When Bangor’s National Guard units returned from the Mexican border after protecting the area from Pancho Villa’s troops and other border threats connected to the Mexican revolution a century ago, the Queen City of the East threw a big party.
ALL BANGOR BLAZED AND CHEERED WHEN JOHNNY CAME MARCHING HOME, the bold headline in the Bangor Daily News said on Oct. 26, 1916, more than three months after the boys had departed. The subhead continued, “Inspiring Spectacle in City Streets When Soldier Boys Arrived From the Rio Grande — Parade a Gallant Sight and Crowds the Greatest Ever Seen Here — Story of a Heartfelt Patriotic Welcome.”
The crowds began assembling early in the afternoon in Post Office Square (where City Hall is today) and nearby streets. They jammed Union Station as well, where the troops, which including companies from Houlton and Eastport, would be getting off the train.
Most of the stores and other buildings downtown and many residences on side streets were decorated with flags and patriotic bunting. Delays prevented the trains from leaving Augusta until 3 p.m. The tolling bell in City Hall marked the moment.
“Red fire and red lights and torches were burned as darkness came on, which with the powerful searchlights of hundreds of automobiles produced a spectacle of great brilliance,” the newspaper reported.
At 4:40 p.m., further clanging of the City Hall bell marked the arrival of the train in Newport. At 5:30 p.m., mill whistles along the river delivered the news that the train was rounding High Head on its way downtown.
Four bands and two drum corps along with 500 University of Maine cadets and many dignitaries joined the troops at Union Station, and the parade began. Participants included four goats and several dogs on leashes imported from Texas. Three burros had been left in Augusta.
The parade was the last chapter of the saga that began in June when Bangor’s Company G and the Machine Gun Company, as well as the University of Maine marching band, which had been incorporated into the expedition, left for the front (along with National Guard units from across Maine and many other states). The events of the trip as seen through the eyes of soldiers were well documented in Bangor newspapers thanks to the publication of dozens of letters home.
The trip to Laredo, Texas, was unpleasant enough in the overcrowded train, but the arrival outside Laredo was truly a shock to Sgt. Arthur L. Thayer of the Machine Gun Company.
“When we landed here a week ago … it certainly was a discouraging looking place and if ever a man had good excuse for being homesick, men in the company had that morning … One can hardly imagine the feelings of the men when we were marched about a mile [from the train] and halted in the middle of a hot, dry, dusty, alkaline onion field on which no rain had fallen for more than 10 months. Tall weeds were growing in straggling patches but for the most part the field was one whitish-brown dust bed,” Thayer said in a letter published in the Bangor Daily Commercial on July 21.
“Tents were soon pitched … To make matters worse gusts of winds and whirlwinds kept the air full of the dust most of the time so it was hard to breathe … Towards noon the heat became intense … After the tents were up the men sought shelter from the heat … but they soon found that the tents afforded little comfort for the air inside soon became stifling and every gust of wind would fill the tent with dust so thick it was better to be outside … A man eats dust, drinks dust and sleeps on dust here.”
Bad food and voracious swarms of flies received their due in the epistolary reports of Thayer and others. But it was the heat — well over 100 degrees most days — that nearly killed a few.
Thayer wrote: “Once in awhile a man would drop in a heap and there would be a hurry call for the medical corps and the man would be carried off to recover under the care of doctors. It was a new experience for many of us to see a man fall like a stick of wood, prostrate from heat and to be carried off unconscious … At some of the drills as many as three or four men would drop at a time during the first week.”
With extensive drilling and war maneuvers, breaks for baseball games, swimming in the Rio Grande, where they were cautioned to be careful of quicksand and Mexican snipers, and short visits to town to buy tobacco and other necessities, the troops got used to the monotony of camp life.
Something was missing though. Where was the excitement of war they had been expecting? Rumors of Mexican raids abounded, but they always seemed to occur somewhere else. This was a disappointment for boys who just wanted a chance to shoot at a Mexican as they might shoot at a deer in the Maine woods.
Gradually, contingents of troops were sent out to small coal-mining towns like Dolores and Santo Tomas where they stood guard duty at night. Gun running and other illegal smuggling seemed to be the main target of these forays, although law enforcement activities were left mainly to the local sheriff or the Texas Rangers.
Despite their boredom and frustration, the boys from Maine were having an important impact on events, Maj. Mayo explained in a lecture reported by Cpl. A. H. Thompson of Company G in a letter published in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Aug. 29. Serious trouble along the border had been averted by the presence of the National Guard troops, Mayo said.
“One plan of the Mexican force was to cross the border just above Laredo and to take possession of the railroad which would prevent troops being centered at that point, the gateway to Mexico City. The regular troops would have been exterminated with comparative ease if such a move had been carried out,” the major explained. The purpose of the trip to the border was to participate not only in war maneuvers, but in “real action,” which was averted “only by our appearance here.”
The Bangor Daily News also addressed the issue of “discontented guardsmen” in an editorial on Aug. 3. The result of all the discomfort and boredom was that “raw militiamen are being transformed into real soldiers and the United States is developing an army which may soon be worthy of the name.” The editorial writer seemed to sense that in a year or two many of these same men would play an important role in the European war that continued to rage without an apparent end in sight.
The Bangor Daily Commercial celebrated the return of the seasoned soldiers in an editorial on Oct. 25, the day before the train pulled into Union Station. “Not a life has been lost among the Bangor soldiers while in the entire Maine regiment there has been but two deaths, one by drowning and the other said to have been an accidental shooting in camp … and no deaths from disease. It is a splendid record.”
“We have had no war with Mexico because of the wise, judicious, patient handling of the extremely serious situation by the mastermind in the White House,” the Democratic newspaper said. The Mexicans had been “overawed.”
A great banquet was scheduled at City Hall the week after the arrival of the troops. Even the men who had failed to pass their physical exams or been rejected from going for some other reasons would be included in the festivities. No more checks would be sent to the dependents of the soldiers who would be returning to their old jobs “in most cases at once.”
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