A Veterans Day Memory

A former cavalry trooper who admitted he didn’t know a “magneto from a carburetor,”  Newell Phipps Weed would later receive the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism for leading 6-ton tanks into combat. And while we honor all veterans on November 11, the day was originally set aside to remember soldiers who–like the cavalry trooper–fought to end the “War of all Wars.”

GAVE UP THE SADDLE FOR AN IRON MOUNT

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 23, 1892, Weed was educated at Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts. After graduating in 1913, he took up residence in Montclair, New Jersey. After joining the  cavalry in New Jersey’s National Guard he rapidly ascended the ranks. By May 1917, he wore the bars of a second lieutenant (provisional) and was assigned for duty with the 3rd Cavalry (Regular Army). In July of the same year, he passed an examination to be commissioned in the regular army as a lieutenant.

Weed was still in the ranks of the 3rd Cavalry when, in March 1918, he ran into George Patton. A former cavalry officer, himself, Patton explained how he was looking for officers and men to serve in his fledgling AEF Tank Corps. After Weed agreed to take a chance on the new branch of service, Patton sent him to France for schooling in the specialized duties of a tank officer. Before Weed would be admitted to tank school, however, he had to pass an examination on gas engines – something about which he knew very little. He later recalled all that was available for study was a small book published by “some oil company.” Regardless, Weed passed his exam and was admitted to the Light Tank School at Langres, France. At the time, the school had no tanks—just two Hotchkiss 8mm machine guns and two 37mm cannons.

Within three weeks, however, the French military delivered ten 6-ton Renault 2-man tanks. Patton recalled, “No one but me had ever driven one…” He added, his new tanks would “all be oiled up and we will start active business making drivers.” The officers and enlisted men had a great deal of training ahead of them.

By June 6, Patton had secured a sufficient number of officers and men to organize a second light tank battalion. Assuming the helm of this second battalion, he relinquished command of the 1st Light Tank Battalion to Captain Joseph W. Viner, who had been the Tank School’s chief instructor. Weed was promoted to Captain and given command of Company B in the 1st Battalion. Viner’s 1st Battalion and Patton’s 2nd Battalion underwent even more intensive training, now focusing on  combined tank-infantry tactics.

Now using 25 Renault tanks for training, the Tank Corps continued work through additional growing pains. Two days after Patton created the 2nd Light Tank Battalion, the War Department decreed a new numbering scheme, renaming the 1st as the 326th Tank Battalion and the 2nd as the 327th.

By mid August, Patton could now count 900 men and 50 fully qualified officers (Weed being one of them). Though they still had just 25 tanks, the “Treat ‘em Rough” boys (as tankers liked to refer to themselves), were itching for a fight.

Renault FT tanks of the 326th and 327th Battalions on the night before the attack at St. Mihiel.

Renault FT tanks of the 326th and 327th Battalions on the night before the attack at St. Mihiel.

Their first chance would come in September during the St. Mihiel offensive. Bolstered by more tanks, the 326th (now under the command of Sereno Brett) would support the 1st Infantry Division’s attack on September 12.

All were on edge. Fifteen minutes before H-Hour (when the attack would launched), Captain Weed chewed out one of his subordinates, Lt. Tayor, “Rush like hell down the line and tell the ‘blankety-blank’ drivers to get their ‘blankety-blank tanks cranked up and be ready to start!”

Despite Weed’s admonition and his tankers’ eagerness, the attack didn’t go quite as planned. Failing to link up with the infantry, the 326th tanks barely faced any enemy. Indeed, the entire 1st Tank Brigade’s role in the battle was not that noticeable, sustaining only five enlisted men killed, and four officers and another 15 enlisted wounded.

A much hotter contest would eclipse this minor performance just twelve days later. With the two battalions now numbered as the 344th and 345th, Patton’s brigade was ordered to support the 35th Infantry Division. On the eve of battle, the 344th fielded 69 Renault tanks—Captain Weed commanding about twenty of them.

Breaking the silence of a heavy, morning fog on September 26, whistles blew signaling “H hour” at 5:30 AM.  As infantry rose from the trenches, the tanks rolled up closely behind. Immediately, both the foot soldiers and the tankers realized the poor visibility was their first obstacle.

The small Renaults couldn’t keep contact with the infantry. In fact, as the fog lifted, the enemy intensified its artillery fire, further confusing the potential tank-infantry operation. Across the 35th Division’s area, the links between the tanks and infantry broke apart.

Frustrated with what appeared to be a collapse of all his tankers’ training to work in unison with the infantry, , Patton abandoned his headquarters to “lead from the front.” When he arrived there, he found the 35th Division infantrymen in total disarray. His tankers weren’t doing much better.

Through a display that included personal bravery, shouting, and swearing, Patton was able to reestablish order among the foot soldiers. But rescuing his tanks was another matter.

The American-driven Renaults had become desperately intermingled and collectively stuck with two battalions of French Schneider tanks and several reserve infantry companies. The Germans opened fire on this logjam, knocking out some of the tanks and forcing the infantry to take cover.

“To Hell with them – they can’t hit me,” snapped Patton as he jumped up and stormed across the open to where his tanks were stuck in the muddy trench works. Bellowing in a rage, he ordered the infantry to, “get up and dig them out!” Those who didn’t immediately obey, discovered it was more dangerous to remain under cover than to brave the enemy shells. “I think I killed one man here … [he] would not work so I hit him over the head with a shovel,” Patton later wrote.

“It was exciting,” Patton recalled, “…they shot at us all the time but I got mad and walked on the parapet… at last we got five tanks across and I started them forward and yelled and cussed and waved my stick and said, “Come on!”

Inspired by Patton’s actions, Captain Weed, along with other company commanders and platoon leaders, dismounted their tanks to lead the vehicles on foot. With one of his runners, Weed got out about 300 yards in front of his tanks and the infantry they were supporting!

After losing sight of his tanks, he sent the runner off in one direction to find them. Meanwhile, Weed continued to search for a clear path through the wire and shell craters to guide the vehicles. A burst of machine gun fire sent him diving into a trench for cover. Recovering his wits, he looked up to see several German soldiers pointing their rifles at him.

Realizing they had just “captured” an officer, the Germans promptly disarmed Weed before setting off for the rear with their “trophy.” The party had only walked a short distance, when one of Weed’s tanks arrived on the scene. The Germans ordered Weed to be silent and not to move. He ignored their threats and was able to signal the tank which began to advance on their position.

Weed recalled, “The Boche dropped their booty and took to their heels!” He was reunited with his unit, but not before inhaling enough poisonous gas that would require being evacuated to the rear for treatment.

Captain Newell Phipps Weed, 344th Tank Battalion and recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross.

Captain Newell Phipps Weed, 344th Tank Battalion and recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross.

It is hard to imagine how Weed felt or  how much self-control he had to exert after being captured and led to the rear. The U.S. Army, however, did evaluate his commitment to the mission, and awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross. His citation reads:

“During the operations on the Foret de Argonne, Captain Weed advanced alone some 300 hundred yards ahead of the tanks and infantry through heavy machinegun fire in order to reconnoiter a passage for his command. Examining German trenches he was surprised by German infantrymen and was being conducted to the rear when he heard one of his tanks. In spite if the fact that he was unarmed and the Germans threatened his life if he moved, he signaled the tank and made his escape.”

REMEMBERING THE VETERANS

World War I officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France. However, fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.”

In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with the following words: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”

The original concept for the celebration was for a day observed with parades and public meetings and a brief suspension of business beginning at 11:00 a.m.

The United States Congress officially recognized the end of World War I when it passed a concurrent resolution on June 4, 1926. Twelve years later on May 13, 1938, An Act (52 Stat. 351; 5 U. S. Code, Sec. 87a) made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday—a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as “Armistice Day.” Armistice Day was primarily a day set aside to honor veterans of World War I, but in 1954, after World War II had required the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in the Nation’s history; after American forces had fought aggression in Korea, the 83rd Congress, at the urging of the veterans service organizations, amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word “Armistice” and inserting in its place the word “Veterans.” With the approval of this legislation (Public Law 380) on June 1, 1954, November 11th became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

Tailor-made tunic once belonging to DSC-recipient, Captain Newell Phipps Weed.

Tailor-made tunic once belonging to DSC-recipient, Captain Newell Phipps Weed.

So, as a nation, we honor all American veterans on November 11. For many other nations, however, November 11 will be forever known as “Armistice Day,” to mark the memory of the millions – like Captain Newell Phipps Weed – who put their lives on the line to establish world peace during the Great War. To all those veterans, and to all who served before and since, we remain committed to preserving their memory.

–John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

Related Posts:

Leave a Reply