Dexter Man Makes Uncle Sam Proud

As we celebrate the 240th  anniversary of our country’s Declaration of Independence which proclaims the freedoms which we continue to enjoy, let us take a look back to the early fall of 1918, when the Allied Expeditionary Force was making it’s final push into Eastern France and to victory over the forces of the crumbling German empire.  This is the story of an American hero, Bill Brown of Dexter, Georgia.  For his heroic exploits, Sergeant Brown was awarded medals by the American and French governments while he was a member of the 167th Regiment of the Alabama National Guard.

In the summer of 1917, the Alabama National Guard was assigned to the 42nd Army Division.  Nicknamed the “Rainbow Division,” the 42nd was composed of national guard regiments from twenty six states.   Bill Brown and his fellow Alabamians left home for France  on November 6, 1917,  just in time for the coming of the bitter winter.   After several months of training in defensive positions, the 167th moved to Luneville on  February 24, 1918. By April, the 42nd became the first American division to occupy an entire sector.

As a part of the Twenty-first Corps of the Fourth Army, the 42nd saw action in the  Battle of Chateau-Thierry in July 1918, one of the famous battles of the entire war.  Fighting was brutal and often took place from trench to trench.  One Rainbow division member described fighting in the trenches.  “Our (first) trench was an old one and pretty well shot to pieces. The first night I was in it, it was very quiet, no artillery at all. The only thing that broke the silence was once in awhile a sniper
would shoot at something, and the rats running around sounded like someone chasing after you ... Standing post at night is something --you see there is thirty feet of wire in front of our trench and the posts are put in very irregular. It is almost impossible to find a place where you could see clear through the wire, even in daylight, and at night, every post or broken tree looks like a man and if you look long enough the object seems to move.  The first night I stood post, I imagined the trees were men and at times I saw them stoop down and climb over the wire, but after that I was used to it and learned how to tell a man from a tree. If you give a false alarm it means that the fellows who are sleeping in dugouts are wakened and have to come up and "stand to." At the best, the fellows get very little sleep, and if there are any alarms, they get none at all. So the wise Hun has all kinds of ways to coax an alarm; cats are used, and they have whistles that make moaning noises. You hear a cat on the wire and one of these whistles are blown, and you look out and think there is a man cutting the wire, and let her go ... It rained only once while we were in and it was bad enough in dry weather, but when you have to stand in mud, it must be hell. We were troubled quite a little by snipers, stick your head over and zip---they use a high power air gun, and there is no flash, so they are very hard to locate.”

The 167th regiment opened the attack  on the Croix Rouge Farm. As Brigadier General Henry J. Riley has written, "The capture of the Croix Rouge Farm and clearing belongs in that list of military exploits which cannot fail to excite the admiration of those who hear the tale because of the determination and gallantry displayed." The success at Croix Rouge led the breaking of the German line in the Marne Salient.  The regiment next saw action at  the crossing of the Ouroq and the battles of  Sergy Hill and St. Mihiel.

Sergeant Bill Brown, a son of Mrs. Ada Brown of Ozark, Alabama, was assigned to Company G of the 167th Regiment.   On the 14th of October, 1918, Bill’s company became heavily engaged at Landres-et St. Georges at Chattelon, near Chalon’s, during an operation dubbed the Argonne-Meuse offensive.  German artillerists and machine gunners were enfilading the company with intense fire. Artillery support on behalf of the American advance was scant at best.  Alabamians were falling one right after another.  During the heat of the conflict, Brown was first struck by a artillery shell fragment and temporarily put out of commission.  Sgt. Brown recovered only to be stunned by a dose of phosgene gas.    Not one to lie down, Brown gathered his wits and organized his platoon and led them in overrunning the German positions in their front.  When the smoke cleared, only fourteen of the fifty eight men of Company G had survived.  In downplaying his heroism, Brown said, “It would have never happened, if that shell had not hit me first.  I know how to use a gas mask.  There were only fourteen men left and no noncoms. I couldn’t very well leave them in that shape, so I stayed on.”

General Charles P. Summerall, the 167th’s brigade commander, summarized his admiration of the bravery of the Alabamians. “Of all things mentioned in the history of the American Army, the most exacting it was ever called upon to do was take the "Cote de Chattelon" in the Argonne, the key to the "Kreimmlde Stellung" or strong line of defense of the German Army.  That the Alabamians did, and without that accomplishment the American Army's advance on November  would have been utterly impossible.  Of all things I have pride in, it is the fact that I was in command of troops who brought about that wonderful feat of arms.”

For reorganizing his platoon and showing utter disregard for danger and inspiring his men by remarkable courage and devotion to duty, Sgt. Bill Brown was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with a gold star, one of only thirty-four of the prestigious medals awarded to American soldiers for outstanding bravery on a corps level.  The medal took the form of a cross surmounted by crossed swords, the centrepiece bearing the head of the Republic of France.  In addition to the French award, Sgt. Brown was awarded the Alabama State Medal, which was awarded to the twelve hundred survivors of the Alabama National Guard. The Guard numbered three thousand seven hundred at the beginning of the “War to End All Wars.”

It took a month for Colonel Bailey of the Atlanta Recruiting Station to find Sergeant Brown and award him his medals.    Bailey presented Brown with the Medal Militaire authorized by Field Marshal Petain of the French Army.   Petain, the leader of the French forces in World War I, was later vilified as the leader of the Nazi supported French Vichy army in World War II, a position which led to a death sentence, but one which was later commuted to life in prison for the 90-year-old former French hero.   During his service in France in the Rainbow Division, Sgt. Brown came in contact with one of the most famous soldiers in American history. This 42nd’s assistant division commander was elevated to the command of the division on the day before the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.  He rose to fame in World War II as the commander of American forces in the Pacific. His name was General Douglas MacArthur.

All of this ballyhoo came after Brown’s awarding of the Distinguished Service Cross by President Woodrow Wilson on November 27, 1918.   Brown was one of ten fellow Alabamians given the nation’s second highest award for heroism. The Distinguished Service Cross is awarded to a person who, while serving in any capacity with the Army, distinguishes himself or herself by extraordinary heroism not justifying the award of a Medal of Honor; while engaged in an action against an enemy of the Unites States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing/foreign force; or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing Armed Force in which the United States is not a belligerent party. The act or acts of heroism must have been so notable and have involved risk of life so extraordinary as to set the individual apart from his or her comrades.

President Wilson's citation read:

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Sergeant Bill Brown (ASN: 97125), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in action while serving with Company G, 167th Infantry Regiment, 42d Division, A.E.F., near Landres-et-St. Georges, France, 16 October 1918. During the attack on the Cote-de-Chatillon, after having been severely wounded and gassed, Sergeant Brown refused to go to the hospital, realizing that his presence with his platoon, which had suffered heavy casualties, would greatly assist in the attack. He reorganized his platoon and personally led it in the attack, later consolidating his positions, thereby setting an example of utter disregard for danger and inspiring his men by his remarkable courage and devotion to duty.

After the war, Bill Brown moved to Dexter to engage in the study of agricultural science under the federal board of vocational education.  In an interview with a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution ten months after the war Brown said, “I have forgotten most of that war stuff, but it pleases me that my folks will read about it.”  He was more interested in getting on with his agricultural training than reliving his military training under the most horrific battle conditions seen by American soldiers to that time.