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Ralph Yerks was the third and youngest son of George Oakley Yerks and Annie Cutler. According to his draft registration card filed on June 5, 1917, Ralph was single, living in Rye and was working as a plumbers helper. His two brothers, Leroy (later known as James Leroy) and William Benjamin also registered for the draft on June 5, 1917. The oldest son, William Benjamin Yerks was a single Teamster and also lived in Rye with his mother and father. Leroy Yerks had married Kathryn Regan of Goldens Bridge in the summer of 1911. The year he registered for the draft, he and his family (wife and two boys) were living in Somers and had requested an exception for his “Family” status.
On June 6, 1917, Ralph Yerks was enlisted and reported to Fort Slocum in New York City. Fort Slocum, was a US military base occupying Davids’ Island and Hart Island at the western end of Long Island Sound. There he was assigned to Company K of the 9th Infantry Regiment. Once overseas, the 9th Infantry joined the 2nd Infantry Division.
In World War I, The 2nd Infantry Division was first constituted on 21 September 1917. It was organized on 26 October 1917 at Bourmont, Haute Marne, France. At the time of its activation, the Indianhead Division was composed of the 3rd Infantry Brigade, which included the 9th Infantry Regiment (which Ralph Yerks was a part of) and the 23rd Infantry Regiment; the 4th Marine Brigade, which consisted of the 5th Marine Regiment, the 6th Marine Regiment and the the 6th Machine Gun Battalion; a battalion of field artillery; and various supporting units. Twice during World War I the division was commanded by US Marine Corps generals, Brigadier General Charles A. Doyen and Major General John A. Lejeune, the only time in U.S. Military history when Marine Corps officers commanded an Army division.
After arriving in France, Ralph and the rest of division spent the winter of 1917–1918 training with French Army veterans. Though judged unprepared by French tacticians, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was committed to combat in the spring of 1918 in a desperate attempt to halt a German advance toward Paris. The 2nd Infantry Division drew its first blood in the nightmare landscape of the Battle of Belleau Wood and contributed to shattering the four-year-old stalemate on the battlefield during the Château-Thierry campaign that followed.
On September 12, US General John J. Pershing, the AEF, including the 2nd Infantry Division, and 48,000 French troops marched on Saint-Mihiel. The Battle of Saint-Mihiel was fought between September 12–15, 1918. The battle marked the first use of the terms ‘D-Day’ and ‘H-Hour’ by the Americans.
The attack at the St. Mihiel Salient was part of a plan by Pershing in which he hoped that the United States would break through the German lines and capture the fortified city of Metz. It was one of the first U.S. solo offensives in World War I and the attack caught the Germans in the process of retreating. Hence, their artillery was out of place and the Americans were more successful than they otherwise would have been. It was a strong blow by the U.S., nevertheless, and increased their stature in the eyes of the French and British forces. However, this battle again illustrated the critical role of artillery during World War I and the difficulty of supplying the massive World War I armies while they were on the move. The U.S. attack faltered after outdistancing their artillery and food supplies, as muddy roads made support difficult. The attack on Metz was not realized, as the Germans refortified their positions and the Americans then turned their efforts to the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
The weather leading up to the battle was bad. There was heavy driving wind and rain. The roads were very muddy. This posed a significant challenge to the Americans when the order to advance was given. On some parts of the road, the men were almost knee-deep in mud and water. After five days of rain, the ground was nearly impassible to both the American tanks and infantry. Many of the tanks were wrecked with water leakage into the engine, while others would get stuck in mud flows. Some of the infantrymen developed early stages of trench foot, even before the trenches were dug. Many died of pneumonia before ever firing a shot.
One of the reasons attributed to the Americans successes in this campaign was the audacity of the small unit commanders on the battlefield. Unlike other officers that commanded their soldiers from the rear, Colonel Patton and his subordinates led their men from the front lines. They believed that a commander’s personal control of the situation would help ease the chaos of the battlefield
On September 13, the second day of battle, Ralph Yerks was killed in in action. So far I have not been able to find any details of how he was killed. I do know he is buried in Plot C, Row 8, Grave 36 of the St. Mihiel American Cemetery in Thiaucourt, France.
The American’s eventually won the battle and on 11 November 1918, just one month after Ralph Yerks was “Killed in Action”, the Armistice was declared and the war ended.
The 2nd Infantry Division marched into Germany, without Ralph, and performed occupation duties until April 1919. The 2nd Infantry Division returned to U. S. in July 1919.
Ralph is remembered on the Rye War Memorial located in the center of town with his brother, William Benjamin Yerks, who was mistakenly reported as “Killed In Action” also.