Bangor boys were itching to fight in a war a century ago. They soon would have their opportunity.
MAY HAVE CHANCE TO GO TO WAR, an enthusiastic headline in the Bangor Daily News reported March 17, 1916, after it was learned that orders had been received by the state’s National Guard units to enlist to full strength.
The question was which war. The bloody debacle in Europe — also known as The Great War — seemed the most likely, but there was also a simmering crisis along the Mexican border that might soon lead to war. The order to fill National Guard units was “thought by some to have bearing on the situation in Mexico,” the Bangor Daily News story speculated.
The war preparedness movement focused on The Great War. Many young men from Maine already had enlisted in Canada or Europe as soldiers or medical workers. Rumors abounded in the Pine Tree State about German spies, undercover wireless transmissions and mysterious ships both on the water and in the air. At least one effort had been made to blow up the cross-border railroad bridge at Vanceboro, while escaped German POWs from Canada had appeared in the Queen City.
A story in the Bangor Daily News on May 4 summed up the situation for thousands of nervous Mainers. The headline said SPECTRE OF WAR HAUNTS MAINE.
“In the event of war with any foreign power that has a navy transport fleet, Maine and not New York will be the scene of the first attempt at invasion, so the people of this far eastern edge of the United States seem to believe, and they are flooding the mails with petitions and memorials to the state’s delegation in Congress asking why it is that Maine east of Portland is left out of the contemplated plan of coast fortification,” the story said.
“Strange stories have been in circulation for the past two years of supposed German spies inspecting Maine railroads and harbors, and there have been hundreds of reports of airships sailing in all directions along the coast and far inland. One half the people poke fun at these stories and fears, but there are thousands who are convinced that real danger threatens and that if war comes with Germany it will begin right here on the eastern border,” the story said.
In 1916, the civil war in Mexico seemed a lot further away than Europe to most Mainers. Pancho Villa, identified variously by historians as a political and military leader or a bandit whose troops controlled much of northern Mexico, started crossing the border and killing Americans. One particular raid in New Mexico in March resulted in the deaths of 16 U.S. citizens. In April, American troops under Gen. John J. Pershing were sent into Mexico to catch him.
Bangor boys with military inclinations would finally get their chance to go to war, or near one anyway, in June when President Woodrow Wilson ordered the mobilization of the country’s National Guard units. The call came to Bangor at 5 a.m. Monday, June 19.
In Bangor, that included the Second Maine Infantry Regiment’s Company G and the Bangor Machine Gun Company. The role of the National Guard would be to patrol the border with Mexico, not to enter the country unless they were in pursuit of “raiders.” No war had been declared, although tensions were high. The Mexican president had ordered Pershing’s troops out of the country.
The militia call up produced a sudden burst of patriotic fervor in the Queen City. For the second time in the history of Bangor, the fire alarm system sounded the “military call” — 11 bells — shortly after 5 a.m. The first time this had occurred had been in April 1911 to summon men to fight the great fire.
A stream of family and friends of the soldiers appeared at the armories of Company G on Court Street and the machine gun company on Central Street. Orders for departure to Augusta were expected hourly.
All sorts of patriotic gestures were being made. Employers like James Sawyer at Sawyer’s Department Store promised aspiring soldiers they would keep their jobs and their salaries if they enlisted. Public-spirited Charles M. Stewart presented “a beautiful silk banner for parade purposes” to the machine gun company and a large flag for the outer wall of the armory.
The diversity and skill of Bangor’s boys was emphasized in the press. “When Company G … moves to the Mexican border it won’t be confused by strange surroundings or phased by contact with non-English speaking people,” a reporter for the Bangor Daily News asserted. Among the men who could speak foreign languages — including Swedish, German and French — was Manuel Romero, who spoke Spanish. The group also represented a wide range of skilled workers, including a locomotive engineer, a blacksmith and even expert candy maker Frank Boucci.
They were a tough group as well. John Murphy was a veteran of the British army. A couple of accomplished boxers — Terry Morris, “a widely known New England Middleweight,” and Young Pooler, a Bangor boxer — had also joined the ranks. Pooler claimed he could lick anything in his weight class south of the Rio Grande.
Two days later, Bangor’s troops still were waiting to be called to Augusta. The downtown streets looked “like an armed camp” during the day. Bangor was getting a glimpse of military life unknown since the Spanish-American War, the Bangor Daily News noted.
On Tuesday, Mayor John Woodman paid visits to the two armories, where the troops were waiting. Praising the men for their financial sacrifice, he said, “Why there isn’t one member of the company who isn’t earning a great deal more than $15 a month — which is what the government allows us.”
On Wednesday night, the men got orders to get on the train and proceed to “the state camping grounds” — Camp Keyes — in Augusta the next morning, where they would be joining troops from Houlton, Eastport, Skowhegan, Dexter, Waterville, Farmington and other communities.
The story that appeared Thursday afternoon in the Bangor Daily Commercial after the soldiers boarded the train to Augusta described an emotionally charged farewell scene of epic proportions.
The headline said, 10,000 BID FAREWELL TO BANGOR’S GUARDSMEN: Stirring Scene as Throngs Watch Departure of 170 Soldiers Thursday Morning; WOMEN WEEP AND FAINT; News of First Battle with Mexicans Gives Added Seriousness to Occasion — Troops Cheerful and Eager to Defend Stars and Stripes.
That “first battle” referred to in the headline was the Battle of Carrizal in which a dozen American soldiers were killed, including two officers along with 45 Mexicans and their commanding general. Twenty-three Americans were captured. Expecting a confrontation with Pancho Villa, the Americans had found themselves facing the regular Mexican army and were repulsed. Some of the boys back in Bangor and their wives and girlfriends were sobered by the news.
Bangor had been stirred like this on only two previous occasions. They were in 1861, when the first troops left to defend the Union, and in 1898, when Company G “sprang to arms at the call of President McKinley.” This might be “a second Mexican War,” the reporter surmised based on news stories of “the first battle” between the Mexican and American cavalries south of the Rio Grande.
The marchers, accompanied by the University of Maine band, proceeded from Court Street through Central and Harlow streets (where the din of automobile horns joined in the uproar of cheers and band music) to Exchange Street to Union Station on their way to “the barren sands of Mexico.”
Then the weeping began. Women wept silently at the respective armories of the two military companies. By the time they got to the train depot “a general feeling of heaviness and sorrow permeated the entire station.” Nevertheless, when they entered the station, “a tremendous cheer and roar” went up from the thousands assembled.
Then the fainting started. “More than ten women and girls fainted at the depot,” the Bangor Daily Commercial reported. “Physicians and others quickly aided in resuscitating them and taking them to their homes.”
Many more who went down to the station out of curiosity — both men and women — were visibly overcome by their emotions as the boys boarded their trains.
That weekend the Bangor Daily Commercial ran this large front page headline: U.S. AND MEXICO ON VERGE OF WAR. But there was to be no war or even any battles for the boys from Bangor itching to fight.
The “second Mexican War” died predictably once the bitter rhetoric calmed down. American troops left Mexico having failed to track down Pancho Villa. The cross-border raids stopped. The United States did not need a war with Mexico as its relations were deteriorating with Germany, a much more dangerous threat.
The Bangor soldiers left Augusta for Laredo, Texas, on June 29. They were home in a few months without having gone into battle. The whole maneuver had been merely a rehearsal for the war in Europe to which Bangor soldiers would be sent next year.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era, is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at email@example.com