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Our Rich History: World War I heats up for Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, with hopes for a quick end

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By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

On October 21, 1917, World War I heated up for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). On that day, the First Division of the AEF fired the first American shell at the war front in Europe.

Meanwhile, one week prior — on October 15th — the 42nd AEF, dubbed the “Rainbow Division” because it was composed of National Guard units from every state, steamed from Hempstead, Long Island to France. The division included about 200 Ohioans, including more than 150 men from Cincinnati.

Cincinnati Post headline of November 30, 1917, displaying some of the Cincinnatians serving in the Rainbow Division.

The Cincinnati Post of November 30th, along with newspapers nationwide, formally announced that the Rainbow Division actually arrived in France about three weeks prior. For obvious security reasons, the American Field Headquarters in France released war information very cautiously, as circumstances allowed.

The Cincinnati Post of November 30th also revealed that Cincinnatian William McGinn was serving as an aviator in the war, probably in the front lines with General Pershing’s army. Further, an engineering unit, largely recruited by “Til Huston of Cincinnati and New York,” included the former secretary of the Cincinnati Housing Commission, E. P. Bradstreet, and two residents from Newport, Kentucky, Sam Geary and Charles H. Fogle.

On December 1st, the Cincinnati Post confirmed that the 330th Regiment, composed of Cincinnati men, was training at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio. Meanwhile, the 408th Motor Supply Train Battalion of Cincinnati was getting ready to leave Camp Sherman for France. When they arrived there, the men of the 408th stated that they wanted to sing “Goodbye Vine Street, Hello France.” Generally, the soldiers of the 408th were upbeat, asking the reporter to write that “they were glad to go; that Cincinnati will have cause to be proud of them; that for Christmas presents they would like to have guidebooks that will show them the way about Berlin.”

In the Cincinnati Post of December 1, 1917, an artist depicted Cincinnati men anticipating their departure from Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, bound for service in France.

The US Navy was making certain that the American forces arrived safely across the Atlantic in their transport ships to Europe. For example, Cincinnati sailor Harry Breckel “helped save the lives of hundreds of passengers and sailors of torpedoed vessels,” including those aboard the Antilles. His ship also saved “39 French fishermen” and their two dogs, one of which was a puppy that the sailors purchased from the French and named “S.O.S.”

Back home, in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, citizens continued to raise funds for the war effort, as well as to knit sweaters, write letters, and prepare packages for the soldiers. The City of Cincinnati, meanwhile, was busy cleaning up its “vice district,” lying mainly along Longworth, George, and West Sixth Streets. The instructions to shut down the district, including as many as 700 prostitutes, came directly from Washington., D.C. Federal law prohibited such activities within five miles of a military installation. In this case, Fort Thomas Military Installation in Northern Kentucky fell within the five-mile limits. Also, Cincinnati police were actively enforcing federal regulations that prohibited people from buying alcoholic beverages for military personnel.

Overall, Cincinnatians seemed hopeful that the massive infusion of American military forces would bring a quick end to the war. Little did they realize that nearly a year longer — a year of heavy fighting and casualties — still lay ahead before an armistice would be reached. Sadly, the 408th would not receive Berlin guidebooks for Christmas 1917.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History at NKU.

Cincinnati sailor Harry Breckel was celebrated in this page-one story of the Cincinnati Post of December 5, 1917.

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