The American military takes all kinds: from former Finnish freedom fighter/SS officer-turned Army Special Forces officer Lauri Törni to the Irishmen who stepped off of the boat at Ellis Island and into a Union uniform and even French-born Confederates during the Civil War.
No matter where you come from, one can’t help but find the true meaning of “being an American” when serving in the US military during a time of war- particularly on the front lines.
Such was the case of Abraham Krotoshinsky, a Polish Jew who moved to the United States in 1912 to escape service in the Russian Army and would later serve in nine companies of the 77th Infantry Division, who would later become known as “Lost Battalion” after being surrounded by German Imperial troops.
Born in late 1892 in then-Russian Empire-controlled Polan, Krotoshinsky could not stand the Russians due to their harsh treatment of Jews.
“I ran away from Russia and came to America to escape military service,” he would later say. “I hated Russia, its people, its government, in particular its cruel and inhuman treatment of Jews. Such a Government I refused to serve”
Quickly learning English and taking on a job as a barber in New York City before he was called into military service in one of America’s bloodiest wars – World War One.
Training at Long Island, Krotoshinsky felt a strong urge to serve, driven by the passion for his new homeland.
“America, my adopted land, was always more precious to me than the land of my birth, in which I considered myself an alien and an outsider,” he said.
Interestingly enough, Krotoshinsky was not even a US citizen at the time of his enlistment. However, this did not stop him from boarding what may have been a one-way journey back to Europe- namely, the war-torn hell that was France’s Argonne Forest.
During an engagement in November of 1918, over 500 Allied soldiers found themselves trapped in the forest by surrounding German troops. In particular, several companies of the 308th Infantry Regiment -which included Krotoshinsky- became pinned down, mercilessly bombarded with artillery -from both the Americans and Germans- and popped at with machine gun and rifle fire.
Cut off and under siege, the American forces continued to send out messengers to contact friendly forces and get them to adjust their deadly artillery fire. Unfortunately, nobody could make it through.
That is, until Krotoshinsky volunteered.
“Again a request was made for volunteers,” he recalled in the book The Jew in the American World. “I stepped forward. Another soldier with whom they sent me out was forced to return soon after. I continued alone. I started out at daybreak, but it did not take me long to be aware that I was a target for the Germans.
I ran across an open space, down a valley and up a valley into some bushes. I remember crawling, lying under bushes, digging myself into holes.
Somehow or other -I don’t know how to this day- I found myself at nightfall in German trenches. I saw several of them smoking cigarettes.”
Krotoshinsky suddenly felt the gravity of his situation when the Germans began moving his way.
“I knew that if they knew of my visit the greetings they would have extended to me would not be any too friendly,” he recalled. “I hid under some bushes, lying prone and acting dead. A German who, judging from the pressure, never knew anything about a reducing diet, stepped on one of my fingers, but I kept myself from making any outcry. Later, I crawled into another deserted German trench.”
Eventually, the young Private made his way to friendly lines and delivered his message.
“You can imagine the thrill I got when I heard good English words spoken. No music ever sounded better.”
Thanks to Krotoshinsky, the Americans shifted their artillery fire and began sending in a relief squad. In the end, 194 members of the approximately 500 soldiers of “The Lost Battalion” that weren’t killed, wounded or captured managed to walk out of the Argonne unharmed.
Upon hearing of his bravery, US commander of Western front forces General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing awarded the young Jewish private with the Distinguished Service Cross, which is second only to the Medal of Honor. Despite being humbled by the event, Krotoshinsky felt he was just doing his job.
“What I did, it seems to me, was nothing heroic, nothing deserving of all this fuss, and a stunt which I carried out because I wanted to, and had the next one been as lucky as I, he too would have been able to do it,” he said.
After World War One, Abraham Krotoshinsky would become an American citizen. Eventually, he would move to Palestine, where he would marry and have two children. Falling on hard times when he moved back to the states, he would later be approved -via executive order- by President Calvin Coolidge to work as a US Postal Service clerk without having to take a required test- as he had already taken the ultimate test in the Argonne.
Thankful for his position, Krotoshinsky worked for the US Postal Service until he died at the age of 60 in 1953. In 2001, Krotoshinksy was portrayed by musician Arthur Kremer in the A&E TV film, The Lost Battalion.
Like many great immigrants who have come to the United States in search of freedom, safety and opportunity, Krotoshinsky not only assimilated into American culture upon arrival but answered the call to battle on the country’s behalf without hesitation. Despite hardships and overwhelming odds stacked against him, Abraham Krotoshinsky ran through the “belly of the beast” to save the lives of his fellow Americans, alone and surrounded by enemy troops in the dead of night, knowing that he would either accomplish his mission or die trying.
If that isn’t the embodiment of the American spirit, I don’t know what is.
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