The History of Joliet – Chapter 32
By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)
Submitted by Nancy Vargo
The screaming convicts had set fire to five buildings and were attempting to ram a railroad freight car through the front gate.
By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News
A patriotic fever swept across Joliet on April 6, 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany and joined World War I. The local recruiting office was swamped with volunteers.
By the end of the month, more than 400 local men had enlisted. The following month, a national draft was started, and 9,737 men registered in Will County. More than half of them were from Joliet.
The county’s first draft quota was 705 soldiers, but because of the volunteers, only 219 had to be drafted into military service.
By this time, National Guard units were being moved into industrial areas to protect against potential threats of sabotage. The 131st Illinois Infantry Regiment camped in Dellwood Park, just north of the city.
On June 5, the regiment was adopted into the city’s heart when the soldiers stopped a riot at the Collins Street prison. The screaming convicts had set fire to five buildings and were attempting to ram a railroad freight car through the front gate.
With fixed bayonets, the soldiers forced the convicts into a corner of the prison yard.
After this, the regiment quickly grew with new volunteers from Joliet, Lockport and all the nearby communities. In late summer of 1917, the regiment marched off to the war, arriving in France the following spring.
This regiment of local men became part of the famed 33rd Division and fought at Verdun and the Argonne-Muese. On Sept. 26, 1918, a British newspaper correspondent watched the 131st Regiment attack a wooded hill near Verdun.
“I stood opposite this height on the morning of the drive and wondered how it would be possible for any troops to penetrate through the marshland below and up the wooded slopes …,” the correspondent wrote in the London Daily Mail.
“All the local defenses and all the barbed wire the Germans had placed in the woods could not stop the dashing Americans, and they swept the place clear, capturing guns, machine guns, material and prisoners as they went. … Such is the brief of one of the cleanest and most skillful operations, in which difficulties were overcome with a tenacity and energy typically American and in which the men fought with a spirit that astonished their foes. These Chicago, Joliet and Lockport boys maintained an already fine reputation, and gained even further distinction at an important point on the line.”
In this battle, the regiment lost 21 men, with another 155 wounded and gassed.
The regiment would go on fighting more battles and suffering high casualties. One by one, the families back home would receive notification of their loved one who had died on those distant French battlefields.
Meanwhile in Joliet, the iron and steel industry was busy turning out ingots and billets needed for the war effort. More than 4,200 workers kept the steel plants operating on Collins Street.
When the war ended, the soldiers came home and established American Legion Posts. They wouldn’t forget being over there.
There were hundreds of World War I veterans in Joliet then. The very last of them in Joliet was Carl EGGMAN, who died in 1998 at the age of 102.
EGGMAN was a young Indiana University student when he was drafted in 1917. With 30 days of training, he was sent to France. He had never fired his rifle. After arriving in France, he was given 15 bullets to learn to shoot his weapon.
He fought on several battlefields and was wounded on the last day of the war. A German bullet tore through the lower portion of his left arm, leaving behind a lifelong ugly scar.
As he walked back to a medical aid station seeking treatment, EGGMAN learned that the Armistice had been signed to end the war. He had lost several friends in that fight. EGGMAN remained angry all his life about being ordered into that battle.
In a 1997 interview with The Herald News, the then 102-year-old veteran, who was confined to a nursing home bed, was asked if he had come to any conclusions about war.
“There’s no glory in war, just a wonderful waste,” EGGMAN answered.
Asked to explain the comment about wonderful waste, he said, “By a wonderful waste, I mean the millions of dollars and natural resources thrown into war brings about new developments. Developments in medicine, science and technology that will make life easier for all. These things come about as a result of war.”
Published November 03, 2001