Marching orders

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a monthly series on the history of Webster City and Hamilton County written by local historian Nancy Kayser.

On June 28, 1916 Webster City’s Company C, 2nd Regiment, Iowa National Guard (ING), was mustered into Federal Service to serve in the “Mexican Border War.”

The call-up was in response to the troubles on the Mexican border which intensified in March of 1916 when General Francisco “Pancho” Villa attacked a New Mexico town and the Camp Furlong Army post. General John “Blackjack” Pershing with regular Army troops was sent to capture Villa.

In response to the threat of a war with Mexico, President Woodrow Wilson mobilized all U. S. National Guard units on June 18, 1916 to supplement the undermanned regular Army troops guarding the Texas and New Mexico borders with Mexico.

Webster City’s Company C, along with the 2nd Regiment band and Supply company, immediately reported to the Armory on Second Street.

As they awaited orders, the company drilled on the school grounds and the band practiced on the street in front of the Armory.

Recruiting began to bring the company to war strength and young townsmen added their names to the roll. It was noted in the Freeman-Tribune the Norton family alone accounted for four of the sixty-five members.

W. S. “Pap” Norton, already a guardsman for twenty-three years and veteran of the 1898 Spanish American ING call up, was the color-bearer. His three sons, W. B. Norton a corporal, George E. Norton a private and Perry Norton a member of the band, were also members.

Newspapers all across Iowa began editorializing on who would support the families of the married National Guardsmen. The Freeman-Tribune’s W. F. Hunter blasted Congress for its do-nothing support of the enlisted men. He mentioned their lack of response to increase the militiamen’s monthly salary from $16 to $30 when the members of Congress got $625 each month.

Hunter also raged against the locals who made fun of and jeered at those who volunteered. “Shame upon him!”, he wrote and reminded them they enjoyed the fruits of earlier struggles of the nation and now enjoy all the privileges of a free land with none of its responsibilities and obligations.

After a send-off banquet at the Baptist Church on Saturday night, Company C and the band boarded a train Monday morning, June 26th, for transport to the staging area at Camp Dodge near Des Moines. Most of the City was at the Chicago and Northwestern station to say good-bye and good luck.

As the entire Iowa National Guard gathered at Camp Dodge, it was obvious they wouldn’t be going anywhere quickly.

Recruits had neither uniforms, rifles nor military training. There weren’t enough tents or blankets, so some slept on the grass unprotected. Rifles and equipment were outdated. All the troops needed physicals and inoculations.

Only three Webster City guard members failed the physical exams. Every man complained about the first of three typhoid shots received on the third day in camp. The locals were discouraged Chick Middleton Esters, their head cook and an award winning ING sharpshooter, could not go with them because of Army segregation rules.

On Sundays families traveled to Camp Dodge with full picnic baskets to visit the locals and break the monotony of Army chow.

At 11 p.m. on July 22, 1916, the Iowa 2nd Regiment, including Webster City’s Company C and the band, left Des Moines by train for the four-day trip to Brownsville, Texas.

Upon arrival at their camp one mile southeast of Brownsville, Company C began clearing cactus and mesquite from the grounds to erect their tents. Their letters home described their encounters with snakes, lizards, scorpions, tarantulas, ticks and centipedes. Everyone prepared to have their hair clipped closely to ward off the bugs.

It also started raining soon after their arrival, creating a sloppy mud. Trucks were parked for the duration while the soldiers resorted to horses and mules to pull the supply wagons.

The Supply company began to receive back-ordered supplies and the men were finally issued a second set of trousers. No longer would they have to wear their B.V.D.’s while washing their only uniform. They also received regulation Army boots and could discard the ill-fitting, heavy plow shoes first issued.

Finally, eight weeks after federal induction, the Army payroll caught up with the troops. Now the men could buy needed personal supplies. The lack of funds had kept most men in camp.

In addition to intensive training, Company C helped guard bridges and the 30,000 acre La Palmas ranch. It was not exciting work, but the men soon used their outpost time to hunt game to supplement the generous, but boring Army rations. They were accompanied on their nightly patrols by deer, coyotes, bobcats and other local animal natives.

After ninety days along the Mexican border, rumors began the troops would be heading home. After Thanksgiving and Christmas had passed the 2nd and 3rd Iowa troops learned to ignore the weekly rumor mill. But the novelty had worn off, they were homesick and eager to go home to family and friends

As the war in Europe expanded, the troops feared they would not be discharged at all. Another round of rumors suggested they would go to Washington, D. C. to take part in the President’s inauguration.

The 2nd Iowa, including Webster City Company C, was the last of the Iowa state troops to leave the border. They arrived back in Des Moines on March 10, 1917, nearly nine months after leaving home. Military paperwork and a possible European crisis slowed the mustering out process.

On March 23, 1917 Company C was welcomed home by friends and family. Civil War veterans were the first to greet them as they detrained and led the procession down a flag lined Second Street as the group marched to the Armory to store their gear before going home.

The U. S. Congress declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917. National Guard units across the nation were ordered to federal activation again.

Local new recruits stayed at the Armory for training until the entire Webster City Iowa National Guard unit, consisting of members from all of Hamilton County, went into camp at the Fairgrounds the first of July 1917. The Supply company was encamped on the old Chautauqua grounds (Nokomis Park area).

In mid-August 1917, part of Webster City’s National Guard men were transferred to the 168th in the reorganized 3rd Iowa Regiment. Assigned to the 42nd “Rainbow” Division, they would be one of the first units to France for fighting.

Our local National Guard unit, now recruited to war time strength, was sent back to the Mexican border – this time to Deming, New Mexico for intensive military training before being assigned to overseas service.

And once again, the people of Webster City and Hamilton County hosted going away affairs and gathered to say good-bye and good luck as the train carried the troops away.