One Hundred Years Ago: Whiting Starts Paying the Price of War
By John Hmurovic
An ocean, and half a continent, separated Alex Walsko from his home in Whiting. He was flat on the ground in France. Just moments earlier, a German machine gunner aimed his fire at him. One bullet hit his right shoulder. A second bullet ripped through his left forearm. A third bullet lodged in his left hip. And then there were the shrapnel wounds.
It was not the first time Alex was in combat. Just six days after he arrived in France he was injured in battle, losing his four front teeth. But now, at the Battle of Soissons in late July of 1918, he was involved in three days and nights of intense fighting on the front lines before he was hit by the German machine gunner.
Alex could not get up, and his fellow soldiers could not help. The fighting was too intense. They could not risk an attempt to rescue him. In the evening, when the fighting quieted down, they tried to reach him. But in the dark of night he could not be found. Alex laid on the ground in France for almost a full day. If he was conscious, his mind certainly had to wonder if that was where he would die.
It wasn’t. He was picked up the next day and taken to the hospital. He spent the next six months in France recovering from his wounds, and then another month in a New York hospital before returning to his home on John Street.
The Battle of Soissons took a toll on other Whiting soldiers. Terrence Canner was also hit by machine gun fire. The shots which struck him came from a German airplane flying close to the ground. The bullet lodged about an inch from his spine. His parents, John and Susan Canner, did not learn of his injury until they received a letter from him sent from a hospital. He told them not to worry because he was recovering.
Thomas Muldoon was also shot at Soissons. “We faced a heavy barrage,” he wrote in a letter to his Irish born mother, Marie Muldoon at their home on Fifth Avenue in the Roby section of Robertsdale. “I got it in the left shoulder and was pretty lucky as the fellow right in back of me was killed outright.”
It’s possible that some of the Whiting solders wounded at Soissons were hit by shots fired by a low-ranking soldier on the other side who received a German Iron Cross for his bravery in that battle. Adolph Hitler would go on to become the fuhrer of Nazi Germany. About twenty years later he would lead the world into an even more deadly war.
For many Whiting soldiers, the month of July 1918 was the beginning of major combat. European nations had been at war since 1914, but the United States did not enter the war until April of 1918. It wasn’t until July 1918 that America was fully mobilized and had large numbers of soldiers on the battlefields. But some Americans got there early, including Harry Ourant. He was part of a Marine regiment which got into heavy fighting a month earlier. For twelve days they were in an intense fight at Belleau Wood where they successfully repelled a German attack and began a counterattack. Their bravery and skill as a fighting unit won them the highest honors from the French government and became a part of the proud history of the U.S. Marines.
The 26-year old Ourant took part in numerous other battles on the march to the Rhine and the occupation of Germany. He was injured in combat in mid-July. He was not a resident of Whiting-Robertsdale at the time he enlisted but moved to Robertsdale after the war.
Three soldiers from Whiting-Robertsdale lost their lives in the month of July in the World War. Walter Kleiber and John Santa died in combat in mid-month. Late in July, Karl Welsby became Whiting’s third fatality. He did not die in combat but succumbed to spinal meningitis at a base in Texas. He was the son of Loyal and Emma Welsby, who lived on John Street. Karl was the oldest boy in a family of seven children. At the age of 16 he worked as a driver at a milk depot.
Coming home after the war was certainly a difficult adjustment for many of the injured. After spending months in the hospital recovering from his many wounds, a newspaper account in 1919 said it was unlikely that Alex Walsko could return to work as a boilermaker. He would have to “find some less strenuous occupation more suited to his physical condition,” the report said. Alex Walsko died in 1955 at the age of 57. He lived on Lincoln Avenue, as well as on 119th Street for a time, and worked a variety of jobs, including as an auto mechanic, laborer, bartender and janitor at the State Bank of Indiana.