Valor Friday

| July 16, 2021

Last week I featured First Lieutenant Baldomero Lopez, USMC. In addition to his final few moments getting captured in an iconic photograph of Marines in Korea, he had sent a letter home just the day before his final, fatal act of heroism. That letter spoke to his unwavering motivation to serve his country and the cause of his war. Today’s subject did something very similar.

Martin Treptow

Martin “Trep” Treptow was born in a small town in Wisconsin in 1894. Once he was grown he had found work as a barber in another small town in Iowa. When the US entered the First World War, Treptow, like many men his age, heeded the call to arms.

Treptow enlisted into the Iowa National Guard’s 55th Infantry Regiment on 15 July 1917. This unit would be federalized and reorganized as the 168th Infantry Regiment, the regiment still exists today. The regiment had a storied history dating back to the Civil War when it was known as the 4th Regiment, Iowa Volunteer Infantry. They had seen active duty service during the Spanish-American War and earlier in World War I before they were mobilized as part of the US official entry to World War I.

Martin Treptow as a Doughboy

Treptow’s regiment was assigned to the newly formed 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division. The division was so named because it was formed of units from across the US. Douglas MacArthur, then a major who had suggested the idea to form the division, said that “such an organization would “stretch over the whole country like a rainbow.” The name stuck.

42nd Infantry Division (original patch)

At some point during World War I, the unit’s insignia changed from a half arc to a quarter arc, which soldiers of the 42nd Rainbow Division still wear today, and did throughout World War II, the Cold War, and in Iraq and Afghanistan during the War on Terror. Lore has it that soldiers of the First World War removed half their rainbow’s arc in memory of the half of the division wounded or killed during the war. One of those soldiers was Martin Treptow.

Treptow’s regiment and division arrived in France in December 1917. They were some of the first American units to arrive on the Western Front. After several months of training, the division’s men were split up to reinforce French units holding a 16-mile long part of the front. They did this from 13 February 1918.

Life in the trenches was notoriously brutal. Both sides had zeroed in their artillery, so shell fire rained down from above endlessly. Occasionally troops from one side or the other would attempt to charge the other’s trench, which often devolved into hand-to-hand combat. The trenches themselves were wet, cold, muddy affairs that sucked the soul right out of a man’s body.

To alleviate some of the hardships of the trench, each American battalion served one week at a time on the front line, then spent the next week on the second line of defense, and the third week in reserve. Before war’s end, the 42nd Rainbow Division saw 264 days of combat in their less than one year of service in France.

In mid-June the division was moved to a comparatively busier sector. On 28 July 1918 Treptow was with Company M, 168th Infantry, 84th Brigade, 42nd Division. This was the first day of the Battle of River Ourcq (Hill 212), which would last for five days. This was a pivotal part of the Aisne-Marne Offensive.

The Germans were in retreat come 28 July. They held up at the River Ourcq, near La Croix Rouge Farm. Part of their defenses included two hills (Hill 212 and Hill 184) from which the Germans had good fields of fire for their enemy if they were to cross the rain swollen river.

Three American divisions set out on 28 July for the assault. The 3rd Infantry Division made their crossing with complete surprise and achieved their objective. The 28th Infantry Division relied on French guides, who were late, and this caused them to lose the element of surprise and the 28th suffered heavy casualties. It wasn’t until 1500 hours that they were able to even get across the river, which was 8ft deep and 40ft wide.

Treptow’s 42nd Infantry Division was initially pushed back as well in their early morning attack, but were able to make it across the river by 1030 hours. They reached the edge of their objective, the village of Sergy, but were pushed back. From Hill 212, the Germans were able to call down effective fire from aircraft overheard.

This would be the German’s most heavily defended area. They had carefully set up overlapping fields of fire. One American soldier described it as;

enemy machine gunners were almost everywhere—in trees, behind fallen ones, and in hurriedly made “nests” on the farm to the front . . . and all the Hun gunners had to do was sit there, pull the triggers, and keep on loading. It was a devilish deathtrap, a wicked device of a hellish brain!

The 168th Infantry, which included Private Treptow, would make a costly assault on Hill 212 to take out the enemy machine guns. With limited artillery support, the infantrymen made a frontal assault against the carefully prepared enemy machine gun positions.

During the slow movement up the hill, word came that they needed a messenger to run a message to another platoon. Treptow, 24 years old, volunteered. He popped up and ran through the open to carry the vital communique. Just before Treptow arrived at the platoon commander, he was cut down by German machine gun fire, dying immediately.

As the day wore on, both sides would attack and counter attack. After a day’s brutal back and forth fighting, the Americans had a foothold in Sergy by 2000 hours. Over the next few days, the Americans would steadily gain ground, taking both Hills 212 and 184, driving the Germans out of the area. By the end, the battle had lasted just over one week.

French monument to the Rainbow Division’s World War I sacrifices

The Americans had made their presence felt. The Germans were now thoroughly in retreat, which finally brought them to their knees. The war would end just three months later.

The battle had cost the Americans many lives. In just the 42nd Rainbow Division this one battle depleted their strength by half, having suffered more than a thousand dead and 5,476 total casualties.

Private Treptow received no medals for heroism or bravery that day. He qualifies only for a Purple Heart and the World War I Victory Medal with two bronze campaign stars. He was among thousands of young privates to die in the Great War. He would be largely forgotten today if not for his diary.

After winning their battle for Hill 212, as they searched the body of Martin Treptow for personal effects, they found his diary in a front pocket on his blouse. Opening it, on the first page they found this under a heading “My Pledge”;

America must win this war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.

It was dated 31 December 1917 and handwritten by Treptow. It became known as “Treptow’s Pledge.” The pledge would be featured on a war bond drive and his fellow soldiers copied the message into their own diaries, finding faith in the dedication of their fallen comrade’s convictions.

Treptow would be largely forgotten to history if not for his story getting revived in 1981 when President Reagan gave his first inaugural speech. Reagan concluded his speech by directing the audience’s attention to the grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery. He said Treptow is buried there, but he’s actually buried in Wisconsin. The rest of the story relayed by Reagan is true. After reciting Treptow’s Pledge, Reagan said,

“The crisis we are facing today does not require of us the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow and so many thousands of others were called upon to make. It does require, however, our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.

And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”

Category: Army, Historical, Real Soldiers, Valor, We Remember

Comments (7)

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  1. KoB says:

    “…that such men lived.”

    Massive American Casualties in a relatively short period of time…Heros, one and all. The lessons of the futility of frontal assaults against machine gun re-enforced positions had still not quite set in yet. No telling how much worse it would have been if Pershing had not of insisted that American Troops would fight as units and not be disbursed thru out the French and British Lines.

    There is a Marker to the 42 Inf Div on a prominent hill in the little big town up the road from here. One of the local units was the 151st Machine Gun Battalion. The local connection goes back to 1823 and the Macon Volunteers Militia, now part of the 48th Bde, 3rd Mech Inf Div.

    Great story Mason! Thanks!

  2. STSC(SW/SS) says:

    I salute you Private Treptow.

    You have more honor than most people will ever know.

  3. ninja says:

    Private Martin Treptow/President Ronald Reagan:

    Salute. Rest In Peace, Soldier.

    Thank You, Mason, for sharing another wonderful story of Valor.

  4. Jay says:

    Hand Salute to young Pvt Treptow. It is a damn shame and their spirits weep at the fact in just over a century we have gone from such eloquent words:

    “America must win this war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.”

    To the filth and hate spewed by the youth of today.

  5. SFC D says:

    Grampa D was a member of the 42nd, I have a couple of his uniforms. The story of PVT Teptow should be taught in every history class.

  6. Sparks says:

    Private Treptow, though awarded no high medals, was also a true hero. I hope his words will live on in our nation because if they don’t, I fear for our outcome.

  7. Steve says:

    Amazing story. Amazing bloke.

    Thsnks for sharing it.