Distinguished Service Cross goes to four Nebraska WW I Veterans of
Company B, 355th Infantry

By Marianne Beel
  "Let us remember the cause for which these Americans fought and the freedom and peace bought with their life's blood, and let us pass along to a new generation the awesome accounts of honor and courage."

Those words, honoring all veterans, were spoken by President George Bush during his 1992 Memorial Day address.

Few World War I veterans survived by the year 2000. But recorded history preserves their dedication to the cause during the war said to end all wars.

Lest we forget, there were no "smart bombs" that could be fired with surgical precision during that war. The final Allied offensive that led to the end of German aggression was carried out by foot soldiers in close combat.

A stone memorial at 4th and Jeffers in North Platte was erected September 14, 1947, to honor those who served with Company B, 355th Infantry with the 89th Division during the St. Mihiel offensive.

A lengthy piece written by Major Joseph Hanson following World War I in "Common Sense," a monthly magazine published by the House of Gurney, Yankton, South Dakota, tells the story of bravery during that final thrust including those of Nebraska's own.

"Early in September 1918, the First American Army assembled by General John Pershing, extended in a line 40 miles long around the St. Mihiel salient. The battle which followed upon this tremendous concentration of manpower (550,000 American and 110,000 French troops) resulted in probably the most dramatic victory every won by American armies anywhere. When it began on September 12 it annihilated all opposition with the speed and relentless power of a tidal wave.

"The 355th Infantry, Nebraska, furnished a quartette of soldiers who, between daylight and dark on September 12, performed acts of gallantry so conspicuous that they were adjudged worthy to receive the Distinguished Service Cross." (Those names and brave action are listed in the official book listing U.S. Army decorations 1862-1926 published by the War Department in 1927.)

This regiment was charged with the mission of capturing the main German communication trench and mopping up the western edge of the woodland. The most serious obstacle being well-protected machine guns that must be taken by the infantry.

One of the first of these weapons began firing on Company B. Without waiting for orders Sergeant John Brinda, Valentine, made his way ahead of his platoon, killed the enemy gunner and captured the remaining four members of the crew, after which his comrades were able to advance.

Bugler Chauncey Porter, Chambers, armed only with an automatic pistol, charged alone on another gun, killed one, took another prisoner and drove the rest away.

In the confused windings of the trench system, Major Thomas Wirth, Lincoln, commanding the first battalion, saw his entire command held up by fire along its front. Walking out ahead of the troops, Wirth inspired his men to a united push that swept over the German emplacements and netted eight machine guns and 12 prisoners.

Later in the day Sergeant Martin Janssen, Rushville, became separated and found himself in the rear of another front line battalion, two platoons of which were being held up by machine gun fire from the front and the flanks. Without a leader, the troops were confused and disorganized. Exposing himself to hostile fire, Janssen ran from one end of the line to the other, urging the men forward until both platoons moved ahead across a small gully and out of danger. His action prevented interruption of the advance of the whole front.

Serving with Brinda in Company B was Charles Perkins, North Platte. During a May, 2000 interview, his son, Jr. Perkins of rural North Platte, said his father was shot through both legs during that advance.

"Dad told me that John Brinda stayed to bind his wounds and had the pack shot from his back while doing so."

Brinda was awarded the Victory medal, the French Croix de Guerre, "awarded for gallant action," and the Distinguished Service Cross, for "extraordinary heroism in action," according to the citations.

The veteran was in the first contingent to leave Cherry County, September 4, 1917, 27 years old and with black hair. He was discharged March 14, 1919, when his wife, Ellenor, said his hair had turned from black to gray. He is said to be among the highest decorated non-commissioned officers in the state. His brother, Leo, was killed during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

Although he declined to talk about the war, Brinda faithfully attended reunions of Company B, 355th Infantry as health allowed. He retained a close friendship with others including Perkins, Earl Eshleman, Hershey, and Arv Peterson, North Platte. Those three attended Brinda's funeral September 17, 1963.

The three American Legion Posts in Cherry County were named for those who made the supreme sacrifice. The Leo Brinda American Legion Post 90 in Valentine was named to honor the first from Valentine to fall on the battlefield October 16, 1918. In Wood Lake the Ralph "Toots" Piper American Legion Post was named for that native son who was killed September 13, 1918. At Cody the American Legion Post was named for two who gave their lives, Henry Rieke, October 6, 1918, and Frank Meidl, date unknown.

The American Legion Post 163 in North Platte began a drive in 1929 to name the airport for a local World War I aviator who was killed seven days after the war's end. In 1942 the city council moved to name the airport Lee Bird Field.

Memorial Day is much more than a 3-day weekend. To many people on that day, especially the thousands of combat veterans, which has a history stretching back to the Civil War, is an important reminder of those who served and for those who died in the service of this country.

All of our honored dead must be remembered. According to the American War Library the following war dead include wounded in parenthesis: Civil War, 558,000 (281,881); World War II, 407,316 (671,846); Vietnam, 58,168 (153,303); Korea, 54,246 (103,284); and World War I, 116,708 (204,002) 751 killed from Nebraska alone.

The words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow may say it best:
  • "Your silent tents of green
  • we deck with flagrant flowers;
  • Yours has the suffering been,
  • the memory shall be ours."

    War is an ugly business. Perhaps if we review the actions of many Nebraska soldiers during World War I, who were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, we could be a bit more grateful for the freedom we enjoy.

    (SeeDistinguished Service Cross Awards)