Valor Friday

| February 23, 2024

Arthur Champeny

I’ve talked several times about multi-war veterans. Some of those have earned valor awards for gallantry in action in service spanning several decades. Pascal Poolaw was one such man. You’ll recall he earned four Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts. He did so across three different wars, earned a Silver Star and Purple Heart in each of the Second World War, Korean War, and Vietnam War.

Today’s subject is Brigadier General Arthur Champeny. He too earned valor awards across three different conflicts. Here’s his story.

Originally from the tiny central Wisconsin town of Briggsville (pop. 316 today), he graduated from Washburn College in Topeka, Class of 1915. Kansas would be Champeny’s home for the rest of his life, excepting his years in uniform.

While in college, Champeny was a member of the honor society and Phi Delta Theta fraternity. He played on the college’s successful football team. As a full back he was part of a conference winning team in 1914. He also played basketball on the school’s team in the 1914-1915 year, serving also as the team’s manager.

With the First World War raging in Europe, but the US in a position of official neutrality and looking unlikely to enter the war, many young American men still felt the call to serve. Champeny was one of those men.

He joined the US Army after graduating college, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Infantry Branch. Champeny was assigned to the 356th Infantry Regiment, just formed in 1917, at Camp Funston, Kansas. The men of the 356th Infantry were placed under the command of Major General Leonard Wood.

Wood was a legendary figure, having received a Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars, the first commanding officer of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders, and formerly served as the Chief of Staff of the US Army. If it weren’t for his close association politically and personally with the aforementioned Roosevelt, Wood most likely would have been the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) when the US finally entered the Great War instead of Pershing.

Before setting off for France, the division was filled out with mostly draftees. The men of the division, like Champeny, came from the Great Plains or Rocky Mountain states. When the division was set to board the ships for Europe in May 1918, Wood was ready to join them but was relieved by President Wilson. He subsequently raised and trained another division (the 10th) at Funston instead.

Meanwhile, the men of Wood’s former command, including Champeny, arrived in Europe in the waning days of the conflict. The fresh American troops, eager to prove themselves in the now four-year-long war, bolstered the Allied forces. The war would end just a few months later, at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

Before that happened, the 89th Division saw action in the Battle of St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. It was in the former battle that Champeny would distinguish himself in action.

A first lieutenant, Champeny was part of the 356th Infantry’s 1st Battalion, Headquarters and Headquarters Company. The battle commenced on 12 Sept 1918. General Pershing (American AEF commander) was leading the combined forces of his AEF and about 110,000 French Army troops. Pershing had meticulously planned the battle and his dissemination of these plans allowed his commanders on the ground (and air) to operate with devastating effectiveness.

On the first day of the fighting, Champeny was in the battalion’s command post. Early in the battle, the commanding officer for the battalion was seriously wounded. He stayed with his commanding officer, and kept up the command post’s liaising with other units. At the time, radio wasn’t an option and telephone lines were notoriously spotty. What this means is that Champeny, when he wasn’t beside his fallen comrade, was running through the heavy enemy artillery shelling striking the area, to relay commands and return battle reports.

When the battalion commander was finally evacuated, the young lieutenant (who’d just turned 25 a few weeks prior) assumed command. He then led the battalion to their next objective. It can’t be understated how much responsibility this is for a lieutenant. Battalions are normally commanded by lieutenant colonels, and even in the midst of large battlefield losses are rarely commanded by less than a major. Champeny was a junior officer thrust into leading a formation of several hundred men, all of whom were heavily engulfed in combat action.

The battle would last about three days, and see several thousand men killed and wounded on both sides, and 15,000 Germans taken prisoner. It was here and during the larger Meuse-Argonne Offensive that both George Patton and Douglas MacArthur earned the respect of their men (and both got Distinguished Service Crosses) for literally leading their troops from the front and not a rear position as was common for officers at the time.

For his performance at St. Mihiel, Champeny received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for combat bravery.

Post-war Champeny remained in the Army. He was married to Marjorie, and they had a son John “Jack” in 1929. He was born in China, presumably while Arthur was serving as part of the foreign mission in some capacity. The family returned to the US the following year. Arthur was posted to Oahu, Hawaii just before American entry into World War II. They were there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

With the US now at war with the Axis, the need for experienced officers like Champeny was great. Many of the highest ranking officers of the Second World War had been, like Champeny, junior officers during the previous World War. Like most of them, Champeny’s wartime record immediately propelled him into command of a regiment destined for combat.

Champeny, now a colonel, was given the 351st Infantry Regiment. The 351st was an Army Reserve formation, part of the 88th Infantry Division, and another midwest unit for Champeny (the regimental headquarters was at Ft Snelling, Minnesota). With the US at war, the regiment was mustered into active federal service on 15 July 1942.

Champeny trained his men at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma before they shipped off for the European Theater from Hampton Roads, Virginia in November 1943. They arrived in Morocco, then were sent to Algeria. Here they went under still more training in preparation for the fighting on the Italian Front.

The 88th Infantry Division, one of the first American divisions of almost exclusively draftees, entered combat in early 1944. They fought in the area of Minturno on the infamous Winter Line. The Winter Line was a series of German fortifications that stretched across the entire Italian peninsula. As the Allies would take one line, the Germans would retreat to the next one.

On 11-14 May 1944, as the 351st Infantry were fighting their way towards Anzio when Champeny got his second Distinguished Service Cross. His award citation is bereft of details, but the regiment’s combat chronicle (written by its own men) tells a story of intense combat.

At 2300 hours on 11 May, Allied artillery from every available gun opened up on the 351st Infantry’s target; a series of heavy German fortifications on the Gustav Line (part of the Winter Line) near Minturno. The regiment faced about 800-900 Germans who had comfortably repulsed several other Allied assaults.

On 12 May, Champeny’s E and F Companies led the charge against terrain features given colorful names by the American soldiers. Taking a hill they called the “tits” (it’s not explained why it was called that, but one can use their imagination) and then the “spur.” Along the way, the 2nd Battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Kendall took command of Company E after its commander had been wounded.

Kendall led the company personally in the successful assault on the “tits” and was leading a squad of men in a frontal assault on a German machine gun position in a house on the “spur.” Calling to his men to follow him, he rushed the house. Killing several of the enemy, he pulled the pin on a grenade and before he could throw it was mortally wounded by enemy fire. In his final moment, he smothered the blast from the live grenade with his own body, saving the lives of his men nearby. Kendall would earn a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross for his action.

I digressed from the story of Champeny to demonstrate that the fighting at this time was not solely the province of the low ranked foot soldier. Every man of the regiment, up to its commanding officer, a full colonel such as Champeny, was a dog-faced infantryman.

Over the next couple of days, the fighting was so intense, with heavy enemy artillery barrages decimating the 351st Infantry, that Company F was nearly completely wiped out. After being separated from the bulk of the line, the regiment’s 3rd Battalion fought to reconnect with them. When they got to the last reported position of Company F only two men remained alive.

Champeny organized a new Company F and placed his regimental personnel officer in command of it. It’s no easy feat to cobble together a frontline combat unit from a division already depleted by days of casualties from the hard fighting. That he could even do so is a testament to Champeny’s preparation. The men were all trained and ready for such an outcome.

At 0800 on the 14th, Champeny led his men in the final assault of the battle. As the combat chronicle describes it;

Grim riflemen who had been fighting for forty-eight hours without pause gripped their weapons and came out of their foxholes to close with the hated enemy. This time they would not be stopped. After smashing their way through the streets of the two towns, those men of the mist drove the stunned Germans up the AUSONIA-SPIGNO road and into the mountains beyond. Although they had paid a staggering price, losing many veteran soldiers and leaders, they had blasted the first gap in the vaunted GUSTAV LINE and had opened the road to ROME. This epic struggle of the 351st Infantry was characterized by gallant, heroic action of companies, platoons, squads, and individual soldiers.

For leading such a successful and brutal operation, Champeny got that second Distinguished Service Cross. The whole division earned the French Croix de Guerre with palm, equivalent to an American Presidential Unit Citation, the highest unit-level award of France.

The 351st Infantry continued to fight up Italy, reaching Anzio on 29 May, and were the first unit of the US Fifth Army to enter Rome a few days later. The fighting along this route had been heavy. Allied casualties at the Battles of Monte Cassino (where the 88th ID had first tasted combat) and Anzio alone saw nearly 100,000 men dead or wounded.

The 88th ID pushed the enemy into the Po Valley over the winter of 1944 into 1945. Chasing the Nazi forces across the Alps, and into Austria. They were in Austria when the war in Europe ended. They’d been in combat for 344 days.

Champeny also received a Silver Star and a Legion of Merit for his leadership of the 351st through World War II. He was awarded a second Legion of Merit for post-war European service.

Returning to the US, Champeny was given command of South Boston Army Base before being selected to serve as the first Director of National Defense in occupied Korea. He was frocked a brigadier general for this assignment, later receiving the rank in full.

In this role, Champeny helped organize the South Korean Army and Navy, even signing the commissions for the services’ first officers. In 1950, when North Korea invaded the South, surprising the Allies and nearly conquering the country, he was given command of the 24th Infantry Regiment, part of the 25th Infantry Division.
The 24th Infantry was a storied regiment dating back to 1869. One of the original “Buffalo Soldier” regiments of black troops, it was still segregated when Champeny took command. Since Truman had ordered the desegregation of the military it was disbanded in 1951. Before that could happen though, they were pressed into action in Korea.

When taking over the regiment, Champeny, who had been beloved by the men of his 351st Infantry, immediately drew the ire of the men in his new command. He told the men of the 3rd Battalion that his experiences in World War II led him to think that “coloreds did not make good combat soldiers” and had a “reputation for running”.

Champeny would defend these remarks. He claimed he’d said them in an attempt to get the men inspired to prove him wrong and foster esprit de corps. The black soldiers, understandably, took a dislike to their new colonel. It probably didn’t help that to accompany his outdated beliefs on the fighting prowess of minorities he was also older than many of their dads. He was 57 years old. He was even older than the division’s commanding general.

The 24th would be one of the earliest regiments deployed to Korea for the war effort. They landed at Inchon on 5 September. They immediately entered combat in defense of the Pusan Perimeter. The perimeter was the small chunk of South Korea that the Allied forces were clinging to.

The 24th Infantry suffered from issues that many units had this early in the war. The massive drawdown of personnel and equipment after World War II had left the Army in a severely weakened state. Without a war to prepare for, the Army wasn’t trained, equipped, or ready for another large scale conflict.

When confronted with the determined, fanatical North Korean enemy, freshly equipped with all the latest Soviet technology, many units struggled. That the Pusan Perimeter was the last toehold in Korea was evidence of this. The South Korean and their UN Allies, had been nearly pushed off the peninsula completely in the surprise attack that began the war two and a half months prior.

Champeny is said to have remarked that he was going to turn “the frightened 24th to the fighting 24th.” An Army report in the 90s noted that the issues the 24th Infantry went through were not unique and certainly not indicative of the capabilities of the black regiments.

Fighting in the Pusan Perimeter, the regiment took heavy fire from a numerically superior force, the small village Champeny was running his command post from saw an enemy breakthrough. Confusion swept the line as they were overrun and the village was set ablaze.

Now in the midst of his third war, Champeny calmly organized the withdrawal of his command post and his regiment. Regrouping, he returned to the front when a new command post had been assembled. Taking fire from the enemy there, Champeny was wounded at least twice, but remained at his post to direct his men, organize a defense, and transmit his plans to the divisional headquarters.

For his continued acts of bravery under fire, Champeny was awarded a third Distinguished Service Cross. He was and remains the only man to have received three in three different wars. Over the course of his three war service he was wounded five separate times.

Despite a career with many well-earned accolades, and an impressive combat record, Champeny’s command of the 24th was marred by more than just his racist comment. He court-martialed one of his own officers and tried him on the battlefield. It was an event that drew widespread attention back home, and ultimately helped speed the desegregation of the Army.

In the fighting at the Pusan Perimeter, Leon Gilbert, a black man, was a first lieutenant in Company A, 24th Infantry. He was 29 years old and had served in the Army for ten years, having served with the 92nd Infantry Division in Italy during the Second World War. Gilbert had taken command of his company after his captain fell.

Under intense pressure by the enemy’s voluminous fire, Gilbert was forced to order a retreat. Champeny ordered Gilbert to return to his company’s spot on the line. Gilbert refused. As he tells it, he didn’t refuse so much as try to explain to the colonel why doing so would be a suicide mission. Champeny didn’t take kindly to having his order not followed by a junior officer, so he had the man arrested.

A court martial found Gilbert guilty of insubordination cowardice, despite the man having spent several days in a tireless battle with the other men of his company. Anti-black racism was a factor I’m sure. He was sentenced to death, drawing condemnation and protests from those in the black community and further back home.

A full 600,000 people signed a petition asking President Truman to pardon Gilbert. Truman commuted the sentence to 20 years’ hard labor, dishonorable discharge, and forfeiture of all pay. In 1952 his charge was reduced to 17 years for “battle misconduct.” He served a five years, and was never able to clear his name before his death.

Champeny’s command of the 24th Infantry was over, as he was evacuated to Japan to recover from his latest wounds incurred in the Pusan fighting. He returned to Korea as a brigadier general in 1951 and worked in an administrative capacity helping to organize the Korean Army into an effective fighting force. He returned to the US in 1953 and retired to Kansas with his wife. There he would die in 1979 at the age of 85.

In addition to the many awards he received from the Army, Champeny was a recipient of the French Croix de Guerre, the French Legion of Honor, and the Italian Bronze Medal of Military Valor.

Jack, Arthur’s son, would follow in his father’s footsteps. After graduating MIT in 1951, he too served during the Korean War, but remained stateside. He was on active duty in the Army from 1953-55, then was in the Army Reserve until retiring as a major.

Category: Army, Distinguished Service Cross, Historical, Valor, We Remember

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2banana

Amazing but he didn’t have confused poles to holes, pronouns and diversity quotas to contend with…

“Champeny is said to have remarked that he was going to turn “the frightened 24th to the fighting 24th.”

Last edited 3 months ago by 2banana
USMC Steve

Relative to that statement about MacArthur, I have seen from a couple of sources that he specialized in stealing the accomplishments of his subordinates and writing himself up for decorations based upon their actions during WW1. Maybe, maybe not, but I choose to believe it based upon his well established megalomania, and his lack of performance. He was not even an outstanding officer, let alone some sort of genius.

KoB

Prime example of what it means to “…being in the sh*t…”. Do we have ossifers (and troops) like this still serving? One would hope that we do. Sometimes one has no choice but to lead AND command from the front.

Great history lesson on this Warrior, Mason. Thanks!

Atlanticcoast63

…I’ll need to look it up when i get home, but a while back I wondered if there were any US soldiers who made WWI, WWII, Korea, AND Vietnam.

And the answer was – technically- yes. He started as an underage private in the 1914 Mexican Punitive Expedition, then got his commission in WWI. Made it to BGEN in WWII, then got busted down to full COL. Stayed in after the war and made it back to MGEN, then retired after Korea….but ended up in Vietnam as an advisor for a few years in the late 50s.