Remembering Tommy Kriebel

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By Douglas Humes ‘77

On Saturday, September 28, 1918, 24 year old Tommy Kriebel woke up in Montfaucon, France, a long way from his home in Philadelphia.  He had just been through two days of pure hell – facing combat for the first time in his life in one of the most costly battles in U.S. military history. Kriebel was a 1st Lieutenant in the 313th Infantry Regiment of the 79th Division of the American Expeditionary Army, the name of the American army sent to France to help the British and the French allies in the fight against Germany in World War I. 

The Allied and German forces had been in a stalemate for years, face to face several hundred yards apart in trenches, protected by barbed wire, mines, machine gun pillboxes and heavy artillery.  Periodically a general would order an advance, and the men would climb out of the trenches, “over the top”, and then run into the face of all the implements of death that could destroy them.  They were blown up by mines and artillery, torn up by barbed wire, and slaughtered by machine guns if they survived the first hundred yards.  They were not that much safer in their trenches, when the enemy would lob over poisonous gas and artillery shells.  They lived in these trenches and were constantly wet, knee deep in mud.  Illness and disease killed a third of the men who died in this war.  All war is brutal, but this one was far more brutal than anything that had been seen before. 

Tommy Kriebel's Draft Card

When the war began in Europe in 1914, Kriebel was enrolled at Penn State, and had joined the fraternity where his older brother Bill had been the first president, Delta Upsilon.  He was the fourth of six children of a family from the Germantown section of Philadelphia, and had graduated from Northeast High School.  He was studying business and commerce at Penn State, and was an athlete, playing lacrosse and wrestling. He was scheduled to graduate with the class of 1918.  The United States had remained neutral for much of the war, but when it became clear that the U.S. would get involved, Kriebel left school in 1917 and enrolled in a ROTC program that sent him off to Fort Niagara, near Niagara Falls, to learn what he needed to know to be commissioned as an officer. 

Kriebel had other business to attend to before he shipped out overseas, and on November 24, 1917, he married hometown girlfriend Dorothy Bell Sanders at the Grace Episcopal Church in Mt Airy.  The “Bell” in Dorothy Bell’s name was a tribute to Alexander Graham Bell.  Dorothy, her sister Margaret, and her parents, were all deaf.  Her father was a student of Bell, who besides inventing the telephone, was a leader in the field of education for the deaf.   As Kriebel was still in the army, he returned there after his leave, while his bride continued to live with her parents. 

1918 DU Members

Kriebel’s division, the 79th, composed largely of draftees from Philadelphia and Baltimore, shipped out on July 8, 1918, on the USS Leviathan, a German passenger ship that was seized and renamed by the US government to be used for troop transport during the rest of the war.  They arrived in France a week later, a group of young men pulled from their ordinary lives and given hurried training in combat skills and then shipped off into the war zone.  That training continued in France, as they prepared for their first assignment.  They were led by newly minted officers like Tommy Kriebel, a 1st Lieutenant assigned to command Company L of the 313th Infantry Bridge.  None of them had seen combat. 

The American troops filled in the western flank facing the Germans.  The British and French faced north.  The Allied generals’ plan was to use the fresh American troops to launch an all-out attack on the west, while at the same time the British and French would attack to the north.  The Meuse Argonne offensive began at 5:30 a.m. on September 26th, with the Americans climbing out of their trenches to attach the German lines.  Kriebel’s 79th Division was aimed for the town of Montfaucon, “a heavily defended area and observation post of the German army”.  The plan was to start the morning with a one hour artillery barrage to drive the defending troops into their deep protection, and then launch the assault.  The Germans anticipated the attack, and began their artillery fire first.  As the division history said, “The fury of the German artillery fire found no proportionate answer from the American guns. … Finally, at 7h 30, when the American artillery fire grew fainter, it was realized that there was to be no more support from that quarter, and the attack began”. 

Here is what they faced, in their own words:

"The lines dropped; automatics opened a spluttering reply; here and there a group rushed, dropped and crawled cautiously; the lines crept on—forward; delayed, harassed, terribly punished—but on their dead behind them, their tortured wounded moaning to the winds that most heart-breaking cry of the battle-field: "First aid, this way; first aid, this way." German artillery, some of it from beyond the distant Meuse, dropped a hail of shrapnel and high explosives; machine guns spewed the ground with a deadly shower—the Regiment crawled on."  It was heart-rending; it was magnificent. The whole horror of it was borne to those at regimental headquarters who received at 8h 30 this message from Major J. Baird Atwood, commanding the Third Battalion:

"Being fired at point blank by field pieces. For God's sake get artillery or we'll be annihilated."

After two days, the battlefield resembled "a cemetery of unburied dead." Over this ground, Kriebel led his men to the heights of Montfaucon and drove the Germans back; rushing down the far side, and taking cover in shell craters.  When he climbed from the hole to order the next advance, he was killed by a sniper’s bullet.  The commissioned officers, leading from the front rather than the rear, paid a high price.  In addition to 1st Lieutenant Kriebel, his second lieutenant, a sergeant and three corporals from their small company were all killed on September 28th.  The battle raged on through October and into November, but the attack had broken the German lines, and by September 28th, the German generals were already in discussion about seeking an armistice.  On November 11th, at 11:00 a.m., the guns fell silent.  Henry Gunther, a soldier from Kriebel’s unit, the 313th, was killed on 10:59 a.m. that day, a minute before the armistice took effect.  He was the last soldier to die in that war. 

A Former German Pillbox, overgrown with ivy amid church ruins Mountfaucon, where Kriebel was killed in WWI

On the day Tommy Kriebel died, fighting immediately to the west of the 79th was a young artillery captain, Harry S. Truman.  He was providing fire support for a tank brigade, led by another young captain, George S. Patton.  Both were to play pivotal roles in the next world war. 

And on that very same day, 100 miles away on the northern front, a British solider, Private Henry Tandey, took aim at a German soldier, but then saw that the German was wounded, and lowered his weapon, allowing the German to retreat back to his lines.   “I took aim but couldn’t shoot a wounded man,” Tandey remembered, “so I let him go.” The German soldier nodded in thanks, and disappeared.  Corporal Adolph Hitler was allowed to live, and he would play a pivotal role in the next world war as well. 

The Meuse Argonne offensive, lasting 47 days, was the largest offensive and bloodiest battle in U.S. history (until eclipsed by the Normandy invasion).  The battle cost was staggering:  26,277 American dead, and 95,786 wounded.  The bodies were initially interred where they fell, but after the war, military cemeteries were created and the soldiers were re-interred, in neat rows marked by gleaming white headstones.  Tommy Kriebel never came home.  He lies with his comrades in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, in Romagne, France.  A monument was erected in Montfaucon to remember the sacrifice of the American troops in that battle.  And Thomas Edwin Kriebel is named on his parent’s grave outside of Philadelphia, and on the bronze plaque at the Delta Upsilon house.  

It has been said that we die three deaths:  first, the physical death of the body; second, when the body can no longer be observed after burial; and third, when no one is left to say the name of the deceased. 

Thomas Edwin Kriebel is more than a name on a plaque, and we honor his memory, and his sacrifice, and he does not ever fully die as long as we continue to say his name.  

For more photos, provided by Doug Humes, click HERE

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