Aftermath of War: A World War I Hero Lost at Sea: The Death of Charles Whittlesey, 1921

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

One of the more notable incidents in the combat experience of U.S. troops during World War I is that of the so-called “Lost Battalion.” During the fighting in the Meuse-Argonne in October 1918, over 500 men of the 308th Infantry Regiment advanced farther than the supporting troops on either flank and ended up surrounded by the Germans. At the time of their relief after six days, 107 men were dead and 63 were missing. The leadership of their commander, Lt. Col. Charles Whittlesey, was credited with preventing an even worse outcome. The colonel received great public acclamation and the Medal of Honor.

The experience weighed heavily on Whittlesey, especially unfounded criticism that he had erred in his leadership of his men.  Today we would likely say that the colonel suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  In an all-to-often consequence of that condition, he took his own life.  Two years after the end of the war, in November 1921, he booked passage from New York to Havana on the British ship S.S. Toloa.  On the night of November 26, he disappeared from the vessel, apparently jumping overboard as part of a premeditated plan.

The news of his disappearance reached the U.S. consulate general in Havana and Consul General Carlton Hurst had a vice consul, Charles Hosmer, interview the captain of the Toloa to learn what he could about the circumstances of Whittlesey’s death.  Hurst then prepared the following despatch and “Report of the Death of an American Citizen.”[i]

337.113[415.1337.113[415.2337.113[415.3337.113[415.4337.113[415.5337.113[415.6337.113[415.7337.113[415.8


[i] Source: U.S. Consulate General Habana to Department of State, Despatch 417, November 30, 1921, file 337.113/415, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  Also available on the Ancestry.com website “Reports of Deaths of American Citizens Abroad, 1835-1974”.

2 thoughts on “Aftermath of War: A World War I Hero Lost at Sea: The Death of Charles Whittlesey, 1921

  1. David – what a heartbreaking story. I remain astounded by our records and the stories they contain. Thanks for sharing this one — and so many others. NARA is lucky to have such incredible archivists and storytellers (shout out to Greg Bradsher).

  2. I echo Miriam’s comments. But I also add my view that this story provides evidence that our Nation has not supported its veterans after battle for 100 years. We must do better.

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