Democracy Dies in Darkness


On Veterans Day, a lost battalion. A war hero. And a heartbreaking suicide.

By Larry Parnass

November 10, 2017 at 5:00 AM

Lt. Col. Charles Whittlesey, left, with the relieving officer from the 3rd Battalion. (Courtesy of Williams College Archives and Special Collections)

A version of this story was originally published in the Berkshire Eagle. It is being reprinted here with permission.

Three thousand people crowded into the State Armory in Pittsfield, Mass., on Dec. 11, 1921, to mourn Lt. Col. Charles W. Whittlesey, famed leader of World War I‘s “lost battalion.”

Now he too was lost.

A century ago, every newspaper reader in America knew the story. Whittlesey, a tall, bookish soldier, had led 554 men of the 308th Infantry up a thickly wooded French ravine early on Oct. 2, 1918, then became trapped and isolated.

When relief finally came, just 194 soldiers could get to their feet; 107 were dead, 63 missing. And of those able to walk, only a half dozen were deemed fit to continue the advance.

The war would be over in a month. But not for Whittlesey.

Two weeks before the standing-room-only crowd at the armory, Whittlesey, 37, had left instructions in his New York City law office and booked passage on a United Fruit Co. steamer south toward Havana. He paid his landlady for December’s rent.

On Nov. 26, 1921, after dining with the captain of the S.S. Toloa on its first night out from New York and leaving nine letters in his cabin, the man who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism jumped overboard.

Whittlesey’s suicide made national news. The New York Times stacked up six headlines on its front-page story. One said he’d left a note for a law partner saying, “I shall not return.”

Another read: “WAR PREYED ON HIS MIND.”

Grieving friends, as protective of Whittlesey’s privacy as the man was himself, managed to keep his final letters from a hungry press corps. In a statement, though, they were clear: “His was a war casualty.”

Related: [How Veterans Day went from celebrating world peace to thanking armed forces]

But people at the time struggled to speak openly about suicide, said Jim Clark, Pittsfield’s director of veterans services.

Whittlesey, he said, “was someone who had a lot of emotions trapped inside. When you look at it now, why would that be a surprise? Whittlesey and his men suffered a lot of what we now call PTSD.”

In 1982, one of the letters Whittlesey had left behind in his steamship cabin reached the Williams College Archives & Special Collections. It was addressed to John B. Pruyn, a fellow Williams graduate and his former law partner.

“Dear Bayard,” it began. “Just a note to say goodby. I’m a misfit by nature and by training and there’s an end of it.”

Whittlesey apologized for asking his old friend to be his executor. The letter goes on to deal with practical matters — bank balances, outstanding bills, life insurance policies in the safe and the General Electric stock that his father had purchased for him.

“Medals etc. in safe deposit box,” he wrote.

Only near the end of a practical letter does Whittlesey address what he’s about to do, and even then it left one of his closest friends to fill in blanks.

“I won’t try to say anything personal, Bayard, because you and I understand each other,” he wrote. “Give my love to Edith. As ever, Charles Whittlesey.”

The Washington Post front page after Whittlesey committed suicide.

In the eulogy he delivered at the armory, Judge Charles L. Hibbard said that when Whittlesey returned, he could not simply be “Charlie.”

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