A Tragedy After the Unknown’s Funeral: Charles Whittlesey and the Costs of Heroism

By JENIFER LEIGH VAN VLECK on 11/17/2021

By Dr. Jenifer Van Vleck, Contract Historian, ANC
 

On November 24, 1921, two weeks after he and other Medal of Honor recipients participated in the funeral of the Unknown Soldier, Colonel Charles Whittlesey boarded the S.S. Toloa, en route to Havana, Cuba from New York. At the beginning of the voyage, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. On November 26, Whittlesey dined at the captain’s table and reportedly joined in a “lively discourse on football, manifesting an active interest in the Army and Navy football game being played that day.” After dinner, he spent several hours in the smoking lounge chatting with a fellow passenger, who recalled “nothing unusual in the Colonel’s appearance.” Around 11:30 PM, Whittlesey announced that he was retiring for the night. He was never seen or heard from again.

Major Charles Whittlesey, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 308th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division, ca. 1917. (New York National Guard)

In Whittlesey’s stateroom, crew members found a letter to the captain requesting that his belongings be thrown into the sea. They also found nine letters addressed to relatives and friends. The letters had not been written on the ship’s stationary, suggesting that the colonel had composed them prior to his trip. After an investigation, the U.S. consul in Havana determined that Charles Whittlesey had “drown[ed] at sea by own intent,” with “no remains found.”

Charles Whittlesey was born in 1884 in Florence, Wisconsin, the eldest of four boys. He attended Williams College and Harvard Law School. After graduating in 1908, he moved to New York City to practice law. Tall, slender, and bespectacled, Whittlesey was, in the words of Lt. Charles McKeogh (who served under him), “an affable, extremely reticent and somewhat professorial sort” who also, despite his introversion, had “a sense of humor keen as a safety blade.” By some accounts, Whittlesey was a left-leaning idealist who had opposed the U.S. entrance into World War I until the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. Nonetheless, the shy, “professorial” young lawyer signed up for U.S. Army reserve officer training and, in May 1917, he shipped out to France as a captain in the 308th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division.

Nicknamed “The Metropolitan Division and “The Times Square Division,” the 77th was comprised mostly of working-class New Yorkers and reflected the city’s ethnic diversity. Its soldiers, who wore Statue of Liberty shoulder patches, included immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Eastern Europe, and China; nearly a quarter were Jewish. They were also inexperienced, entering combat soon after basic training.

In late September 1918, the 308th Regiment, under Whittlesey’s command, was ordered to participate in the Meuse-Argonne offensive—the largest and costliest U.S. campaign of World War I, which resulted in more than 120,000 American casualties. On October 2, while advancing through a ravine in the Argonne Forest, the 308th came under attack by German snipers on the steep bluffs nearby. Surrounded, Whittlesey and his men were cut off from communications and supply lines. For nearly six days, with little food and water, they endured a constant barrage of German firepower, as well as friendly fire from Allied air squadrons. Following orders to advance at all costs, Whittlesey ordered his men to hold their position; he even removed white sheets that had been placed on the ground to signal the 308th’s location to aircraft, lest they be mistaken for white flags of surrender. When the “Lost Battalion” (as it came to be known) was finally rescued, only 194 of the 308th Regiment’s 554 members had survived unwounded.

According to Army investigations, Whittlesey’s leadership and perseverance had prevented even heavier casualties. For his heroism during the ordeal in the ravine, the Army awarded Whittlesey the Medal of Honor and promoted him to lieutenant colonel. He returned to the United States as a war hero. However, the introverted young officer appeared deeply uncomfortable with his fame. He declined many requests for public appearances and refused to discuss his personal war experiences. When he did speak publicly, at commemorative events and fundraisers for veterans’ organizations, he focused on honoring enlisted men and advocating for peace. Meanwhile, he tried to help fellow veterans by visiting wounded soldiers in New York hospitals, chairing the local Red Cross Roll Call, and attending many funerals.

Gen. Clarence Edwards pins the Medal of Honor on Lt. Col. Charles Whittlesey, December 30, 1918. (National Archives)


In all likelihood, Whittlesey probably suffered from what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He was, according to friends, haunted by nightmares and memories of the soldiers who had died under his command. The grief of others may have magnified his own: at funerals and hospitals, soldiers’ families looked to Whittlesey, the war hero, for consolation, and widows often beseeched him for financial help. At Whittlesey’s own memorial service, Judge Charles Hibbard, a family friend, would state in his eulogy that such emotional labor, on top of the trauma he had experienced in war, became “a never ceasing and most exhausting drain upon his sympathy.”

Thus, when he accepted the invitation to participate in the Unknown Soldier’s funeral on November 11, 1921, Whittlesey—recently promoted to colonel in the reserve division of the 108th Regiment—was, by all accounts, in poor health both mentally and physically. In addition to probably suffering PTSD, the war had left him with a chronic cough, possibly the result of gas-related tuberculosis. Friends and relatives later described him as appearing sickly and moody, and participating in the Unknown Soldier’s funeral seemed only to worsen his spirits. When Whittlesey booked passage on the Toloa, he apparently told no one except his housekeeper, informing her only that he would be away for a few days.

Whittlesey’s suicide made national headlines. Some 3,000 mourners attended his memorial service, held on December 11, 1921 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In his eulogy, Judge Hibbard focused not on Whittlesey’s battlefield heroism, but on his empathy and sensitivity—qualities that enabled him to comfort others who had lost loved ones in the war, yet also caused him unendurable anguish. “He had plumbed the depth of tragic suffering,” Hibbard stated. While he had survived the Lost Battalion’s ordeal, Whittlesey still died as a casualty of war, “‘[w]ounded in action,’ aye, sorely wounded in heart and soul and now most truly ‘missing in action,’” as Hibbard said in his eulogy.

The tragic story of Colonel Charles Whittlesey prompts a more expansive understanding of the losses that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier commemorates. In 1999, after the exhumation and identification of the Vietnam War Unknown, the Tomb was rededicated to honor missing as well as unidentified service members from the Vietnam War; it is now understood to honor missing service members from all U.S. wars. Whittlesey, too, remains “missing,” in the sense that his body was never recovered from the sea. While he did not die in a war, he can certainly be mourned as a casualty of war—as can the thousands of other veterans who have died by suicide, many of whom are buried at Arlington. These losses, too, can be remembered at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.


Selected Sources Consulted

•  Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Charles W. Whittlesey Medal of Honor citation

•  Langbart, David. “Aftermath of War: A World War I Hero Lost at Sea: The Death of Charles Whittlesey, 1921.” National Archives and Records Administration, “The Text Message” blog, December 11, 2018..

•  Laplander, Robert J. Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legends of America’s Famous WWI Epic. Waterford, WI: AEF Services/Lulu Press, 2017.

•  Lengel, Edward G. “Agony of the Lost Battalion.” American Heritage 63:3 (Fall 2018).

•  Lengel, Edward G. and Kevin Mulberger. “The Lost Battalion.” In Edward G. Lengel, ed., A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, pp. 74-84New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2014. 

•  McKeogh, Arthur. “Whittlesey’s Other Answer.” Everybody’s Magazine, April 1919, pp. 64-65.

•  Parnass, Larry. “On Veterans Day, a Lost Battalion. A War Hero. And a Heartbreaking Suicide.” Washington Post, November 10, 2017. 

•  U.S. Consulate General Habana to Department of State, Despatch 417, November 30, 1921, 337.113/415, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59 (General Records of the Department of State), National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD. 

•  Warnes, Kathy. “Remembering and Forgetting Meuse-Argonne: The Shifting Sands and Partitioned Perspectives of Memory,” in Edward G. Lengel, ed., A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, pp. 472-495. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.