of influenza.

Jeanette Barrows ’18 hailed from Seattle and graduated from Reed’s reconstruction aide program. She died of pneumonia in Fort Snelling, Minnesota, in 1919. 

Howard Hopkirk ’20 served as a first lieutenant and returned to write his thesis on press associations and newspaper reporters. He became an influential figure in social work, authoring the book Institutions Serving Children and becoming executive director of the Child Welfare League of America.

Neil Malarkey ’19 joined the troops going to France and was badly burned when a large timber fell on a tank of ammonia, causing it to rupture. He returned to Reed, graduated in English, and went on to became a district attorney and serve in the Oregon legislature.

Glenn Quiett ’20 served on the front lines in France, where he was exposed to poison gas and lost a lung. He returned to Reed and graduated in English, writing his thesis on the play-wright Eugène Scribe. He went on to write the seminal history of 19th-century American expansion, They Built the West: An Epic of Rails and Cities. He died of tuberculosis in 1936; his friends and family raised money to build the Quiett Infirmary (now the Student Center), which stands north of Eliot Hall. When the building was dedicated, his aunt brought a bouquet of red carnations—Glenn’s favorite flowers—to adorn the entrance.

Esther Zimmerman ’18 hailed from Portland and graduated from Reed’s reconstruction aide program. She died of pneumonia in Camp Custer, Michigan, in 1919. Influenza was so rampant that the board of health forbade a public funeral. She was buried in Riverview Cemetery in Portland.

Tags: Students, Alumni, Reed History