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Chosen Few:

The Deutsche-Amerikaner Freikorps


By Chris Oakley

Part 3




Summary: In the first two episodes of this series we looked back at the Deutsche-Amerikaner Freikorps’ creation, its early exploits on the Western Front, and its integration into the US Army as the 22nd Infantry Division. In this chapter, we’ll examine their role in the Battle of Belleau Wood and explore how they re-adjusted to life in America after the 22nd came home from Europe.


The Battle of Belleau Wood was the most important engagement the 22nd Infantry Division, a.k.a. the Deutsche-Amerikaner Freikorps, had participated in since its integration into the regular U.S. Army. Belleau Wood occupied a critical juncture in the Allied lines on the Western Front, and if the Germans could be stopped there it would throw a monkey wrench into the Imperial Army’s final desperate efforts to break through the Allied defenses in France. The Kaiser’s troops had already been thwarted at Chateau Thierry....


....and they decided to take their frustrations out on the Allied divisions defending the Belleau Wood area. One of the first intended targets for their wrath: the men of the 22nd, who in addition to being a major obstacle to the Imperial Army’s advance were considered to be traitors to the Fatherland. The Imperial troopers vowed to kill every 22nd Infantry soldier they could get within range of their guns. But it would prove a task easier said than done, as the 22nd had proven to be ferocious fighters during their time in Europe.

It was just after sunset on June 1st, 1918 when the 22nd first made contact with the advance elements of the German assault force trying to penetrate the Allied lines at Belleau Wood. Years after the battle, veterans on both sides would remember the torrent of machine gun fire that greeted the initial German attack. They would also remember the BOOM! of grenade explosions that rent the air as the troops of the 22nd held firm against the Imperial forces’ initial thrust.

From the German side of the front lines men with megaphones would shout "Verrater!(traitor!)" at the 22nd in a futile effort to undermine the division’s morale. The 22nd’s soldiers, naturally, reacted to this crude tactic by stiffening their resistance to the Kaiser’s armies. In fact, some 22nd troops used those shouts as a way of homing in on the men with the megaphones; once located, those men were usually silenced with a rifle shot or a quick burst of machine gun fire.

For the next several days the 22nd Infantry remained a bone in the throat of the Kaiser’s armies. No matter how hard the Imperial German Army tried to break through the 22nd’s defenses, the 22nd just wouldn’t budge. Not even when an artillery barrage ripped through the center of the American lines did the 22nd’s soldiers  pull back one inch-- a fact which caused the Kaiser and his generals apoplectic fits. At least two Imperial Army officers had to resign their commissions thanks to their troops’ failure to dislodge the 22nd Infantry from its position. There was even a suicide at one division command headquarters as a result of the Imperial forces’ inability to breach the 22nd Division lines.

When the Battle of Belleau Wood was finally over, the 22nd Infantry Division got much of the credit for the Allied victory. In a report to then-US secretary of war Newton D. Baker, American Expeditionary Force commander-in-chief General John J. Pershing was abundant in his praise of the valor shown by the men of the 22nd in resisting the relentless German assaults; French army general Ferdinand Foch visited the 22nd’s field headquarters shortly after the battle ended and bestowed four of its officers with the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s most important military decorations. British general Sir Douglas Haig drank a toast to the 22nd Infantry at a Royal Army officers’ banquet. But what might have been the most eloquent tribute to the 22nd came during America’s Independence Day celebrations, when President Woodrow Wilson-- who’d once been one of the staunchest critics of the original concept behind the Deutsche-Amerikaner Freikorps --arranged for the U.S. Marine Corps band to carry the division’s colors during Washington, DC’s annual 4th of July parade.


The 22nd Infantry would remain in the thick of the fighting on the Western Front until mid-October of 1918, when its troops were recalled to their original headquarters in Cherbourg to enjoy extended leave as well as restock vital supplies. On November 9th they were getting ready to board a troop train to head back to the front when they learned of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s abdication; two days later they got the news about the Armistice between the Allied powers and the newly formed coalition government of chancellor Friederich Ebert in Berlin. The First World War had finally ended. Now it was time for the men of the 22nd Infantry to begin thinking about their futures in postwar America. For some of those men, thoughts inevitably turned to pursuing that most German of occupations, beer-making: a quarter of the 22nd’s personnel had either worked in or owned breweries before the original DAF was organized, so it seemed only natural that once they returned to America they should resume the brewer’s profession(although in the 1920s Prohibition would make it necessary for them to switch to other professions).

There were also a number of 22nd Infantry veterans who had been active in civic affairs in the town of New Berlin and hoped to resume their role in those affairs once they’d been mustered out of the U.S. Army; at least one particularly ambitious man had actually gone so far as to send a letter to the editors of the New Berlin Sentinel in which he declared his intention to run for the town mayor’s position in the next municipal elections, while another wrote to the town’s chief of police applying for a job as a patrolman. A platoon leader who’d long been well-known among the division’s ranks for his passion for books accepted an offer from New Berlin’s city library to take a position on the library board of directors. A few DAK/22nd Infantry alumni, having grown to like life in the Army, sought to find positions within other U.S. Army units or at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. There was even one 22nd Infantry officer who had been a classical musician before the war; eager to pick up where he’d left off with his musical career, he accepted an offer from the New York Philharmonic to become part of their string section as second cello. He would remain with  the Philharmonic nearly a quarter-century before finally retiring from the musical profession in 1942.

None of the erstwhile DAK/22nd Infantry veterans, so far as any available historical records show, ever gave much consideration to the notion of resettling in Germany. Even if they hadn’t been regarded as traitors by the now-defunct Imperial regime, they had long since come to think of America as their true homeland; some of the younger men in the 22nd’s ranks had scarcely known any other home. Indeed, at least half of the surviving soldiers of the 22nd Infantry Divisions never set foot on German soil again.


The return of the troops of the 22nd Infantry from the Western Front sparked a major change in New Berlin’s public education system. Some of the younger soldiers in the 22nd’s ranks had been contemplating enrollment in college before the original DAK was organized; the war had delayed fulfillment of this goal. In the final months before the armistice between Germany and the Allied powers was signed, concerns about the intellectual welfare of the 22nd’s younger recruits once the fighting was over had prompted the New Berlin city council to take a series of steps to establish the town’s own university. Their labors reached a climax in September of 1919 with the opening of what is now known as the University of Wisconsin-New Berlin.

Originally called the New Berlin Polytechnic Institute, the new university catered mainly to former 22nd Infantry troops and children of New Berliners during its early years; it wasn’t until 1930, when the economic hardships wrought by the Great Depression forced colleges and universities in all parts of the U.S. to rethink their respective approaches to education, that the Institute started accepting students from outside Wisconsin. Still, the school managed to acquire one of the largest student bodies of any private college or university in the United States-- a 1936 New York Times survey of more than a hundred private institutions of higher learning ranked New Berlin Polytechnic alongside Duke, Boston University, and Notre Dame on the list of the 25 schools with the highest student enrollment figures.

But the university’s benefits to New Berlin’s citizens went beyond simply providing an education. Its main library served as an auxiliary to the records office at the town hall; the local taxes the university paid to the city each year helped fund vital city services;1 the campus radio station helped connect New Berliners with the outside world and vice versa; and with New Berlin’s brewing industry straining to recover from the twin blows inflicted on it by Prohibition and the Great Depression, other local businesses welcomed the dollars invested into the town’s economy via the huge paying crowds who came from every corner of the Midwest to see New Berlin Polytechnic’s athletic squads in action.2

In the mid-1930s, as most of their fellow Americans continued to espouse isolationist attitudes despite mounting evidence of the threat posed by Europe’s totalitarian regimes to world peace, the citizens of New Berlin turned anxious eyes toward their ancestral homeland. Adolf Hitler represented everything which the original Deutsche-Amerikaner Freikorps had been created to fight against; New Berliners feared he would plunge Germany and the world into total disaster unless he was quickly overthrown. This belief would plant the first seeds for one of America’s most fervent anti-Nazi movements in the runup to the Second World War....


To Be Continued



[1] These revenues, in fact, made it possible for the New Berlin fire department to change from a partly volunteer force in the late 1920s to an all-professional unit by 1937.

[2] Those crowds are still turning out today for the modern University of Wisconsin-New Berlin’s sports teams; particularly popular is the school’s varsity football squad, which since 2000 has won back-to-back NCAA Division II national championships and three regional titles.


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