By Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton
Michigan Air National Guard
& Major Brian J. Faltinson
Wisconsin Army National Guard
A small-town Wisconsin banker emerged as an unlikely hero in the largest battle in American history. But 100 years ago this fall, Cpl. Jerry J. Jerabek, a Wisconsin National Guardsman from the Lake Michigan fishing town of Algoma, did just that during the Meuse-Argonne campaign — the final battle of World War I.
After graduating high school in 1912, Jerabek started working his way up the ladder at Algoma’s Community State Bank. His draft registration card shows that by June 1917 he had already volunteered for military service with Sturgeon Bay’s Company F, 5th Infantry Regiment of the Wisconsin National Guard.
Jerabek and 15,000 other Wisconsin National Guardsmen joined 8,000 from the Michigan National Guard in September 1917 at Camp MacArthur, Texas. There, these men trained together as the 32nd Division — which was constituted on July 18, 1917, as one of 16 National Guard divisions that more than doubled the size of the Regular Army. The War Department created a 17th National Guard division — the 42nd “Rainbow” Division — a month later. These 17 divisions formed the backbone of the American Expeditionary Force as it entered combat in the spring of 1918.
Camp MacArthur was not the first time troops from Michigan and Wisconsin had joined together as a combat unit in the U.S. Army. During the Civil War, three Wisconsin regiments and one from Michigan formed the “The Black Hats” of the Iron Brigade and fought gallantly at Antietam and Gettysburg, as well as several other notable engagements.
The 32nd Division was the sixth American division sent to France and entered combat in the trenches at Alsace in May 1918 — the first American troops to fight on German soil. In July, the division — as part of the Allied counterattack during the Second Battle of the Marne — advanced 19 kilometers before capturing the city of Fismes on the Vesle River.
A month later, the 32nd joined the French 10th Army for the Oise-Aisne campaign. In a sharp four-day battle, the division seized the strategically important village of Juvigny and the surrounding dominate ridge line. Loss of this strategically important high ground forced the Germans to abandon miles of its main defensive line along the Vesle River.
The next battle for Jerabek and the 32nd Divison was the Meuse-Argonne, the American portion of a massive Allied offensive designed to end the war. Gen. John Pershing’s objective was the vital German railroad hub at Sedan. Once taken, the Germans would lose their ability to supply nearly all of their forces on the Western Front. The Germans recognized Sedan’s strategic importance and had built formidable defensive positions along this portion of the Hindenburg Line. Pershing’s offensive began on Sept. 26 with the 32nd Division as the V Corps reserve. It relieved Ohio’s 37th Division on Sept. 29 and commenced a drive towards the Kriemhilde Stellung, one of the strongest points of the Hindenburg Line.
It was evening on Oct. 13 and the 32nd Division was in the third week of its relentless attack. Capt. John McCullum, commander of the Company A, 121st Machine Gun Battalion, delivered his mission brief and pointed on a map to a small hill marked “255.” The hill was a divisional boundary between the 32nd Division on the right and the 42nd Division on the left. McCullum ordered Cpl. Jerabek and his team to emplace their Mle 1914 Hotchkiss machine gun on that hill and defend the division’s left flank while it assaulted the Kriemhilde Stellung.
The next morning was cold and drizzly; sporadic small arms fire was heard up and down the line. Cpl. Jerabek and his two assistant gunners cautiously picked their way forward with their 53-pound machine gun and thousands of rounds of ammunition. They set up a firing position on Hill 255 about 500 meters ahead of the American position held by the 32nd Division’s 127th Infantry Regiment.
Jerabek’s team over the next four hours expended 7,000 rounds of ammunition and captured 22 enemy soldiers as they provided cover for the advance of the 64th Infantry Brigade. The brigade and the rest of the 32nd Division assaulted the powerful German defensive line built into the towering ridge west of the small village of Romagne and the present-day Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.
At 11 a.m., the 32nd Division broke through the Kriemhilde Stellung, pressing the attack against the retreating German forces. The 32nd was the first American unit to break through the line, an important step in the AEF’s drive towards Sedan and a decisive victory in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The war ended less than a month later when the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — a day we now commemorate as Veterans’ Day.
Word of the 32nd breaking through the Hindenburg Line spread to the highest echelons of the AEF and beyond.
“By George, your men have hit it hard! Will you thank the Division for me?” former president Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Maj. Gen. William Haan, the 32nd Division’s commander.
“Unstinting praise must be awarded to the men of the Division,” Gen. Pershing wrote in a commendatory order for the division.
A few days after the armistice, Maj. Gen. Haan ordered a new insignia for the 32nd that would replace its rather generic circle surrounding the number 32. The new insignia powerfully symbolized the division’s decisive drive that pieced the Kriemhilde Stellung.
“The symbol of this Division is a red crossed arrow,” stated the divisional general order.
For all of its success in World War I, the 32nd paid a high cost. From May 18 to Nov. 11, the division was in direct combat action for all but 10 days. More than 3,000 Soldiers were killed in action and almost 11,000 more were wounded. Of the more than 800 soldiers decorated for their actions in combat, 275 earned the Distinguished Service Cross. One of these Soldiers was Cpl. Jerabek.
Promoted to sergeant, Jerabek returned to Algoma after the war and resumed his job at the bank. A year later, he received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on that drizzly morning on Hill 255. In later years, Jerabek served his city as a postmaster, city alderman and the first commander of Algoma’s newly-formed American Legion post.
Jerabek’s story is similar to that of tens of thousands of National Guard Citizen-Soldiers from World War I to today — active members of their community willing to set their personal lives aside to serve their state and nation as modern-day Minutemen.
The 32nd was one of 17 National Guard divisions created for World War I. As the war progressed, Soldiers from every state in the Union would join these units as replacements. Some 1.8 million Soldiers served in National Guard divisions during World War I. Most of these divisions and their subordinate units were reconstituted within their original states after the war. Many unit names of today’s Army National Guard derive from the Guard’s involvement in World War I.
Threatened with irrelevancy at the turn of the 20th century, the performance of those 17 National Guard divisions on the battlefields of France cemented the Guard as a vital component of national defense. Tasked as the primary reserve of the U.S. Army, the 32nd Division and the rest of the National Guard next mobilized in 1940 to strengthen the Army in anticipation for service in World War II.
During World War II, the 32nd Division logged 654 days of combat operations in the Pacific Theater — more than any other U.S. division in the war. After the war, the 32nd was reorganized entirely within Wisconsin. The Red Arrow answered the nation’s call a third time in 1961 when it was activated for the Berlin Crisis by President John F. Kennedy, “not to fight a war, but to prevent a war.” In 1967, the Army reorganized the division into the 32nd Separate Brigade — the largest unit of the Wisconsin Army National Guard.
Since then, the brigade has sent its individual battalions to Iraq and then in 2009-10 deployed there in its entirety as the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. In early 2017, Michigan’s 3rd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment — the unit that spearheaded the 32nd Division’s advance through the Kriemhilde Stellung — rejoined the 32nd IBCT as its third infantry battalion. With this reunion, the Red Arrow begins its second century with Wisconsin badgers and Michigan wolverines standing always ready, always there for service to both state and nation.
Distinguished Service Cross Citation:
JERABEK, JERRY J.
Corporal, U.S. Army
Company A, 121st Machine-Gun Battalion, 32d Division, A.E.F.
Date of Action: October 14, 1918
The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Jerry J. Jerabek, Corporal, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action in Romagne Woods, France, October 14, 1918. Passing through heavy fire and through wire entanglements, he led his section to a position 500 meters in advance of the infantry, where he set up his guns and effectively covered the advance. He showed marked bravery and skill in leading his men, capturing 22 prisoners without sustaining a casualty.
General Orders 81, W.D., 1919
Home Town: Algoma, WI
National Guard Divisions in World War I
Division Contributing States*
26th Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut
27th New York
28th Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland
29th Delaware, District of Columbia
30th Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina
31st Georgia, Alabama, Florida
32nd Michigan, Wisconsin
34th Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota
35th Missouri, Kansas
36th Texas, Oklahoma
37th Ohio, West Virginia
38th Indiana, Kentucky
39th Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas
40th California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico
41st Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming
42nd “Rainbow” Division made up of units from across the country
*The states listed were the original source of the soldiers & units for the divisions. As time went on, new recruits from across the country entered these units as replacements.
Top photo: Troops of the 64th Infantry Brigade, 32nd Division, advancing while in support of the first line. Near Romagne-Sous-Montfaucon, Meuse, France. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Frank A. Wallock, Signal Corps. Photo taken Oct. 18, 1918.
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