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Honoring Claremont’s own Charles Keith Powell

by Chuck Farritor, historian, WWII veteran

[Publisher’s note: Longtime Claremonter Chuck Farritor originally wrote about Private Powell for the Claremont Veteran’s Day celebration earlier this month. It marked the 100-year anniversary since Pvt. Powell’s death in WWI. In honor of the men and women who served our country, here is a segment of his story. —PW]

 

In 1918, World War I raged into its fourth year. The Allied Powers were reeling before the power of the Hun. Young Americans were being told it was up to them to stop the Germans. It was up to them to win the war that would end all wars.

One of those young Americans, a lad named Charles Keith Powell, answered his country’s call. After graduating from Claremont High School at 17 years old, he followed his two older brothers, Myron and Warren, into the war. Because of this, his parents placed a small flag with three blue stars in their home window on College Avenue.

It wasn’t long before Private Powell mailed a postcard to his mother saying he had arrived safely in France, having somehow escaped the deadly German warships on the Atlantic. His outfit became the American Third Division, 38th Regiment, Company G.

In the forested hill country of northern France, dark green hills flank the Marne River. It was 100 years ago when Claremont’s Private Powell fought in the second battle of the Marne.

In American General John J. Pershing’s report on the battle, we read that in early July 1918 the German Kaiser announced to the world he would have dinner in Paris on August 17. The point of his attack would be the same as the one he used to try and capture Paris in 1914. The French Army was able to stop the Germans back then.

But in 1918, the situation seemed different. German spies told the Kaiser the French Army was kaput and was replaced by a young poorly trained US Army. American General John J. Pershing reported further on the battle.

“A single Regiment of the American Third Division, the 38th, wrote one of the most brilliant pages in our military annals. On July 15, 1918, two German Divisions battled their way across the Marne River and were stopped cold by the American 38th infantry at a railway embankment. The young men of the 38th, firing their Springfield bolt-action rifles in three directions as German troops tried to envelop them on that embankment. There, they managed to put an end to the second grand German plan for capturing Paris.”

The German spies were wrong in their assessment of the young American Army. These men were aware the full weight of the German war machine was coming down upon them. But it seemed not to matter.

The intense battle lasted for three days. At the very beginning the commander of the 38th, Colonel Ulysses S. Grant McAlexander had his men dug in, elbow to elbow at the north edge of the railway embankment. They were 10 feet above the field in front of them. His sharp shooters had special instructions to kill grenade throwers in the act of rising from their trench to throw the grenade. He also had put out a plea for all American artillery units available to come to this action. He placed the guns behind him south of the railway embankment. Those guns firing only high explosive shells, not gas shells, over the heads of the 38th regiment helped to make a killing field of the land south of the Marne that the German divisions were now occupying.

In nine days of fighting, the 38th took prisoners from nine different German regiments. These remarkable actions prompted a letter of commendation to the 38th from the U.S. War Department.

The grateful people of France, recognizing their debt to the American 38th for their having saved Paris, rewarded the American 38th Infantry Regiment with a high honor. The 38th’s Regimental flag was to be decorated with the French Croix de Guerre, a most singular distinction.

In the fight crossing the Vesle River, 20 miles north of the Marne on August 7, 1918, Private Powell was killed in action. He was in the bow of a boat, firing his rifle when a bullet struck him in the forehead, killing him instantly. When his hands released his rifle, it fell and quietly slid into that deep river. The incredible skill and bravery shown by this young citizen of Claremont, along with his comrades in the 38th, proved to be a contributing factor in Germany’s decision on November 11, 1918 to request an armistice.

Private Powell’s company, Company ‘G’, had 261 men on July 15. When Company ‘G’ marched into Germany on December 17, 1918, after the armistice, replacements had again brought the count in their company up to 261 men again.

As they marched in a peaceful German village, one of Private Powell’s 17-year-old comrades was heard to say,  “It’s damn hard getting used to the idea that there are only 56 of us original old guys left still marching.”

When the veterans of the American Army came home from France, the group from Claremont, created a post for the new American Legion.  In recognition of Charles Keith Powell’s service and death, they named the post for the brave young Claremonter. 

His mom changed the flag that was in her window on College Avenue to a flag with two blue stars and one gold star. The International Order of Gold Star Mothers (AGSM) sent her a gold star mounted on a beautiful small piece of faux marble. She wore it proudly.

A year later, she received a letter from the AGSM to come to Paris to receive a gift. The widowed Mrs. Powell took her sister on that scary trip halfway around the world to France. The gift waiting for them was a wall hanging featuring the mythological Goddess of Liberty and Mrs. Powell’s son.

Columbia the Goddess of Liberty is featured seeing to the needs of a dead young American soldier—as she does for all American soldiers who gave their lives.

We know that Private Powell dropped his rifle into the river the moment of his death. In the image, the Goddess of Liberty gives him a new one. He is proudly holding the new rifle in the painting.

Our obligation to the fallen ones is simple. We must forever show them respect and love. We must be forever thankful that they, those brave young men, and in today’s wars, young women, were sent to fight for freedom.

All Claremonters, and especially the American Legionnaires of Post 78, are eternally in debt to this courageous young man, Charles Keith Powell.