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Oscar May in World War I

By Andy May

Note to readers: This post is not about climate change, but about a distant ancestor.

Oscar May was the ninth child of Zachariah and Adelia May, he was born February 21, 1893. He is 15 years younger than my grandfather Ernest H. May, who was the oldest son. He was born on the family farm near Williamstown, Kansas. After high school he became a mail carrier in Kansas City and attended law school at night. He graduated in 1916 and passed the Kansas City bar exam the same year. He continued living in the Kansas City Y.M.C.A. and worked as a lawyer.

As soon as the recruiting for U.S. soldiers to fight in Europe began in 1917, Oscar abandoned his nascent law practice and joined the Army. After his training and winning a Lieutenant’s commission at Ft. Riley, Kansas, he was shipped to France with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), IV Corps, 356th Infantry, 89th Division. He arrived on August 4, 1918 and was assigned to the AEF under General John J. Pershing.

General Pershing’s first plan was to drive the Germans from the St. Mihiel area and make for Metz. The German fortifications in Metz and the surrounding area had seriously hampered the French railway between Paris and the eastern front, making this area one of the keys to winning the war and driving the Germans from France. The more limited St. Mihiel offensive was to be followed by a much larger one that would extend from the Meuse River to the Argonne Forest. These places and others are marked on the map in Figure 1 in this post.

Figure 1. The area of the Saint Mihiel operation. Source: Google Maps.

Lieutenant May was in every major battle the AEF had a part in and was never wounded or sick. He was knocked unconscious by an exploding artillery shell at St. Mihiel and had a bullet dent his helmet in the last battle of the great Argonne-Meuse offensive that ended the war on 11 November 1918. In that regard, Lt. Oscar May was fortunate.

The Battle of St. Mihiel

Oscar arrived in France on August 4, 1918 and his first battle was the big advance on St. Mihiel. The attack was from the south and southwest and meant to drive the Germans north to Verdun and Metz. If possible, Pershing hoped to also capture the heavily fortified Metz. Oscar was in the area early in September and prepared his men for battle. The Germans knew the Americans were going to attack and did not think they could hold out against the Americans. The Germans began preparations to retreat to the east on September 8.

The Americans knew about the German movements and attacked on September 12, the German artillery were misplaced or being moved and their troops were disorganized. The attack was timed to take advantage of this. To make matters worse, for both sides, there was a steady, cold rain that disabled many tanks and vehicles and created a knee-deep mud that made walking and running very difficult. Following is an eyewitness account of the first actions by Oscar and his men:

“[After] two or three hours of somewhat uncomfortable frigid waiting in the cold muddy trenches, everyone felt a relief as the command “over the top boys” was given at exactly 5:00 A.M. [Sept. 12] … Lts. Ralph E. Murray and Oscar P. May respectively leading off in the assaulting wave, with the 2nd and 4th platoons commanded by 1st Sgt. Richard R. Nacy and Lt. John Miller respectively following at 200 yards support echelon.

As the enemy’s first line was reached the men had begun to warm up and many shedded their raincoats preparatory to fighting to the finish. Little resistance was met until the enemies second line was reached when a Bosch crawled out of a dug-out presumably to man a machine gun about ten paces to the right of it, and threw a grenade whizzing past Lt. May’s head getting one of his men behind him. Lt. Murray and Lt. May closed in on him and he ducked back into his dug-out followed by a few pistol shots by Lt. Murray and a couple of hot grenades by Lt. May and one of his men; while a fusillade of grenades were heaved into the machine gun emplacement, … Lt. May leaped forward grasping the machine gun by the muzzle – slamming it back into the trench. A bunch of grenades were dropped into a square in the top of another dug-out about ten paces to the right of the machine gun. The trench being clear the assaulting wave passed on and as they pushed forward they saw the moppers-up take a goodly number of grenade shocked and wounded Boches from the dug-outs as their first prisoners.”

Oscar and his men had begun their attack from just southwest of the oval area in Figure 1, labeled “Bois de Mort Mare” or “Dead Sea Wood,” where Lt. May’s capture of the machine gun emplacement took place. It was often described as the single-handed capture of a machine gun emplacement, which is a bit of an exaggeration, but clearly Oscar did the lion’s share of the work and took most of the risk. As we will see below, this act of heroism by Oscar was part of the reason he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest medal awarded to military heroes.

After the initial attack and battle, the Americans moved forward with blinding speed. Every German they saw was “either coming towards us with his hands up or” running away, leaving his equipment behind. The AEF progress was so rapid, their artillery support was often shelling behind them and had to be redirected to shell in front of them. They captured their objectives early and had to move back or hold tight to avoid moving too far ahead of their support troops.

Ultimately, Oscar and his platoon wound up northwest of Verdun (see Figure 1). It was there that they prepared for the next big advance. General Pershing’s secondary objective of capturing the German fortifications at Metz was not realized. The Germans at Metz were well fortified and dug in and fought back the American offensive. The battle showed the German, French and British commanders that the American forces were very capable and formidable. General Pershing’s very detailed battle plan, good timing and the training he had given his troops were largely responsible for the AEF success.

The Battles of the Meuse-Argonne

Lt. Oscar May’s second battle was the Meuse-Argonne offensive which was to end the Great War. The allies attacked on September 26, 1918 and they fought until the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, ending the war. This was the largest military operation conducted by the AEF in the war. The objective of the operation was to capture the major German rail head at Sedan France, cutting their supply lines and effectively driving the Germans from France. Figure 2 shows where Sedan is. Before the Meuse-Argonne offensive begins, Oscar is just northwest of Verdun.

Figure 2. Overview of the whole area of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, including Verdun and Metz. Source: Google Maps.

Figure 3 shows the location of the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest, the part of the operation that Oscar participates in moves north from Verdun toward Sedan (shown in Figure 2), between the river and the forest. This area is hilly and was very heavily fortified by the Germans. Oscar often wrote home to his large family, and on October 31, 1918, his brother Glen was overjoyed to receive a German helmet that Oscar had picked up from a battlefield.

Figure 3. The area of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on a modern map. Source: Google Maps.

Almost the entire AEF force, including Oscar’s platoon, was transferred to a 30-mile-long offensive line northwest and north of Verdun under the direction of Col. George Marshall, the famous World War II general. The 89th Division, including Oscar’s platoon, sat out the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, but joined the fight on October 19. Figures 4 and 5 show the movement of the 89th Division from November 1-11, 1918.

Figure 4, the First Army operations in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Source: The Truman Library.

In Figure 5 we show the area in Figure 4, but as it is today.

Figure 5. The path of the 89th Division shown on a modern map. Source Google Maps.

The area labeled “Mustard Gas” in Figure 5, was an area that was supposed to have been cleared of Germans by the 32nd Division, but the German’s re-infiltrated the area and harassed troops as they attempted to cross the area. Early in October, the German’s began to shell the forest with both high explosive rounds and mustard gas rounds to delay the AEF troop buildup under way along the southern “Nov. 3” line shown in Figure 4.

On October 7th, Lt. Oscar May and his platoon were patrolling the area and attempting to reach a muster point. It was night and they had a guide. As they descended into a valley, Oscar smelled mustard gas and immediately lost confidence in his guide. He did not have a map but had a good memory of one he had seen, so with only a compass and his memory of the map he led his men through territory that had not been covered by the daylight reconnoitering parties, avoiding the lower elevations that contained the poison gas. On that trip he did not lose a single man. His men were very fortunate to have Oscar as their leader, Division records show that the 89th Infantry, in total, lost 400 men to gas in those woods. Billy Benevuoeto, a soldier from Oscars’ platoon described the action in “Beney woods” (“Beney woods” is probably a colloquial name for Forêt Domaniale du Mort-Homme, which translates as “The Domanial Forest of the Dead Man”) as follows:

“That was where we got gassen mighty bad, and what do you think he [Oscar] did? He says ‘We’re not going to stay here and be gassed and the fellows don’t know what retire means, so we’ll go ahead.’ He just advanced right there with the whole company, out of the gas and into No Man’s Land almost to the Jerry wire. It was so dark we had to do the shoulder-to-shoulder stuff to keep from getting lost from the outfit. Then he got us back without losing a single man. Pretty good, hey?”

Lieutenant Oscar May was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest medal awarded to soldiers for bravery. The medal was for this action and for the previously described September 12 action in which he single-handedly took out a machine gun. In addition, he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur by the French Army and the Croix de Gerre (“Cross of War”) by the Belgian Army.

Figure 6. The medals awarded to Lt. Oscar May. These are not photos of the actual medals, but generic internet photos of the medals.

The Belgian Croix de Guerre (translation: “Military Cross” or “War Cross”) medal was awarded to Oscar for leading his company of men across the Meuse Valley in daylight on November 7 to their objective, in the face of heavy artillery and machine gun fire from the “boche” trenches. The German’s also used poison gas to attempt to hinder his advance. The French Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur (translation : “Legion of Honour”) was awarded to Oscar for distinguished gallantry in the service of France.

During this final big offensive to drive the Germans from France, Oscar wrote a letter on October 20, 1918 to my grandfather, Ernest H. May, and in it he described the conditions they lived under:

“I am now sitting with my runner in a fox hole 6 by 4 ft by 2 ft. deep with an improvised fireplace in one corner made by digging a notch in the corner for a fireplace and punching a hole, with a tent pole, slanting into it from the outside for a chimney. We have it covered with 2 shelter halves to keep out the rain. It is raining now. This is a rainy country at this time of year. It rains practically all the time and I am afraid it will slacken our good work for a time. It is very little colder now than it was last summer. It seems strange to hear of frosts back home when you were melting but a short while back when we were wearing coats.

I suppose you know by this time I was in the St. Mihiel drive. I am now northwest of Verdun. … I am at a loss to know whether I am lucky or unlucky in missing all the sickness, bullets and shrapnel, but I am grateful to have been able to pull the men of my company through its hardest trials, and some of the hardest were when I was the only officer with the company. And believe me the men appreciate what I have done for them. War is the greatest thing on Earth to make men brothers and strive for the highest ideals. I would rather lose my life than lose my experience with men that I have received in the last two months. It is so great that it is inexpressible.”

Oscar May was well liked by his men and by nearly everyone he met in his life. Testimonials of his character and his generosity abound. His life was cut short by anemia and uremic poisoning on August 24, 1947 and he died at the young age of 54. This was the result of a genetic defect he inherited from his father, Zachariah May, who suffered and died from the same affliction. Oscar’s son, John Slade May, would also contract the illness. Oscar was a very successful attorney after the war and was a partner in the law firm Waggener, May, Waggener and Hope in Kansas City for most of his career.

Oscar was a great supporter of civil rights long before it was cool. As early as 1919 he attended and spoke at black celebrations of Emancipation Day, the day that President Lincoln freed the slaves in 1862. In 1919 this observance was combined with a celebration of the soldiers, both black and white, returning from the Great War.

Oscar was an active member of the American Legion and the Masons. He also volunteered to help break a disabling coal miner’s strike in 1919, answering a call for help from the Kansas governor. He was a member of the Kansas legislature and the Kansas and United States Bar Associations. He was specifically authorized to argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, but it is not clear he ever did.

His son John Slade May completed law school at the University of Kansas in 1948. This was less than a year after Oscar passed away. John Slade (he was often called by his first and middle names) took over Oscar’s law practice and offices on the second floor of the Western Union building in downtown Atchison.

Selected sources:

The 89th Division in the Meuse Argonne Offensive, link.

Pine, Jeremy, May Genealogy, the ancestors of Dorothy, Nelson and Donald May, link.

The Kansas City Star, June 9, 1919.

The Perry Mirror, March or April, 1919 and 5 December 1918

The Kansas City Star, January 20, 1919.

The Oskaloosa Independent, 12 Sept. 1919.

Topeka Daily Capital, 23 Feb. 1919.

Jefferson County Tribune, 5 December 1919.

Emporia Gazette, 17 May 1938.

Atchison Daily Globe, 11 September 1948.

Winchester Star, 29 August 1947.

All of the articles and letters used to write this post can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Additional articles about Ernest May can be downloaded here and articles about Zachariah May can be downloaded here.

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