A small-town Wisconsin banker emerged as an unlikely hero in the largest battle in American history. But 100 years ago this fall, Cpl. Jerry J. Jerabek, a Wisconsin National Guardsman from Algoma, did just that during the Meuse-Argonne campaign — the final battle of World War I.
After graduating high school in 1912, Jerabek started working his way up the ladder at Algoma’s Community State Bank. His draft registration card shows that by June 1917 he had already volunteered for military service with Sturgeon Bay’s Company F, 5th Infantry Regiment of the Wisconsin National Guard.
Jerebek and 15,000 other Wisconsin National Guardsmen joined 8,000 from the Michigan National Guard in September 1917 at Camp MacArthur, Texas. There, these men trained together as the 32nd Division — one of 17 National Guard divisions that more than doubled the size of the Regular Army.
The 32nd Division entered combat in the trenches at Alsace in May 1918 — the first American troops to fight on German soil. In July, the division — as part of the Allied counterattack during the Second Battle of the Marne — advanced 19 kilometers before capturing the city of Fismes on the Vesle River.
A month later, the 32nd joined the French 10th Army for the Oise-Aisne campaign. In a sharp four-day battle, the division seized the strategically important village of Juvigny and the surrounding ridgeline. Loss of this strategically important high ground forced the Germans to abandon miles of its main defensive line along the Vesle River.
The next battle for Jerabek and the 32nd Divison was the Meuse-Argonne, the
American portion of a massive Allied offensive designed to end the war. Gen. John Pershing’s objective was the vital German railroad hub at Sedan. Once taken, the Germans would lose their ability to supply nearly all of their forces on the Western Front. The Germans recognized Sedan’s strategic importance and had built formidable defensive positions along this portion of the Hindenburg Line. Pershing’s offensive began on Sept. 26 with the 32nd Division as the V Corps reserve. It relieved Ohio’s 37th Division on Sept. 29 and commenced a drive towards the Kriemhilde Stellung, one of the strongest points of the Hindenburg Line.
It was evening on Oct. 13 and the 32nd Division was in the third week of its relentless attack. Capt. John McCullum, commander of Company A, 121st Machine Gun Battalion, delivered his mission brief and pointed on a map to a small hill marked “255.” The hill was a divisional boundary between the 32nd Division on the right and the 42nd Division on the left. McCullum ordered Jerabek and his team to emplace their Mle 1914 Hotchkiss machine gun on that hill and defend the division’s left flank while it assaulted the Kriemhilde Stellung.
The next morning was cold and drizzly; sporadic small arms fire was heard up and down the line. Jerabek and his two assistant gunners cautiously picked their way forward with their 53-pound machine gun and thousands of rounds of ammunition. They set up a firing position on Hill 255 about 500 meters ahead of the American position held by the 32nd Division’s 127th Infantry Regiment.
Over the next four hours, Jerabek’s team expended 7,000 rounds of ammunition and captured 22 enemy soldiers as they provided cover for the advance of the 64th Infantry Brigade. The brigade and the rest of the 32nd Division assaulted the powerful German defensive line built into the towering ridge west of the small village of Romagne and the present-day Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.
At 11 a.m., the 32nd Division broke through the Kriemhilde Stellung, pressing the attack against the retreating German forces. The 32nd was the first American unit to break through the line, an important step in the American Expeditionary Force’s drive towards Sedan and a decisive victory in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
Word of the 32nd breaking through the Hindenburg Line spread to the highest echelons of the AEF and beyond.
“By George, your men have hit it hard! Will you thank the Division for me?” former president Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Maj. Gen. William Haan, the 32nd Division’s commander.
“Unstinting praise must be awarded to the men of the Division,” Pershing wrote in a commendatory order for the division.
A few days after the Nov. 11 armistice, Haan ordered a new insignia for the 32nd that would replace its rather generic circle surrounding the number 32. The new insignia powerfully symbolized the division’s decisive drive that pieced the Kriemhilde Stellung.
“The symbol of this Division is a red crossed arrow,” stated the divisional general order.
Promoted to sergeant, Jerabek returned to Algoma after the war and resumed his job at the bank. A year later, he received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on that drizzly morning on Hill 255. In later years, Jerabek served his city as a postmaster, city alderman and the first commander of Algoma’s newly-formed American Legion post. Jerabek’s story is similar to that of tens of thousands of National Guard Citizen-Soldiers from World War I to today — active members of their community willing to set their personal lives aside to serve their state and nation as modern-day Minutemen.