One hundred years ago, a powerful U.S. fighting force was assembling and shipping overseas to the battlefields of France, Belgium and beyond. There they would provide much-needed assistance to British and French forces, whose defenses were sagging after four years of total war against Imperial Germany and its allies.
One thousand and twenty-six men from Pendleton and Umatilla County formed up with the “Sammies,” Uncle Sam’s fighting men, to do their part. As we remember this great effort during its centennial, Pendleton’s contingent certainly has earned a few moments in the spotlight.
Among the first Pendletonians to march to the sound of the guns was Joe Despain, who had fought with the U.S. Army in its campaign against Pancho Villa in Mexico. His own country was sitting on the sidelines in 1915, but Despain wanted to put his soldiering skills to good use, so he went north and enlisted with Canadian forces. He joined a hardy group of Americans, notably the daredevil flyers of the Lafayette Escadrille, determined to get into the action despite U.S. neutrality. Despain fought all the way through the Armistice, managing to survive several brushes with death. He regarded the war as an adventure and assured Pendleton readers in letters to the East Oregonian that the war was “more exciting than 10,000 Roundups” and that the war was “the place for a man to be.”
After President Woodrow Wilson committed U.S. forces in April 1917 to “make the world safe for democracy,” community leaders began making preparations to join the fight. Pendleton’s mayor, Dr. James Best, took a leave of absence from City Hall to put his medical expertise to work in the Army Reserve Medical Corps.
Dr. Fred Lieuallen followed suit, leaving his surgical practice to become an army doctor. The Pendleton Round-Up was well-represented among the volunteers. Two directors, James Sturgis and future U.S. Senator Fred Steiwer, joined the Army and became field artillery officers. Round-Up President and Sheriff Til Taylor took command of local defenders, the Umatilla County Home Guard.
Round-Up champions Lee Caldwell and Dell Blancett recruited Round-Up competitors and adventurers for Pendleton’s own “Rough Riders,” Cavalry Troop D, Oregon National Guard. Even after Troop D dismounted to become field artillery, Caldwell and the leading Round-Uppers found roles that made use of their talents. 1915 bulldogging champion Frank Cable was a “stable sergeant,” in charge of the care and feeding of some 5,000 Army horses. And Caldwell managed a remount station near the front lines in France.
High school students answered the call, too. The EO reported in May 1917 that only a handful of senior boys remained at Pendleton High School. Two star athletes, Clell Brown and Sheldon Ulrich, led the way to war. Brown excelled for the Buckaroos in football and track, and his teammate Ulrich had kept the community apprised of Pendleton High School happenings as student reporter for the EO. Fittingly, both enlisted in the Marines, then as now the “Leathernecks,” the force thrown into the toughest fights.
Another local grad, William Lorenzen, would take up arms against the country from which his family had come quite recently — Germany.
Even though volunteers proved plentiful in the early weeks, President Wilson worried their numbers would be insufficient to meet the challenge of a global war. For just the second time in U.S. history, therefore, the country would draft a percentage of its manpower.
East Oregonian editor E.B. Aldrich sensed that the draft might cause consternation in a country to which a murky, faraway war had come home quickly. He emphasized the “selective” in Selective Service, presenting the draft as a rare opportunity for young men to change the world.
For draftees who did not quite see it that way, Aldrich made clear that Sheriff Taylor was standing by to catch “slackers,” the all-purpose term of abuse for anyone not 100 percent behind the war.
In any event, the summer of 1917 saw a steady stream of men called to service, including local rancher Robert Ingalls, who left a young bride for France early in 1918.
Many immigrant draftees in the area — Greeks, Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards — barely knew English. In fact, Camp Lewis, Wash., received so many men whose English was poor that authorities had to arrange language classes for them during training.
Here in Pendleton, draftees could look forward to an elaborate sendo-ff, typically including a march down Main Street, rousing speeches from local officials, a band playing and warm wishes from local high school girls as they boarded trains for induction points near and far.
In 1917, the country thought first of white men as it tried to build a large army virtually from scratch.
Troop D members probably thought their Round-Up standout comrade, George Fletcher, would ride to war with them. But African-Americans were destined mostly for non-combat roles in segregated units, because the authorities feared the consequences of arming black soldiers as well as the reaction of whites.
By contrast, Indians would fight alongside whites. They had long since proven their ability as warriors. Besides, Bureau of Indian Affairs officials declared, the experience of the armed forces would move Indians away from the old ways and towards what the Bureau termed “civilization.”
Some 80 Umatilla Reservation residents presented themselves for service, including Grover Minthorn, Louis Shippentower, Gilbert Conner and Isaac Patrick, who ended his war with American interventionist forces in deep Siberia. East Oregonian editor Aldrich praised the Reservation soldiers, noting that there were no slackers among them.
In early 1918, Pendleton and Umatilla County joined the overseas exodus charged with bringing the “world war” to an end. Ahead lay many unknowns: would they make the decisive difference in the struggle? Could the world be made safe for democracy? How were you going to, in the words of a popular song, “keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?”
One thing was clear from the start: they were taking their country onto the international stage, a place it had never been.
Brigit Farley is a Pendleton resident and professor at Washington State University-Richland.