An attorney by trade, Major Charles Whittlesey later made his name as the uncompromising commander of the so-called “Lost Battalion,” an American unit that became stuck behind German lines. On October 2, 1918, the bookish and bespectacled Whittlesey led his men into hostile territory as part of a coordinated offensive in the Argonne Forest. But due to poor communication, his unit crossed the rough terrain too swiftly and was soon cut off and enveloped by German forces.
Whittlesey’s nearly 600-strong force dug in and established a makeshift defensive line. Despite being low on food, water and ammunition, they spent the next five days dodging sniper fire and repelling wave after wave of German attacks. At one point, their own troops began accidentally shelling their position, but Whittlesey launched a carrier pigeon and managed to stop the barrage of friendly fire. The Americans were later offered a chance to surrender, but Whittlesey held his ground and fought on against increasingly grim odds. Allied reinforcements finally arrived and forced the enemy to retreat on October 8. By then, only 194 of the Americans were still standing, among them Whittlesey, who was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his extreme bravery and coolness under fire. Sadly, Whittlesey remained haunted by the war for the rest of his life, and later committed suicide in 1921 by throwing himself off a ship as it sailed toward Cuba.