WWI Centennial: Americans Attack the St. Mihiel Salient; the Flu Turns Deadly

Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 318th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here and buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

SEPTEMBER 12-16, 1918: AMERICANS ATTACK THE ST. MIHIEL SALIENT; THE FLU TURNS DEADLY

“Something is going to happen,” wrote Katharine Morse, an American volunteering as a canteen worker, in her diary on September 9, 1918. “We have been used to seeing the French Army go by … But now, by day, by night, it is the Americans who are passing through… Coming home from the canteen in the evening one hears the heavy rattle that means artillery on the move, and standing by the road-side peering through the darkness one can just discern horses and caissons, slat wagons, supply wagons, and, looming ominously in the dim light, the formidable bulk of the great guns.”

Morse was right. Three days later the U.S. First Army launched its biggest American offensive of the war so far, a pincer movement coordinated with French forces to liberate the St. Mihiel salient—the triangular strip of German-occupied territory jutting into free France south of Verdun, with the village of St. Mihiel at its apex on the River Meuse.

Long a thorn in the side of the Allies, the Germans’ possession of the St. Mihiel salient gave them a bridgehead over the Meuse and denied the Allies full use of the important Paris-Nancy-Metz rail line, impeding movement of troops and supplies. However, like Lorraine and the Vosges Mountains to the southeast, this part of the front had been relatively quiet ever since a disastrous French attempt to liberate the salient early in the war.

Following a series of stunning Allied victories in July and August, when the doughboys proved their fighting spirit at Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, and the Second Battle of the Marne, and while the British crushed the Germans near Amiens, Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch and U.S. commander John “Black Jack” Pershing turned their attention to the St. Mihiel salient—an obvious next target, although there was some disagreement about strategy.

Western Front, September 1918
Erik Sass

On one hand, Pershing proposed a massive offensive by up to 20 U.S. divisions from First Army, followed by an immediate attack across the Franco-German frontier to capture Metz, which would deliver a major blow to German morale. Foch countered that this was too ambitious, in part because the Germans almost certainly knew the attack was coming while many U.S. troops were still untested. He instead proposed a limited attack, with 13 American divisions and eight French colonial divisions converging on the village of Vigneulles from north and south, followed by redeployment of U.S. forces under French commanders for a general offensive further west.

Determined to keep American troops under American commanders, Pershing refused Foch’s broader plan outright. This resulted in a compromise that was, paradoxically, even more ambitious than those previously discussed. After conquering the salient with Foch’s proposed limited operation, the U.S. First Army would stay together and immediately redeploy 60 miles northwest to launch a new offensive against the Germans in the Meuse-Argonne region, west of Verdun, in late September. Meanwhile, the planned U.S. Second Army would concentrate along the frontier for an eventual attack on Metz, as Pershing still hoped to execute.

“THE VERY HEAVENS SEEMED TO BE ON FIRE”

Although loose lips among inexperienced doughboys had already given away the coming attack, the Americans still did their best to at least keep the enemy guessing about precisely when and where it would fall. That meant another round of night marches to evade German aerial reconnaissance, typically made by exhausted doughboys in miserable conditions. “The rain was pouring and everyone got drenched. Carried ammunition all night of 10th and 11th until everyone was broken down. Raining and black as pitch each night,” Robert Hanes, an American artillery officer, wrote in his diary on September 10, 1918. On September 12 Hanes noted, “No rations for men or feed for horses was sent up with us so we had to live on what we could pick up for about two days.”

To top it off, like their peers in European armies, the American soldiers carried a backbreaking amount of equipment. Emmet Britton, an American soldier, described a doughboy’s typical shelter and kit, which he carried in addition to a rifle, ammunition, grenades, gas mask, entrenching tools and other equipment:

“Each man carries one-half of a shelter tent, one pole, and five pins. This shelter half is a piece of canvas six feet by four feet, and forms the outside of the roll a man carries. To make up a roll the shelter half is spread on the ground, the one blanket is laid on it and inside of the blanket are placed the poles and pins, the one suit of underwear, and three pairs of socks, which make up all of a man’s outfit with the exception of the toilet articles which include one comb, one tooth brush, one piece of soap, one razor and one shaving brush. Add to that one can of bully beef and eight pieces of hardtack and you have the contents of a man’s pack.”

In another vain attempt to maintain the element of surprise, the Americans also replicated the recent Allied practice of foregoing a prolonged preliminary bombardment, in favor of a short, incredibly intense barrage just before the infantry went “over the top.” At 1 a.m. on September 12, 1918, around 3000 artillery pieces (most of them on loan from the French) opened up with some of the fiercest shelling of the war, firing a stupendous 1.1 million shells by 5 a.m, for an average rate of around 76 shells per second. One awestruck American soldier noted in his diary:

“At about 1 a.m. one of the most terrible barrages I have yet witnessed begins. The noise is deafening. The sky as light as day, words of mine can never describe the scene … The very heavens seemed [to] be on fire, the light of the bursting shells and the roar of the countless guns produced an unearthly uproar and tumult of noise so great that men had to shout into each other’s ears in order to be heard and understood.”

Hanes, the American artillery officer, left a similar account of stunning contrasts:

“You can never imagine the amount of noise made when the artillery opens up in one of these drives. It had been raining for two days steadily and we were all wet and muddy from head to foot. I had fallen down on an average of every 10 minutes for the two days as the ground was so slick I couldn’t stand. My men had been carrying ammunition to the guns for two of the blackest nights you have ever seen when suddenly everything was made light by the blazing of hundreds of guns all over the sector. We poured thousands of shells into the bloody rascals for about four hours and then started our barrage for the Infantry to advance under. They say it was a dandy and it certainly did the work as the Infantry met very little resistance and took thousands of scared and bewildered prisoners. One German officer was found dressed in his dress uniform, bag packed and orderly, waiting with him to surrender.

As it happened, the majority of the German forces occupying the St. Mihiel salient, who had plenty of warning about the impending attack, managed to withdraw just as the offensive was launched—in many cases retreating within view of the advancing doughboys. Altogether the advancing Americans captured around 13,000 German prisoners, a middling number for a major First World War battle. Thus the St. Mihiel offensive counted as an American victory, but one that fell short of Allied expectations (below, American troops in liberated St. Mihiel).

Entering St. Mihiel, World War I
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although only a few hundred French light tanks were available for the St. Mihiel offensive, the advancing infantry were supported by the largest concentration of air power ever assembled to date. At least 1500 Allied planes scoured the skies, attacked enemy forces on the ground, and harried German lines of supply and communication to the rear. Eddie Rickenbacker, the most successful American ace of the war, described carrying out a ground attack against the retreating Germans:

“Guns, stores, and ammunition were being hauled away to safety with all possible speed … One especially attractive target presented itself to us as we flew along this road. A whole battery of Boche 3-inch guns was coming towards us on the double. They covered fully half a mile of the roadway. Dipping down at the head of the column I sprinkled a few bullets over the leading teams. Horses fell right and left. One driver leaped away from his seat and started running for the ditch. Halfway across the road he threw up his arms and rolled over upon his face. He had stepped full in front of my stream of machine-gun bullets! All down the line we continued our fire—now tilting our aeroplanes down for a short burst, then zooming back up for a little altitude in which to repeat the performance. The whole column was thrown into the wildest confusion. Horses plunged and broke away. Some were killed and fell in their tracks.”

Although the St. Mihiel offensive was a relatively easy “walkover” by the blood-soaked standards of the First World War, it was some American soldiers’ first introduction to battle, and many were clearly horrified by the gruesome sights they encountered. One soldier described the carnage wrought by German defensive shelling of the advancing troops:

“A large shell had made a direct hit upon four boys. All were dead. Limbs were mangled, bodies were torn. It was a sight revolting beyond description. Of one of my comrades I could only find small fragments of his poor body. None were larger than my hand … with the exception [of] his head, jerked completely from body. The powder-blackened face of a young Jewish boy stared immobile into eternity. Nearby was his hand which had been popped off at the arm just [at the] back of the wrist.”

Others however found themselves becoming hardened to horrors of war. Lieutenant Phelps Harding noted his acclimation to gruesome sights in a letter to his wife recounting the advance. “We passed dead men of both armies, but many more Boche than Americans,” he wrote. “I was surprised at the indifference I felt toward dead Americans—they seemed a perfectly natural thing to come across, and I felt absolutely no shudder go down my back as I would have had I seen the same thing a year ago.”

Conditions continued to be extremely challenging, as the supply service struggled to keep up with the advancing troops and American troops scrambled to redeploy to the Meuse-Argonne front for the next planned offensive. On September 22 Hanes recorded an excruciatingly slow advance. “The distance was only about seven kilometers but we were on the road about seven hours making it on account of the terrific traffic jams. The rain poured all night and the wind blew a gale. This is the most horrible night I have ever had,” he wrote.

On the other side, St. Mihiel was another nail in the coffin of German morale. Although the occupying troops had withdrawn successfully under fire, there was no way for the German high command to cover up the plain fact of another retreat before superior enemy forces.

Ominously, both German officers and rank-and-file troops were now eager to be taken prisoner for the short remaining duration of the war. Some likely reasoned that there was no point in sacrificing their lives for a lost cause. In a letter home dated September 19, Hanes wrote, “the prisoners as they came back seemed to be very well satisfied. Some of the infantrymen said, when they captured them, they shook hands with each other, laughed, and seemed to be most pleased that they had been captured.”

Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, may have been describing the same surrendering officer recounted by Hanes: “One German major was found with his kit all packed up, his arms folded, waiting to go to prison camp. He was furious with his high command... So, in high dudgeon and righteous indignation, he made no effort to escape.” And a German intelligence report from September 1918 noted an informant’s warning, based on conversations with ordinary soldiers, that there was no doubt “these men wanted to find out about the best way to get taken prisoner without any risk and attracting attention, and how to act as a prisoner in order to be treated well.”

INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC BECOMES EVEN DEADLIER

The first phase of the misnamed Spanish flu, which emerged in spring 1918, had been extremely virulent but relatively benign. The epidemic killed only a small proportion of those who became ill. However, in fall 1918, the second, far deadlier phase began with simultaneous outbreaks among troops in transit camps in Boston, Massachusetts; Brest, France; and Freetown, Sierra Leone—all within a few weeks in early and mid-September. The first report in Boston noted high mortality among wounded soldiers arriving back from Europe for medical treatment in the U.S. on September 5, 1918.

It’s unclear what caused the flu epidemic to suddenly become so deadly, but scientists speculate the virus may have undergone a “genetic recombination event,” in which two different strains of the virus infect the same cell and then swap DNA, creating a strain that is even more virulent and dangerous.

By some estimates, the flu may have killed as many as 100 million people around the world, far more than the war itself. While it ravaged combatant and noncombatant nations alike, its impact was worst in war-torn Europe. Contemporary accounts leave a frightening picture of rapid, widespread infection leaving whole communities powerless. Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer with the French Army, wrote home in October:

“This disease is certainly quick and deadly in its effect and creates a panic among those who have it, as they die frequently in three or four days. My chauffeur is just recovering. He was so scared, two days ago, when I went to see him the hospital, lest he die in France, that he was almost speechless. Four friends of one of the French officers in my office dined together last week, and now two are dead and buried."

Morse, the American volunteer, remarked on the incredible speed of the epidemic. “Curiously enough, it hit the camp all in a heap after dinner,” she recalled. “Thirty percent of the boys, the two officers, the building detail, and myself were all laid low between one and six o’clock.” Richard Wade Derby, an American medical officer, noted that the flu accounted for the vast majority of hospital admissions: “The evacuations mounted to four or five hundred a day, of which only a fifth were battle casualties.”

The flu was especially devastating for Germany, now at the limits of its manpower and suffering severe shortages of food and fuel. In October 1918, Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, wrote in her diary:

“Whilst depicting the last agony of the country at large, one is apt to forget the sufferings of the individual, but what the war is not destroying in human life, the terrible grippe epidemic is carrying off. One hears of whole families dying out in a few hours, and it is an extraordinary fact that most of the victims are young girls and women. An uncanny idea, death thus restoring the balance between men and women for life.”

After devastating the cities, the flu epidemic swept through the countryside, according to Blücher:

“There is hardly a family that has been spared. From our housekeeper at Krieblowitz I hear that the whole village is stricken with it, and the wretched people are lying about on the floors of their cottages in woeful heaps, shivering with fever and with no medicaments or anyone to attend them. The doctor from Canth is unable to come, as he is absolutely overworked, having the whole district to look after, his colleague being already dead of the grippe. I wired at once to the Convent of the Grey Sisters at Breslau, asking them to send a nurse, which they did immediately, and I heard this morning that from the moment of her arrival she only had three hours’ sleep for the next 48 hours, there were so many people to attend to.”

At a major Berlin department store, Blücher heard the following horrifying detail, reminiscent of medieval Europe’s Black Death:

“They told me that hundreds of their staff were at the moment laid up with the grippe, and that 70 of their girls had died last week of it. Herr B——, who has just arrived from Hamburg and lunched with us today, says it is like the plague there, 400 people dying in one day; and as they have not coffins enough to put the corpses in, they have used furniture vans to carry them to the cemetery … We are returning every day nearer to the barbarism of the Middle Ages in every way.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

The 25 Greatest War Movies of All Time

Benedict Cumberbatch in Sam Mendes's 1917 (2019).
Benedict Cumberbatch in Sam Mendes's 1917 (2019).
© 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC. All Rights Reserved.

It makes sense that master filmmakers keep returning to old wars to tell new stories, because war and cinema go hand-in-hand in many ways. War has everything you want to make a good story: Scope and spectacle, high stakes, dramatic tension, and emotional distress both at home and on the battlefield. It’s all right there, just waiting to be woven into an epic on the big screen.

What sets the best war movies apart, though, is their ability to never lose sight of the real human cost of war. The true masterpieces of the genre can deliver spectacle, yes, but they also tell us something more essential at the heart of every epic struggle in human history, something that unites us all no matter which side of the battle we may be on. With that in mind, here are 25 of the greatest war films ever made, from medieval epics to modern thrillers. To help narrow the list down, we mostly focused on movies that directly address the combat aspects of war versus dramas that are set during wartime.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Lewis Milestone’s film about a group of German soldiers drawn in by nationalism and then picked apart by the ravages of war remains the film against which all other World War I epics are measured. It was released more than 80 years ago, and its depictions of the horrors of war—blood-streaked men screaming in foxholes, bare hands clinging to barbed wire—still hold up to modern eyes. It’s one of the great war epics as well as one of the great anti-war films.

2. La Grande Illusion (1937)

One of the greatest anti-war films ever made, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion succeeds in no small part because of the tremendous empathy running through every frame. No matter the side of the conflict each character falls on, they are treated as pawns within the greater illusion that war will do any of them any good. Renoir’s humanistic touch, coupled with his dazzling cast, make this film an all-time classic to such a degree that Orson Welles declared it one of his desert island movies.

3. Sergeant York (1941)

There are other "conscientious objector becomes war hero" films out there, but none has ever quite risen to the heights of Sergeant York for one simple reason: Gary Cooper. In the title role, Cooper delivers one of the finest performances of his storied career, and even as Howard Hawks infuses the film with a sense patriotic glory and duty, he trusts Cooper to imbue the story with an essential humanity. Sergeant York is a hero, yes, but Cooper never makes him into a superhero. The toll the war takes is right there in his eyes the entire time, and that makes this film a classic.

4. Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

Among Air Force-based war dramas, Twelve O’Clock High holds a particular place of reverence for a great many fans, and it ranks as perhaps among the best of the World War II dramas made while the war was still fresh in the minds of many Americans. Led by Gregory Peck’s tour-de-force performance as Brigadier General Frank Savage, the film builds in intensity right up to the climactic battle, and remains one of the most emotionally satisfying films of its genre.

5. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

David Lean is the only director with two films on this list, because … well, he’s David Lean. The Bridge on the River Kwai is Lean’s seminal World War II epic about a group of prisoners, the bridge they build and then attempt to destroy, and the shifting allegiances that come with the emotional upheavals of war. Lean’s tremendous attention to detail, combining sweeping tracking shots with smaller moments like close-ups of ruined shoes on soldiers’ feet, and the Alec Guinness-led cast combine for a thrilling, often surprisingly funny, masterpiece.

6. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Steven Spielberg once said that David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is one of the few films he re-watches before every new project, and it’s easy to see why. The World War I drama is synonymous with epic filmmaking even now, nearly six decades after its release. Lean’s film, led by Peter O’Toole’s splendid work in the title role, retains a sense of wonder even after all these years thanks to jaw-dropping visuals, flawless editing, and a sense of scope to rival anything on the big screen today.

7. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Few films have ever been able to depict both sides of an escalating conflict with as much unflinching intensity as The Battle of Algiers. Based on the events of the Algerian War and focusing specifically on the guerilla warfare that erupted during the conflict, Gillo Pontecorvo’s film is shot like a searing, unflinching docudrama, and the sense of verisimilitude is palpable and deeply affecting.

8. The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Some war films are reverent, measured, and delicate with their depiction of the particular horrors of conflict and what it does to the people on the front lines. Then there are films like The Dirty Dozen, a film without which we might never have gotten things like Inglourious Basterds or the modern version of DC Comics’s Suicide Squad, which appeared in the 1980s. Robert Aldrich’s film takes a murderer’s row of acting talent and a tremendous sense of adventure and infuses it all with the kind of chaotic energy that only soldiers with nothing to lose could muster. The result is the kind of film those who love it want to watch over and over again.

9. M*A*S*H (1970)

One of the greatest anti-war films of all time, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H combines an irreverent, sometimes surreal sense of humor with realistic dialogue and some truly absurd situations to create a tapestry of comedy and tragedy. The film places its characters right on the edge of the action, just close enough that the blood is often quite literally on their hands as they work, then examines what that kind of precarious placement can do to a group of people whose job is to heal. It’s an essential film, and not just because of its afterlife as a legendary TV series.

10. Patton (1970)

Even if Patton had nothing else going for it, the film would likely still succeed thanks to the sheer force of will of George C. Scott. The actor’s legendary, knockout performance as the title character carries the movie, but it’s not all that makes Patton great. Director Franklin J. Schaffner uses Scott’s performance as a linchpin, framing the narrative of war through Patton’s bombastic eyes and tireless spirit. The result is a war film unlike any other, one driven by a single unstoppable personality.

11. The Deer Hunter (1978)

To say that Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is one of the more “problematic” Vietnam War films ever made might be a bit of an understatement to some, but more than 40 years after its release it’s hard to deny the visceral power at the heart of the film. Some aspects of the storytelling—most famously, the Russian roulette sequences at the heart of the movie—function as rather blunt instruments that hammer the point home, but they strike so hard and ring so true that the film is impossible to ignore.

12. Apocalypse Now (1979)

The New Hollywood era of the 1970s gave rise to several prominent filmmakers who would eventually turn their attention to the Vietnam War in critical, satirical, and often incisive ways, but none of them ever did it better than Francis Ford Coppola. After crafting two masterpieces with the first two Godfather films, Coppola went through hell to craft his hellish journey into the heart of darkness of a generation-defining war, and the result is the greatest Vietnam War movie ever made.

13. Das Boot (1981)

Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot is a film that succeeds in part thanks to its sense of contrast. It’s a war epic and it delivers the goods of a war epic, but much of it takes place within the tiny confines of a German U-Boat. It’s packed with tense, explosive action, but it counterbalances that action with stretches of quiet, contemplative boredom. The result is one of the most gripping portrayals of the mundane horror of war ever, told in an environment few other films in the subgenre have ventured into.

14. Ran (1985)

Akira Kurosawa was a master of many aspects of cinematic storytelling, but one of his greatest strengths was easily his ability to make violence explode out at his audience with unpredictable ferocity. Ran, Kurosawa’s loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, is perhaps the best example in the director’s entire filmography of his knack for creating epic conflict. The film’s gorgeous sets and detailed costumes are all set up beautifully only to be swept up in the chaos of the story in some of the most realistically kinetic war sequences ever shot.

15. Platoon (1986)

Based on writer/director Oliver Stone’s own experiences in Vietnam, Platoon steers clear of the most bombastic, epic level depictions of the war and instead focuses on the titular unit of men and the transformative effects the crucible of war has on them. Led by powerhouse performances from Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, and Tom Berenger, Platoon remains one of the most relentlessly intense war movie experiences of all time.

16. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Stanley Kubrick made a habit out of directing war films thanks to Spartacus and Paths of Glory. Full Metal Jacket was his last experience with the genre, and it feels like he poured everything he had learned into it. The film’s genius lies largely in its structure, as it shows us just how far these soldiers are pushed by basic training before they’re actually thrown out into the war. The training sequences, led by R. Lee Ermey’s amazing drill sergeant performances, are the best-remembered of the film, but the Vietnam sequences near the end are truly stunning.

17. Braveheart (1995)

Mel Gibson’s epic about the life of William Wallace and his rise as leader of a Scottish revolution in the late 13th century is one of those films that just compels you to watch until the end every time you see it on cable. Gibson’s magnetic, charismatic central performance is key to this, but somehow his directing is even more powerful. From the sweeping scenic beauty of Scotland itself to the rapid-fire brutality of the battle sequences to James Horner’s goosebump-inducing score, Braveheart is medieval epic filmmaking at its best.

18. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Steven Spielberg’s harrowing World War II film is perhaps best remembered for its relentless, breathless opening sequence that depicts the brutal D-Day landing of Allied Forces at Omaha Beach. It’s an all-time great war movie sequence, but that’s not the only reason Saving Private Ryan endures. Its stacked ensemble cast, powerful yet simple central story, and overwhelming emotional resolution combine to make it a modern classic.

19. The Thin Red Line (1998)

No one else could make a World War II film quite like Terrence Malick, and as proof we have The Thin Red Line. The film defies easy description, despite the relatively straightforward backdrop of its emotional journey. What is ostensibly the story of a company of men fighting at Guadalcanal in 1942 becomes a deeply philosophical film that documents the overwhelming intellectual and emotional gauntlet of war. And while war is by its very nature not a beautiful thing, this just might be the most visually stunning war film made since Lawrence of Arabia.

20. Downfall (2004)

Few films have ever wished or dared to interact with Adolf Hitler on a personal, intimate level, for obvious reasons. In the realm of war cinema, the leader of Nazi Germany often exists as some kind of near-supernatural embodiment of ultimate evil, but Downfall sought to change that. The film does not sympathize with Hitler’s madness, but through Bruno Ganz’s unforgettable performance, it does allow us an opportunity to see the man’s unraveling in a compelling, perhaps even cathartic, way.

21. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Ridley Scott’s modern war epic Black Hawk Down narrowly missed inclusion on this list, because while it’s a masterpiece, his Kingdom of Heaven is a brilliant piece of work that remains underseen. Scott’s attempt to turn a modern lens on the Crusades—specifically Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187—combines a spectacular cast with some of the best epic visuals of the esteemed director’s career. Look for the Director’s Cut of the film for an even more robust experience.

22. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to make a World War II film that feels like it came from both an alternate universe and straight out of our own warped rage fantasies. Inglourious Basterds combines Tarantino’s legendary knack for dialogue with a truly brilliant cast and a brutal sense of humor to tell the story of a unit of Nazi hunters and their efforts to bring down Hitler himself in the midst of a German movie premiere. Taut, violent, and hilarious, Inglourious Basterds walks a line few other war films ever could.

23. The Hurt Locker (2008)

Kathryn Bigelow’s film about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq and what their high-pressure job does to them works because it attacks your psyche on two fronts. On one front, there’s the human side of these soldiers, which we see through the film’s dark sense of humor and compelling ensemble cast. On the other, there’s the kind of virtuoso directing that won Bigelow the Oscar for Best Director (making her the first—and still the only—woman to take home that particular award). A lot of directors could have made The Hurt Locker suspenseful, but only Bigelow could have made it this suspenseful.

24. Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk turns the filmmaker’s masterful eye for pacing, visual elegance, and structural intrigue to the events of World War II, and the result is one of the most pulse-pounding movies of the 2010s. Anchored by a tremendous cast, the film tells the story not of one of the war’s great attacks, but one of its most essential retreats. Nolan’s brilliant sense of tension, coupled with Hans Zimmer’s ticking-clock score, combine to keep you on the edge of your seat—even if you know how it ends.

25. 1917 (2019)

Sam Mendes’s Golden Globe-winning World War I epic, based on stories told to him by his veteran grandfather, has gained a lot of press because of its “one-take” style, which might lead you to believe that it’s a gimmick film. Instead, 1917 rises beyond the structural hook of its filming style to become a meditation on the relentless nature of life in battle, and the way even the quietest moments can pivot into horror at any moment. Roger Deakins deserves another Oscar for his stunning cinematography, and George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman carry the emotional heft of the film like true champions, even when surrounded by A-list names like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Andrew Scott.

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

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