John Hunter Wickersham (he was called Hunter by his family and friends) was born in New York City on Feb. 3rd, 1890. He grew up in Denver, Colorado and is recognized today on the Colorado WW1 centennial webpage. But perhaps we can claim him as an honorary Kansan as well? Here’s why.
Wickersham attended the first Officer’s Training Camp held at Ft. Riley, Kansas in the summer of 1917. After his commissioning he was sent to Company H, 2nd Battalion, 353rd ‘All Kansas’ Infantry Regiment, 89th ‘Rolling W’ Division, which was being formed a short distance away at Camp Funston, Kansas.
After their arrival in France in June, 1918 hundreds of men from the 353rd were transferred to replace the losses of other units, but shortly before the St. Mihiel Offensive they gained replacements from the 86th Division, mostly draftees from Iowa and Nebraska. At the Armistice the 353rd was still 60% Kansans.
2nd Lieut. Wickersham is particularly remembered for two things. First, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions on Sept. 12th, 1918, at the start of the St. Mihiel Offensive. The 353rd had little prior combat experience, having only been exposed to desultory shelling during a brief stint at Saint-Blin on the Vosges Front in August, but they were placed in IV Corps along with the battle-tested 1st and 42nd ‘Rainbow’ Divisions. They were in the van of the attack on the southern side of the salient, under German artillery fire directed by observers on Mont Sec.
Wickersham’s Citation reads:
‘Advancing with his platoon during the St. Mihiel offensive he was severely wounded in four places by the bursting of a high-explosive shell. Before receiving any aid for himself he dressed the wounds of his orderly, who was wounded at the same time. He then ordered and accompanied the further advance of his platoon, although weakened by the loss of blood. His right hand and arm being disabled by wounds, he continued to fire his revolver with his left hand until, exhausted by loss of blood, he fell and died from his wounds before aid could be administered.’
The other thing that Wickersham is remembered for was a poem that he wrote in his last letter home. It was titled ‘The Raindrops on your Old Tin Hat’ and was first published on October 31st, 1918 in the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co.’s Industrial Bulletin, a house organ. The poem was contributed by Wickersham’s mother, Mary Damon, who was an employee. Mrs. Damon neglected to get a copyright so the poem subsequently appeared in many newspapers and poetry collections, especially including the Fawcett Publications’ pulp magazine Battle Stories. In those days Fawcett was particularly famous for its naughty Captain Billy’s Whizz Bang. During the 1970’s and 80’s the business was sold off in pieces, and the only legacy that exists today is the Captain Marvel series produced by DC Comics.
Wickersham isn’t known today as a great American poet, and I can’t find any other poems of his in print, but he grew up in a romantic age when poetry was taught to nearly everyone, and was a popular form of entertainment. Here it is:
Wickersham is buried in the St. Mihiel American Battle Monuments Commission Cemetery at Thiaucourt, France, Plot B, Row 19, Grave 12.
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