John Henry “Gatling Gun” Parker had earned his moniker by providing the covering fire for Teddy Roosevelt’s immortal assault on San Juan Hill. Nearly 20 years later his 6 feet, 3 inch frame made him an easy target while charging at the head of his command, the 362nd U.S. Infantry. As the heroic Parker went down with a wound, behind him came the cries “Powder River!” “Powder River!” Colonel Parker’s regiment, made up nearly entirely of men from Montana and known as the “Powder River Gang,” emerged from World War I as one of the most remarkable military units of that great conflict.
The gallant charge of the 362nd occurred 95 years ago in the village of Gesnes, France, where a formidable concrete monument honoring the Montanans still stands. Its bold bronze plaque pays tribute to the “Powder River Gang” as the first regiment to gain its objective in the bloody Meuse-Argone sector on Sept. 29, 1918.
Sadly, however, and not untypical of the often enigmatic nature of war, the story is more complex.
According to records compiled by military historian Chester Shore on file at the Montana Historical Society in Helena, “With shouts of ‘Powder River’ they raced forward in thinning numbers through the storm of bullets, shrapnel, high explosives and gas shells, like wild men. In an incredibly short time the distance to the town was covered. The rapidity of the advance, and the utter recklessness of the charge seemed to send fear into the hearts of the Huns. They fled back over the hill, leaving their wounded behind. Gesnes was taken and the advance pushed to the crest of Hill 255, one kilometer northwest of the town. This was the army objective, and was reached at 5:30 p.m.
“Darkness was fast approaching and the regiment proceeded to prepare positions against a possible counterattack. But soon after nightfall the order came for the regiment’s withdrawal, directing that it retire to the same line which it held before the attack.
“No one can describe the feelings of the men when they received the order. The ground which they had taken at such terrible cost was to be given up and the blood of their comrades had been shed in vain.”
Though Colonel Parker became a general, the records show that the 362nd lost 1,147 men out of about 3,000 that day. One company had 18 men left out of 175.
How could this happen? It happened because the units on either side of the 362nd failed to advance. Through a miscommunication they had not received the order to attack. So the 362nd stood alone with flanks exposed. Things looked bad on the map. Rather than exploit the unlikely victory, the high command surrendered it.
While the sad saga of the “Powder River Gang” is perhaps the most poignant of all Montana war stories, it was emblematic of our state’s fighting spirit. According to Joseph Kinsey Howard in his book Montana High, Wide and Handsome, “In World War I more Montana boys marched away, in proportion to population, than any other state, and more than any other state, proportionately, would never march anywhere again.”
Showing a contrasting kind of courage, ironically it was another Montanan, Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, who voted against the 1917 declaration of war. Whether she was right or wrong, whether soldier’s lives are laid down in vain or in triumph, whether war is mindless or justified, it is right on Veterans Day to honor all those who have stepped forward when called and made the ultimate sacrifice. May they rest in peace; may we live in peace.
(Bob Brown is a former Montana secretary of state and state Senate president.)