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1st Lt. Charles E. Lewis: Regimental Adjutant, 339th Infantry


(1st Lt. Charles E. Lewis, U.S. Army Archives)

Charles E. Lewis was born June 12, 1889 in Manchester, MI. Lewis’ parents, Charles Sr. and Francis ‘Fanny’ Lewis lived on a large farmstead near Manchester, courtesy of Fanny’s wealthy family. Fanny’s assets—her family was known for its highly successful farms and orchards—combined with her husband’s—Charles Sr. was the only son of Eli Lewis, who had made a fortune as a contractor of railroad stations along the Michigan Southern Railway—enabled the couple to manage their large estate as well as establish a successful boot and shoe mercantile business.[1] Charles attended schools in Manchester, excelling in academics, plus doing just as well in athletics, to the point of earning a leadership role on his high school’s football team. Charles graduated from Manchester High School in 1907, securing the position of class valedictorian. He delivered a graduation speech, stating, “It is truly a pleasure to think of the many obstacles that we have met and overcome … but even as these bright thoughts are presented to us we are confronted by a most pain full reflection … [this] part [of our lives] is about to be ended … We must enter upon a new train of events.”[2]

Charles Lewis attended the University of Michigan, acquiring a Bachelor of Arts in 1912, and then a Bachelor of Law degree in 1913. He took a position as an attorney with the Detroit law firm, Warren, Cady, and Ladd and during the next four years of practicing law, earned a reputation as, “a man of integrity and habits beyond reproach … [with] splendid ability and the best of character.” When he applied for the Army’s officer candidate school, his boss, Sanford Ladd wrote, “What we are going to do to fill the gap [of his being gone] … we do not know.”[3] Lewis was accepted into the Army’s R.O.T.C program and on May 15, 1917, entered Ft. Sheridan, IL for his initial training. He pinned on his second lieutenant’s bars on August 15, 1917 and was immediately sent to Camp Custer and assigned to the 339th Infantry as the assistant regimental adjutant.

Lieutenant Lewis fulfilled this role as the 339th’s recruits rolled into Camp Custer. His promotion to first lieutenant on December 31, 1917 did not change his assignment, though his responsibilities increased; he also became Second Battalion’s acting adjutant.[4] Here, he met Major J. Brooks Nichols, the battalion commander. The two officers, both who believed in honesty, integrity, and hard work, discovered they worked well together.

The Second Battalion, composed of companies ‘E’, ‘F’, ‘G’, and ‘H’, loaded onto the S. S. Nagoya on August 27, 1918, and the ship joined the convoy heading for Archangel. Four days later, Lt. Lewis briefed Maj. Nichols, stating, “Health of the troops good.” This report changed dramatically; on September 2, 1918, Lewis’ account noted, “Epidemic of Spanish influenza spreading … [and] unchecked.”[5] The S.S. Nagoya arrived in Archangel on September 5, 1918 with the flu raging; sixty men were critically ill. The battalion’s medical personnel struggled to find a place for these patients, especially when their designated barracks were found to be inhabited by over one hundred Russian civilian refugees, who were described as, “in a dirty and generally unsanitary condition.” The barracks situation was straightened out by moving the refugees to other quarters, and by September 7, 1918, Lt. Lewis was able to inform Maj. Nichols the epidemic was checked; there were only 33 men in the hospital, and the battalion now numbered 997 officers and men present for duty.[6]

Lieutenant Charles Lewis watched with great respect as Maj. J. Brooks Nichols handled the Archangel streetcar workers’ strike. On September 7, 1918 when the Russia streetcar employees refused to do their jobs, Nichols immediately found experienced transportation workers from his large pool of Detroit soldiers and put them to work, running Archangel’s streetcars. This action crushed the strike and two days later, Lewis wrote, “Car strike was declared off and … men furnished for [the] operation [were] relieved.”[7] Adjutant Lewis settled in, contentedly providing reports to his major, however on September 28, 1918, Lt. Lewis sadly wrote into his journal, “Major Nichols, Commander of 2nd Bn. ordered to Obozerskaya for duty with 3rdBn., relieved Major Young, who is to command 2nd Bn.”[8]

Major Charles Young arrived at battalion headquarters three days later and moved into Nichols’ vacated office. Lieutenant Lewis soon understood the nature of his new boss; Maj. Young relished pomp and glittery, and toadying up to the British high command. Lewis wrote, October 12, 1918, “Furnished detail of 50 men to take part in ceremony in honor of Maj. Gen. Poole, Commander in Chief who is to leave for England.” Not long after this entry, Lewis recorded, “Furnished 10 squads in command of Major Young to take part in Parade past Embassy.”[9]

Charles Lewis was shifted from Second Battalion adjutant to regimental assistant adjutant, and from his new office in the 339th’s headquarters building, he worked for Col. George Stewart, providing reviews and reports, neither of which he found fulfilling. Lewis recalled, “I compiled a sort of regimental diary for Colonel Stewart … This comprised information received weekly from Company Commanders and other officers in the field.”[10] Charles Lewis’s work as an intelligence office was even more unsatisfactory. He remarked, “All military intelligence work was in charge of British headquarters and … the American Infantry regiment were so stripped of centralized command and authority that any regimental intelligence work was futile.”[11]Then, Lt. Lewis was burdened with an additional role, Maj. Charles Young had assumed the position of chief of court martial trials, and remembering his ex-adjutant had been a lawyer, snatched the lieutenant up and made him a trial judge advocate at these court martials. Though Maj. Young never acknowledged Lewis’ contributions, Lt. Col. Edward Thurston, the 339th’s judge advocate wrote to Lewis, “I wish to take this opportunity to congratulate and commend you for the excellent manner in which you performed [your] duties.”[12]

General Dick Richardson’s arrival in Archangel changed the Yanks’ relationship with the British, a liaison between the two Allies that had completely frustrated Lewis. He recorded, “Our relations with the English were, in general, rather strained. The exercise of command within our own American regiment was seriously stifled by reason of the fact … that American Companies … were in most instances placed under the command of British … officers.” Lewis added, “This led … in the minds of many of the American Unit Commanders to be an abuse of American Troops.”[13] But now, with Gen. Richardson in charge, the situation changed. Then, in May 1919 the 339th’s rifle companies began rolling into Bakharitza and prepared to leave Russia. The 339th left Russia and made its way to France, and from there, to the United States. First Lieutenant Charles Lewis was honorably discharged from the Army in July 1919.

Lewis immediately returned to his old law firm in Detroit, and resumed practicing law. He married Mable Wilson in June 1921. Mabel was a native of Chatham, Ontario, who had grown up in Detroit. She graduated from high school and attended the University of Michigan, earning her B.A. degree in 1921. Mabel and Charles had two sons, Charles and Richard. Lewis, in 1925, became one of the firm’s partners, and by 1933, the practice was known as Hill, Hamblen, Essery & Lewis.[14] Charles remained with the firm until retiring. He and Mabel livd in Birmingham, MI until her death in 1980, the couple having been married 59 years. Charles E. Lewis passed away September 1, 1981, aged 92.

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[1] Centennial History of Michigan. Polar Bear Expedition Digital Materials, UMBHL [2] Lewis, Charles E., “A Sketch of the School Life of the Class of 1907.” Historical Files of the U.S. Expeditionary Force. Polar Bear Expedition Digital Materials, UMBHL [3] Essery, Evan, “Commissioner of Schools,” 7 May 1917. Freeman, A. F., “To Whom this May Concern,” 5 May 1917. Ladd, Sanford W., “Department Adjutant, U.S. Army,” 7 May 1917. Polar Bear Expedition Digital Materials, UMBHL. [4] Centennial History of Michigan. Polar Bear Expedition Digital Materials, Bentley Historical Library, UMBHL. [5] Lewis, Charles E., Journal, 31 Aug 1918, 2 Sep 1918. [6] Lewis, Charles E., Journal, 5-7 Sep 1918. [7] Lewis, Charles E., Journal, 9 Sep 1918. [8] Lewis, Charles E., Journal, 28 Sep 1918. [9] Lewis, Charles E., Journal, 10 Oct 1918. Lewis, Charles E., Journal, 6 Nov 1918. [10] Lewis, Charles E. “Capt. D. A. Stroh,” 29 Dec 1932. Polar Bear Expedition Digital Materials, UMBHL. [11] Lewis, Charles E. “Capt. D. A. Stroh,” 29 Dec 1932. [12] Thurston, Edward S., “Headquarters, American Expeditionary Forces, North Russia,” 14 June 1919. Polar Bear Expedition Digital Materials, UMBHL. [13] Lewis, Charles E. “Capt. D. A. Stroh,” 29 Dec 1932. [14] Centennial History of Michigan, 478.

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