Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
An Injured War Veteran From Douds
The men were intrigued with the stories that circulated around camp. Legendary Joan of Arc was born in the hills surrounding them, and stories of her mission seemed to inspire them. They were behind the lines--close enough that they could hear artillery shells in the distance.
Iowa National Guard units joined those from other states and formed a division under Major Douglas MacArthur, who said that it “stretched over the country like a rainbow,” and the phrase caught on and became the 42nd division’s nickname.
It was November, 1917. Among the excited Iowa farm boys was a blue-eyed 25-year-old from the Douds community. In August, Leo W. Hissem, had enlisted in Keosauqua along with his cousin Weldon.
After much marching and target practice, the 42nd Rainbow Division was ordered to march to Chaumont in the Rolampart area, in December. They were to begin the march on the day after Christmas, but the area was blanketed with heavy, knee-deep snow, and the temperature dropped below zero. Still, the march began on schedule, with the wind whipping the snow into a white-out blizzard. General Washington’s men at Valley Forge had nothing on these men.
The Rainbow went through intense, demanding training in all aspects of trench warfare during the next six weeks, then took the train to Lorraine, to the front lines, where they experienced direct contact with the German forces. The area had been quiet until the 42nd arrived, but they began bombarding the Germans who responded with brutal retaliation.
In the dark, wee hours of March 3, they were attacked by German bombardment shortly after midnight. After six hours of shelling, the infantry attacked at dawn. Along with the 168th, they held their ground and the Germans couldn’t penetrate, even when the Germans included mustard gas in their attack. The 42nd took over Lorraine and the Baccarat Sector, and as they did, a rainbow appeared over the skies--to them, a sign of good luck.
German activity lessened by mid-April, and the 42nd began reconnaissance missions to observe the Germans and acquire intelligence. When the Americans led day raids, the Germans responded by nightly retaliation. By June, activity was infrequent, and the 42nd was sent to a bare, drab, desolate front where only a few poppy fields provided color.
The Germans planned an attack on July 14th, but the Americans and French surprised them by attacking first. For awhile the Germans defended, but suffered a huge defeat, and began retreat. It cost them dearly, but the 42nd recorded one of the greatest offensives of the war.
With torn, tattered uniforms, the 42nd withdrew from the front lines to the Marne, then moved north and attacked the Germans on September 11 with a four-hour bombardment. By the 14th, they occupied that area and advanced toward the retreating German Army. For 2 weeks it rained, but they took over the city of Exermont with little resistance, and continued chasing the Germans until the Armistice was signed. Then, the 42nd became part of the Army of Occupation of the Rhine. In a commendation issued to the 42nd, they were recognized for their dedicated, devoted service and each man was given hope that he might find a storied pot of gold at the end of his rainbow.
Leo did not take part in the occupation, because he had been gassed during one of the raids, lost a lung, and had a wound in his side that was left open to drain for the rest of his life. Later, he lost an eye as a result of his war injuries. He was discharged in May, 1919 and returned home to Iowa, where he married in 1920 and raised a family.
Leo did not find much gold at the end of his rainbow. He suffered through his many injuries, and as all who served in the war could tell you, life on the farm was never quite the same.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick