Back in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson maintained a stance of neutrality to keep the United States out of the Great War. Germany was already at war with France and Great Britain, but Wilson wanted the U.S. to stay out of the fight. Despite his focus on neutrality, he nevertheless had the nation’s armed forces prepare for involvement should the need arise.
This stance changed dramatically during the first week of April 1917. On April 1, a German U-boat torpedoed the SS Aztec, an American cargo ship, killing 29 passengers, including 10 American merchant marine crew members, off the coast of France. News of the submarine attack was quickly relayed to Washington, D.C.
The following day, President Wilson met with a joint session of Congress at the Capitol Building. He proposed a resolution to declare war on Germany. The measure read that “The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a war against mankind. It is a war against all nations. American ships have been sunk. American lives taken.”
He went on to say “We are glad … to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy ….”
The Senate passed the war measure on April 4 by a count of 82–6 (eight not voting).
The next day at 8 o’clock on April 5, back in Corvallis, Oregon, 80 members of Company K from the Oregon Army National Guard were loading a train with a celebratory sendoff. There were hundreds of people from the county enthusiastically cheering and waving flags or handkerchiefs.
The military cadets from Oregon Agricultural College, what would later become Oregon State University, all marched by to honor the men of Company K. These volunteers were shipping out for training in The Dalles and would eventually deploy “over there” to the Western Front in France.
Private Homer Armstrong was one of these doughboys.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives met back in Washington, D.C. to review and approve the war resolution by vote. The resolution passed at 3 a.m. April 6 by a vote of 373–50 (eight not voting). America was now at war!
Homer Armstrong was a farm boy who lived with his aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Alex J. Brown, west of Philomath.
In 2020, I contacted Robert Laplander who works for an organization called Doughboy MIA, which is dedicated to sorting through draft cards, battlefield reports and grave registrations to determine what happened to missing doughboys.
The following few paragraphs were what they sent back to us in Philomath.
“It is unclear what line of work Homer was in, and no draft card for him exists, but it is a good bet he stayed with farming. Shortly before the declaration of war, Homer made the decision to enlist in the Oregon National Guard and was assigned to Company K of the 3rd Oregon Infantry, whose drill hall was in Corvallis.
“With the declaration, the decision was made to take into federal duty the state guard units, and when the 3rd Oregon Infantry Regiment was federalized, they became the Headquarters Company of the 162nd Infantry Regiment/41st Division. The 41st was entirely composed of state guard units, much as the famed 42nd ‘Rainbow’ Division was.
“After receiving training, the 41st sailed for France from the port of embarkation at Hoboken, New Jersey on Dec. 12, 1917 and landed there 12 days later on Christmas Eve.
“By May 1918 the 32nd was in combat training in the Alsace sector and from then on the division would only see 10 days away from an active combat front until the end of the war. In late July the division moved into the Chateau Thierry sector to relieve the 3rd Division, which had seen heavy combat over the previous three months.
“On the night of July 29, the 127th Infantry moved into the front lines under a terrible artillery barrage. Among the troops of the 127th moving into the lines was Pvt. Homer Armstrong, who had been assigned to Company D of the 127th just before the regiment had moved into the sector.
At 1430 hours (2:30 p.m.) on July 30, 1918, the 127th went ‘over the top’ and followed a rolling barrage into the Bois des Grimpettes. They pushed through the woods until they were stopped by machine gun fire from the right flank. On this flank, from positions in the Bois de Cierges, the Germans continued to oppose every effort to advance, but the 127th gained the edge of those woods and established themselves there. During the night the Germans launched a counterattack from the Bois de Meuniere and a bayonet melee raged for hours in the dark, tangled woods, until the attacking force was finally routed.
“On the morning of July 31, the entire division went into action. Directly ahead was the long, open slope of the Ourcq River Valley, reaching to the woods of Les Jomblettes on Hill 212. This objective constituted one of the strongest German positions on the line of the Ourcq, and the success of the contemplated operation meant the breaking of the Kaiser’s last formidable line of resistance south of the Vesle River.
“Les Jomblettes was not only holding up the 32nd Division, but machine gun nests there and in the Bois Pelger further back flanked the open ground in front of the 42nd Division fighting alongside on the left. Nevertheless, the 32nd units fighting there (the 125th Infantry) promptly reached the objective, Hill 212, after some wicked fighting. They dove into Les Jomblettes and mopped it up and then cleaned out the Bois Pelger, allowing the 42nd to advance.
“On the right, the 127th pushed their attack through the village of Cierges and passed beyond, only to be held up by a withering hail of machine gun bullets from Bellevue Farm, which had been organized into a very strong center of resistance by the Germans, which the U.S. artillery had failed to smother.
“It was there, north of Cierges during heavy fighting that afternoon that Homer Armstrong was killed by machine gun fire. His comrades buried him in a hasty battlefield grave that day, the position of which was reported to Graves Registration Service. Nevertheless, when GRS officials went looking for the grave after the war, it could not be located.
“Homer remains missing to this day and is memorialized on the Walls of the Missing at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery at Belleau, France.”
According to Theo Mayer, program manager with a different doughboy organization called The Doughboy Foundation, the National WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C. opened to the public on April 16, 2021.
The memorial began daily “Taps” just a month later on May 24, 2021.
In 2022, the Doughboy Foundation put the technology and streaming process into place and began to livestream the honoring every day. Homer Armstrong was honored earlier this week on July 31 — 105 years to the day after he was killed in action.
In case you missed it, see the YouTube video below.
It is fitting that Pvt. Homer Armstrong was honored in the nation’s capital where the decision to go to war was first made. He answered his country’s call and made the ultimate sacrifice for it.
It is important that our community and our country never forget Homer nor the 10 other names of the fallen on the Benton County Veterans Memorial, who gave their lives in World War I.
As Gen. John “Blackjack” Pershing who commanded the American Expeditionary Force famously said, “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”
(Eric Niemann is a former mayor and city councilor in Philomath. He can be reached at Lifeinphilomath@gmail.com).