Section Seventy-Two (SSU 72)
- Published in History
SECTION SEVENTY-TWO arrived at May-en-Multien on August 6, 1917. It left for the front, driving French ambulances, on August 18, 1917. After repos of two weeks at Noyon, it was sent to the front at Saint-Quentin. En route for this place, it was enlisted, at Flavy-le-Martel, by the American recruiting officers, being the first section of the Service taken over by the U.S. Army. It continued work under the old régime until November, when it filled in Old Section Twenty-Seven's vacancies and took over their Fords, becoming Section Six-Thirty-Nine of the U.S.A. Ambulance Service.
'The Ambulance Sections', History of the American Field Service in France, "Friends of France" 1914-1917, Told by Its Members, Volume II (Boston and New York: Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1920)
THE "YOUNGEST SON" SECTION
SEVENTY-TWO was the youngest son of a large family. When only one day weaned from a dusty preliminary repos of two weeks at Noyon, the Section undertook its first service at Saint-Quentin. Immediately thereafter came the United States recruiting officers offering every man the opportunity to become a private in the American Army, but to remain with the Section in the Sanitary Service of the French Army. One of the first groups to be visited by these officers, we have the distinction of enlisting every man able to meet the physical requirements, except one. Four of the original number were rejected on physical grounds.
The last complete section sent out from the Field Service Headquarters in Paris, we found ourselves, September 5, 1917, just emerging from the embryo of war in the abstract into active service and the American Army. Our personnel, with the exception of our Chef, was composed of the young men who sailed from the docks of the French line in New York City on two steamers, the Chicago, leaving July 23, and the Rochambeau, leaving August 3, 1917.
Those of us who came over on the Chicago arrived in Paris from Bordeaux on the morning of August 4, and on the afternoon of the 6th we were transferred to May-en-Multien. The fortnight spent at this camp will always be remembered by us as a real midsummer idyll; for, although May was located in the now famous Marne district, scarcely thirty-five kilometres from the Soissons front, the sound of the cannon was only dimly heard. Here the enemy in hasty retreat had been unable to commit his customary acts of vandalism, and the beautiful country was practically untouched. So we received our first taste of rural France in a lazy courtyard, surrounded by buildings which had once been the possession of a rich miller, trying in vain to realize that we were so near the scene of gruesome war.
The majority of the Chicago's Field Service passengers quartered at May preferred to drive Ford cars, and out of these a new section, Thirty-Three, was immediately formed. When this group left the camp for the front, the rest of us, who had spoken for gear-shift cars, were compelled to wait until our personnel could be increased by new men. Nine days after our arrival the ambulance recruits from the Rochambeau came out from Paris, and from this group we were able to fill out a complete section of forty-nine men, and on August 18, after two days of intensive driving on May's historic voitures, we were transported back to Paris.
Again our stay in Paris was brief. The day after our arrival we were lined up at rue Raynouard and informed that we would henceforth be known as S.S.U. Seventy-Two and that we would take over a former French section of twenty Fiats, two men to be placed on each car.
We were then introduced to our Section Commander, Chef William Westbrook. In the early morning of the following day, August 19, we were routed out of bed and despatched to the military town of Noyon, in the Oise, where we were to await instructions for joining a French division, and where our twenty cars were lined up on the main highway to Saint-Quentin, in the heart of the town. They were seasoned veterans, these cars, and were scarred and battered by great campaigns. Each one, however, had been carefully repaired at the Noyon parc before our arrival, and could be counted on for years more of active service. Owing to the lack of quarters, most of us had to sleep on the stretchers in these very cars; so they became near and dear to us from the very start.
For precisely two weeks we led an absolutely useless existence, which was principally spent in inhaling dust and exhaling epithets; and somehow the veteran cars seemed as impatient as we were at this forced idleness. During the first week Lieutenant Gibily, our French commanding officer, to whom we became greatly attached, was transferred elsewhere. He was followed by two other French officers who came and went for reasons known to the inner circles only. This did not tend to remove our impatience. It seemed at times as though we were to remain without the extremely valuable surveillance of French authority.
Saturday evening, September 1, we received orders to move forward toward Saint-Quentin, and the next morning the staff car, camionnette, and twenty ambulances, with our complete equipment, moved slowly over the road in convoy, and stopped at about noon on the outskirts of Flavy-le-Martel, where late in the afternoon of the same day the American recruiting officers followed us out from Noyon and formally enlisted the entire Section, with the several justifiable exceptions mentioned earlier. So what we at first thought meant active work at the front, really ended only in our incorporation into the American army, which was well enough as far as it went, but which did not go far enough for most of us.
Our camp, which had been a prosperous stock and poultry farm surrounding a spacious court, was cleaned up until it was made quite comfortable. The shacks used for houses were reënforced. Useless acetylene gas-tanks were stripped from the cars and served as generators for truly modern lighting systems. Stoves for winter we found among deserted ruins. Daily the cantonment and court were swept and cleaned furiously. But none of us lost in weight, thanks to work enough for appetite and good food. The historian is compelled to be truthful and admit that Section Seventy-Two's story ends where most others begin. Our work came after Section Seventy-Two of the Field Service was combined with S.S.U. Twenty-Seven, and had become Section Six-Thirty-Nine of the United States Army Ambulance Service.
JOHN H. WOOLVERTON*
*Of Trenton, New Jersey; Dartmouth; served with Section Seventy-Two from August, 1917, and continued in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service during the war.
- Section (WWI): S.S.U. 72