MAINE TROOPS OFF FOR TEXAS, the Bangor Daily News announced June 29, 1916. The Second Maine Infantry of the National Guard with 1,100 officers and men had left Augusta that night for Laredo, where they were supposed to protect the border from Mexican revolutionaries along with thousands of other guardsmen mobilized by President Woodrow Wilson.
Perhaps there would be a war, some thought, but tensions cooled off quickly. At the very least, the expedition would be a geography lesson for hundreds of Maine boys who had never traveled far beyond the borders of their hometowns. It would definitely help prepare them for The Great War raging in Europe, where many would be shipped the following year.
The Bangor boys consisted of Company G and the Machine Gun Company. Wearing sprigs of pine needles in their caps, they sought to make an impression.
One of the boys had artistic aspirations. He had scrawled the name of the company and its destination across the side of their railroad cars along with a paraphrase of a line from a Civil War tune: “We’ll hang old [Mexican President] Carranza to a sour apple tree, etc.”
“I will tell you right here that we are placing Bangor on the map,” Cpl. A.H. Thompson wrote in one of many reports to the Bangor Daily Commercial during the expedition. The boys chanted the letters B-A-N-G-O-R in unison at every train stop, making it clear to the world who they were.
Crowds gathered to cheer them on at many railroad stations from Maine to Texas. At Portland, they were given boxed lunches, fruit and cigars as well as small silk flags. Fireworks were detonated at Biddeford.
Large factories all along the Mohawk Valley in New York had suspended operations, and crowds of workers cheered from windows and rooftops.
Just outside Utica, New York, local humorists had hung a stuffed likeness of Carranza from an apple tree. When they saw it, the boys on the train broke into the famous song that had originally featured Jeff Davis.
They were ordered out at some whistle stops for exercise and a swim, if a pond was nearby, because there were no showers on the train.
At Celina, Ohio, some of them played baseball instead of going swimming. A good ballpark was a reassuring sign they had not left civilization yet.
Hundreds of people were on hand to greet them at places such as Tipton, Indiana. While the soldiers socialized and received gifts of tobacco and writing paper, their cars were “disinfected.”
Young ladies appeared at many of these whistle stops, handing out roses to the men with notes attached asking for letters when they got to Texas.
At Fort Madison, Iowa, they went swimming in the Mississippi River. One unfortunate soldier from Waterville may have broken his neck diving off an old boathouse, Cpl. Thompson related to the Bangor Daily Commercial.
So far, the boys remained remarkably healthy unlike the situation during the Spanish-American War, when thousands of volunteers “were knocked out by embalmed beef, typhoid fever, yellow fever and malaria,” an editorial in the Bangor Daily News commented. Medical progress plus a healthier climate were the causes, the newspaper noted.
Life on the trains had its highpoints. There was plenty of joking and singing and cheering (even led by cheerleaders). Some men began growing mustaches. Young Pooler, a Bangor boxer, practiced his pugilistic skills in the aisle, challenging all comers to remove the American flag tucked in his belt.
But life on the train quickly became an ordeal. The men had been assigned to a train with primitive “day coaches.” Three men were forced to sit and sleep in uncomfortable seats meant for two. They had expected a “tourist train,” which offered amenities such as Pullman cars, dining facilities, fresh drinking water and the services of “colored porters.”
A switch to tourist trains was supposed to occur at Buffalo, but the cramped conditions continued on into the Midwest. The correspondents to the Bangor newspapers began to complain.
The Bangor Daily Commercial published a letter from Arthur L. Thayer of Bangor, a private in the Machine Gun Company, outlining the poor conditions encountered as far as Indiana. The government had made “inexcusable mistakes,” he said.
“Low [seat] backs, kerosene lights, small poorly equipped toilets in each car, and not one modern convenience of any name or nature — into that kind of a car they packed men until there were three men in each two seats. That space was to be the home of those three men for the next five days on a journey from the cool northern atmosphere into the sunny south at the hottest time of year,” Thayer wrote.
The food was packed into two baggage cars without any provision for cooking for more than 400 men, “except one old-fashioned type of oil stove” in one of the cars.
“No water to wash with or to drink or to cook with except what is carried in a new garbage can placed in each car into which chunks of ice are placed from time to time,” Thayer continued. “From the garbage can the men get their water to drink and to wash and to cook, what little cooking is done.”
Similar complaints about crowding and inadequate rations rumbled up to the surface in the Portland newspapers as well. The state adjutant general’s office denied them all.
Things got better, however, on July 2 in Kansas City, Missouri, when the switch to tourist cars was accomplished. “The boys are delighted over the change and wish that Texas was not so near,” Cpl. Thompson wrote in a letter published in the Bangor Daily Commercial a few days later.
A festive mood pervaded the train after a stop in Newkirk, Oklahoma. The boys were able to buy matches, tobacco, stamps and writing paper. A “first-class ball park” was discovered at another small town, indicating they were still within the boundaries of civilization despite the barren-looking countryside.
The boys hadn’t lost their sense of humor. Pvt. Souci, who worked for the Eastern Manufacturing Co. in South Brewer (where paper was made) manufactured paper hats for everybody out of old newspapers as if they were preparing for a Labor Day parade.
The train crossed the Red River into Texas. The landscape — the cacti and mesquite, the cattle herds, the miles of cotton fields, the distant vistas, the flatness — impressed the Mainers greatly just as they had been impressed by the big farms in Ohio and MIssouri and by the urban sights in Cleveland.
They passed through Fort Worth and began celebrating the Fourth of July a day early at Cleburne, singing songs, cheering and setting off fireworks for an hour while the water tanks were filled.
The first rumors of possible danger also were heard about this time. Supposedly, an effort had been made to blow up or derail the troop train in front of them, and “the Maine boys hanged three Mexicans.” This turned out to be untrue. The story was about an Ohio detachment that had come through a week earlier.
The next day, July 4, they passed through Taylor, where they paused long enough to talk to some Texas Rangers and the first “full-fledged Mexican” they had identified.
They rolled into San Antonio at 2 p.m. The temperature had climbed to 102 degrees. They marched to the Alamo and back and three men collapsed from the heat, according to Cpl. Thompson.
They expected to arrive in Laredo at 10 p.m. “The excitement is intense as we get closer to the border,” Cpl. Thompson wrote. Detectives and soldiers were now guarding the bridges. One bridge they passed over had been blown up and replaced.
The Maine boys were raring to go and to meet whatever challenges lay ahead. They already had a reputation to uphold.
“We are always termed by the southern cities and towns as the crack Maine regiment and we have not seen anything yet that we have to take a backseat for,” Cpl. Thompson wrote.
Whether that patriotic assessment was justified is hard to tell. So far, the only “real catastrophe” on the trip, he joked, was that one of the soldiers had lost his only pair of trousers out an open train window. They wouldn’t stop the train so someone could go back and get them. The poor fellow was wrapped up in a blanket until other pants could be obtained.
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