A Nebraska Officer with the “Lost Battalion,” 1918

Capt. Nelson Holderman, born in Trumbull, Adams County, Nebraska, survived a vicious battle endured by the so-called “lost battalion” of U.S. troops during the fall 1918 Argonne offensive in France. Holderman would receive the Medal of Honor for this action. He described the battle in letters to his wife and sister, excerpts of which appeared in the December 3, 1918, issue of the Omaha World-Herald.

“I took my company over the top at 6 a.m. on the morning of September 26, and since then have fought until now. . . . Heaven only knows why I am not blown to Hades or some other place. I have had men killed and blown to pieces at my elbows. My hat and canteen have been shot through and through. The Seventy-seventh Division has been fighting in the forest of Argonne. I do not know whether or not you have heard of it, but I was with Major Whittlesey, penned up for four days and nights without food and water. They [the Germans] had us surrounded on both flanks, the front, and rear.

“We fought to almost the last man until the Americans came up on both flanks. I was ordered on the night of October 2 to proceed with my company and take up a position . . . establishing contact with them [Whittlesey’s troops]. Two other companies were ordered to do the same, but owing to the blackness of the night were unable to reach the position. I reached my position as ordered and entrenched. I had established my position and started a messenger to report same, but soon learned that he had been captured and also that we were cut off and surrounded.

“The Germans made an attack at once and they fought us for four days. They used every conceivable implement of war—hand grenades, liquid fire [flame throwers], trench mortars, rifle and machine gun fire—from all sides. They would come over the ridge fifty meters above us and our men fought them back each time. They made an attack twice and three times daily for four days. They can talk about Custer’s massacre and the Alamo but heavens, those men did not have liquid fire and all the hellish things to fight.

“The Germans reasoned that our little force was about gone, so they demanded our surrender. We told them to go to hell, and in one half hour they came over after us again. Only a few of us were left by this time.

“Major Whittlesey, one captain, and myself were the only officers remaining unkilled or [un]wounded. We had a terrible time preparing organized resistance, and the strain was beginning to tell in a terrible manner upon the men. . . . My company held the right flank but I had to command one other company as their officers were all killed or wounded. Soon the machine gun company men were all dead, and eight men remained in the other company. The wounded lay in that hell hole for four days and nights, and many of the wounded fought on after receiving first aid. . . .

“[W]hy I am here I do not know, as I was covered up completely twice by the bursting of a big shell and dug out by my men. I had escapes too numerous to tell about. . . During our stay in the hole the Germans had two machine guns trained on the only available water holes, and we could not get any water for the wounded. Men with legs and arms shot off lay through it all. I do not see how men could be so cheerful and doggedly determined as those boys were.”

To learn more about the programs and services of the Nebraska State Historical Society, call 1-800-633-6747 or visit our website at www.nebraskahistory.org

Photo Caption: The badge of Nelson Holderman’s Seventy-seventh “Statue of Liberty” Division appears on this gas mask bag, but it was carried by another Seventy-seventh Division soldier who was not part of the “Lost Battalion.” NSHS 115293(1)

Previous posts – http://www.nebraskahistory.org/publish/publicat/newsletr/index.htm

Nebraska State Historical Society
P.O. Box 82554
Lincoln, NE 68501-2554


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