Time Machine: Cedar Rapids Guard unit served on border, in World War I

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Six veterans from Iowa’s Company D, 1st Iowa Infantry, were still alive and able to attend the 50th anniversary of the Iowa National Guard unit on March 28, 1964.

The company was formed in 1914 as Company H of the 53rd National Guard Iowa Infantry Regiment. It became Company D when the Iowa National Guard reorganized a year later.

Judge C.B. Robbins of Cedar Rapids was captain of the 65-member company of young men, mostly from the Cedar Rapids area. Some of them were students at Coe College; many were 17 or 18 years old.

The 1st Regiment’s Iowa National Guardsmen encamped at Manville Heights on the west bank of the Iowa River, near City Park and the University of Iowa in Iowa City, in August 1915.

Company D, under the command of Robbins, 1st Lt. Walter A. Meyer and 2nd Lt. Fred Donovan, was joined by Company C, also of Cedar Rapids, and the 1st Regiment Band made up of Cedar Rapids musicians under the direction of Jacob Schmidt.

When they weren’t attending military lectures or drilling on the field, the khaki-clad soldiers were doing calisthenics or learning how to handle rifles and pitch tents.

The unit came under federal jurisdiction in June 1916 when Mexico declared war on the United States after the U.S. retaliated for a raid on Columbus, N.M., by Mexican insurgent Pancho Villa.

In order to reach the military-strength requirement of 150 soldiers per unit, Robbins began an intense recruitment effort at the Cedar Rapids armory. When Companies C and D boarded trains for Camp Dodge in Des Moines on June 24, 1916, Company C had 18 new recruits and Company D had 11. In addition, each company had acquired a dog as a mascot.

Their next stop was on the Mexican border near Brownsville, Texas.

During their six-month tour of duty, the company endured tropical storms and some of the men became ill, but the soldiers saw no combat.

Robbins was promoted to brigadier adjutant with the rank of major. He moved to the headquarters of Brig. Gen. H.A. Allen at Brownsville. Meyer was promoted to captain of Company D.

The company was sent home on Jan. 15, 1917.

SABULA & WWI

In March 1917, just before the United States entered World War I, the soldiers were called to active duty. The men of Company D were assigned to guard the 1906 bridge over the Mississippi River at Sabula, a main crossing for the Milwaukee Railroad.

The tents at Camp Robbins, named after the unit’s first leader, each had a stove with coal furnished by the railroad and were neatly organized along a gravel road built by the soldiers.

The people of Sabula treated the soldiers as guests, often providing them with treats for dinner. In turn, the soldiers were part of area patriotic celebrations.

On Sunday, May 20, The Gazette’s editor, Verne Marshall, delivered an address attended by Sabula residents and the soldiers.

Three months later, all of Sabula turned out to say farewell when Company D was ordered to Camp Dodge in Des Moines. There, about half the men were assigned to the 3rd Regiment, part of the famed Rainbow Division. They underwent intensive training until they boarded trains for Long Island, N.Y., to be shipped overseas.

The rest of the soldiers were assigned to Camp Cody, a training camp in Deming, N.M., where they were selected for the replacement draft and deployed for duty overseas, mostly to France.

More than 500 men served with Company D through 1918.

World War I ended on the eleventh hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — Nov. 11, 1918, the day we now celebrate as Veterans Day, a day to honor all military veterans.

REUNIONS

Robbins, who assisted in getting Cedar Rapids’ Hanford Post of the American Legion started, is also credited with starting Company D’s Last Man’s Club after the war. When he died on July 5, 1943, the members gathered the next day at the Veterans Club, 709 Second Ave. SE, to plan their participation in his memorial.

Of the club’s two annual meetings, one was usually a summer picnic.

In March 1953, the club members observed the 36th anniversary of their call to federal service at Sabula with a meeting at the Sixteenth Avenue Commercial Club, 62½ 16th Ave. SW.

Ed Kalous’ farm near Solon was the site of the picnic in July 1961.

last man’s club

Only 11 of the original 65 members of the company were known to still be alive in 1964, the 50th anniversary of the unit’s founding. Six of them attended the anniversary dinner at the Sokol clubrooms along with veterans who had joined the unit after its service on the Mexican border.

At the center of the table was a bottle of wine, meant to be shared by the last two survivors of the Last Man’s Club of Company D. A label, taped to the bottle, said, “Vaya con dios (go with God).”

By 1984, only four veterans of the company remained: Fred Anthony, Royal Tuttle, John Zalesky Jr. and Wesley Ward.

The last man standing would be of Wesley Ward. A colorful character, Ward told The Gazette he was orphaned at age 11 and became a squatter on May’s Island, living first in a lean-to made from scavenged boards, then in a tent purchased with money he made from selling fish he caught in the Cedar River. He then became a bootlegger. After his Army service, he worked at the Douglas Starch Works, at a carnival, at Cedar Rapids Block Co. and at Barnard & Leas Manufacturing. He retired from Allis-Chalmers.

Ward died in 1993 at age 96 — 79 years after Company D’s founding.

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