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Private James F. Siplon: Company 'I', 339th Infantry

Updated: Apr 6


(Pvt. James F. Siplon, Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland, MI)


James F. Siplon was born February 5, 1896 in Muskegon, MI. His parents, Herman and Katherine ‘Katie’ Siplon were both Dutch immigrants, having come to the United States a few years before James was born, Herman getting a job as a gluerer at a desk factory and Katie as a dressmaker. James was named after an older brother, born a few years earlier, who had died as an infant. James had two other brothers, Henry, Jr. born in 1893 and Floyd, born in 1899. All three attended school in Muskegon, though James only completed one year of high school. He then scrambled for odd jobs, often working at the dry goods store where Henry, Jr. worked. Eventually, James acquired a job at Muskegon’s Campbell, Wyant and Cannon Foundry, a company bragging, it was “the financial rock for thousands.”[1]

In 1917 when America declared war on Germany, James enlisted into the U. S. Navy. James recalled, “I enlisted in the navy … when we got to Great Lakes [Naval Station, IL] … they put us in uniforms and … put us out to drill for a few days.” Navy recruit Siplon added, “Then they called us all back in for reexamination … About half of [us] fellows that were registered for the draft were sent back home … And that’s how I got out of the navy.” He remarked, “And as they said, the Army will get you anyway.”[2] Not long after being dumped by the Navy, Siplon was drafted. His Draft Registration Card identified him as blue-eyed, of medium build, and with brown hair.[3] He noted, “It was the first part of June 1918 [when] they called me up for the draft … [then] we left Muskegon … for Camp Custer.”[4]

James Siplon was assigned to Company ‘I’ and began his training. He recalled, “They drilled us night and day.” [5] And then, to Pvt. Siplon’s surprise, the 339th Regiment was ordered to pack up for France. Siplon remembered, “We thought we’d have our regular sixty days’ drill … but they used us for fill-ins, to fill in the division … When the 85th division went overseas, we all went with them because we were all fill-ins.”[6] The Americans soon found themselves in Russia, completely to their surprise. The Yank riflemen were told by their officers they were to guard against the Germans. Siplon stated, “We were protecting these ports to keep the Germans out [and] to keep their submarines from having bases in the White Sea and in the northern part of Russia.” [7]

Company ‘I’ was put under British command, and along with Company ‘M’, sent out to man the Railroad Front. Here, the Americans chafed at being under British control, even to the point the Yanks were forced to eat and drink British foods. Private Siplon grumbled, “We never could get any coffee. They were just feeding us this British tea.”[8] Then, when the doughboys went out to attack the Bolsheviks, they found themselves suffering because of poorly conceived British planning. Private James Siplon complained, “[Sometimes] the [water] was waist or chest deep to most men … and the men were all carrying packs on their backs.”[9]

The Great War ended on November 11, 1918, however even though the Yanks’ Allies in Russia quit, the Americans’ involvement in Russia did not. Private James Siplon recalled, “Armistice -- That’s when the French quit. The first inkling that we got of it was the Frenchmen coming out with their jugs of wine.” He continued, “That morning there was something different. Not only did they come out with their flasks of wine, they came out with jugs of everything else. They were dancing around and hollering and whooping, “Finé la guerre !” And we said, ‘what’s the matter with you guys?’ “Armistice!” They were all done.”[10] Siplon grumbled, “We didn’t want to fight any more, either. Our officers [were told], “The Armistice did not mean the end of it for us.” He continued, “The Armistice’s impact on the soldiers was bad. [We] thought we were through. Everybody thought they were going back to Archangel.”[11] The Americans were told they couldn’t go home because of the weather. James Siplon recorded this, “The White Sea was frozen over, and … we were stuck here for the winter. There was no way of getting out.”[12] Private Siplon’s company remained in Russia until June 1919 before being able to leave. James Siplon remarked, “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience that I had, but I wouldn’t take a million dollars to go over it again.”

Siplon’s regiment returned to Camp Custer and in July 1919 he was discharged. James returned to Muskegon and secured a job with the town’s newspaper as a printer. He married Katherine Fischer in 1920 and the couple had a daughter, Donna in 1928. James continued at the newspaper for the next thirty years before retiring. He passed away January 16, 1983.

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[1] Holmes-Greeley, Paula. “After 100 Years, CWC Remains Critical to Muskegon’s Manufacturing Base.” www.mlive.com. 22 August 2008. [2] Siplon, James F. Polar Bear Oral History Project, 6 Jul 1977. Nancy L. Johnson, a student at Hope College, Holland, MI interviewed James Siplon as part of her education at the institution. The transcripts of the Johnson/Siplon interview at available at Hope College’s Digital materials. [3] Siplon, James F. WWI Draft Registration Card, 5 June 1917. [4] Siplon, James F. PBOHP, 6 Jul 1977. [5] Siplon, James F. PBOHP, 6 Jul 1977. [6] Siplon, James F. PBOHP, 6 Jul 1977. [7] Siplon, James, PBOHP, 19776 Jul 1977. [8] Siplon, James, PBOHP, 6 Jul 1977. [9] Siplon, James, PBOHP, 6 Jul 1977. [10] Siplon, James, PBOHP, 6 Jun 1977. [11] Siplon, James, PBOHP, 6 Jun 1977. [12] Siplon, James, PBOHP, 6 Jun 1977.

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