The Princeton Bantam Boys marching off to the Marne battlefield, France, 1917.
A small band of America’s lost heroes.
As said by a retired neurosurgeon, “More believable than Hemingway. I think anyone who sends other men’s sons to war should be required to read this account first.”
The German Empire and the Republic of France, with their British allies, had ground their armies to dust for four disastrous years. The tragedy continued. The 1918 German spring offensive entered its tenth vicious day. To the exhausted French soldats and their American medics in its path, stopping tens of thousands of Germans, les Boche, seemed as unachievable as pushing lava back into a volcano.
June 25, 1918. Near the River Marne .
The Germans continued their attack as the American ambulance driver retreated. A bullet struck the radiator of the battered little Ford truck. Steam spewed from the overheated engine, whistling furiously as if from a deranged tea kettle. United States Army Private Ralph Heller turned and pounded on the wooden ambulance’s backboard. He yelled to his wounded French soldiers in the rear, “She’s done for! Get out!”
As he spoke, an air burst artillery shell exploded overhead. A pressure wave tumbled down on him and slammed his face into the steering wheel. Shrapnel fell. It struck his helmet and peppered his arms with piercing splinters of white-hot metal.
Stunned by the blast, Ralph’s mind strayed from the onslaught. Seconds passed. His eyes would not focus. His ears could not identify muffled sounds. His nose was bent but he felt no pain. A moment of confused tranquility overtook him.
Looking to the sky he said, “My fault boys…”
Ralph pulled an old rabbit’s foot out from the upper pocket of his soiled Army blouse. He dangled it in the air with a shaky hand. He realized his celebrated “Heller Luck” had just run out. Ralph Herbert Heller, 26 years old, Army volunteer, medical student, YMCA champion wrestler, entered the war believing he was indestructible. He was immortal.
Most soldiers started it that way.
None now believed it.
Ralph and his fellow Princeton University volunteers, the Bantam Boys, began with grand dreams on how the Great War would end. His finish was not a celebration where he received numerous medals with proud family members in attendance.
His ending was a nightmare plunge down a nameless abyss. Thoughts tumbled in his head. This wasn’t how it’s supposed to be. How could it go so wrong? I loused up everything!
Ralph felt like a crumpled piece of trash thrown into an incinerator. He had burned so completely not even his soul remained. In his mind the entire war had been futile. Nobility in war was a grand illusion. He had been duped by false visions of glory.
Now he would pay for it with his life.
Overwhelming fatigue gripped him. He didn’t know what day it was. He had forgotten the names of the last towns he had driven through. He wondered, Will anyone know how I died? Would anyone care?
The grave of Bantam Boy Carey Evans.
Ralph slumped in his seat as he dropped his rabbit’s foot onto the mud covered floorboards. He casually flipped the dented helmet off his head and wiped his dirty, sweat streaked cheeks. His wounded left arm began to ache. Trickles of blood emerged from his punctured eardrums. Artillery explosions were muffled as though he was underwater. The vile odor of 100,000 dead soldiers assaulted his nostrils once more.
Suddenly to his left, a jittery, undernourished German private jumped up. The Boche charged with his bayonet-clad Mauser Gewehr 98 bolt-action rifle to within a foot of Ralph’s face.
He didn’t move. He stared back at the anxious Boche without enough energy to care or worry. He could no longer even muster hate. If anything, Ralph felt relief.
The two men watched each other; for how long Ralph didn’t know. Colors faded away. Sounds grew nonexistent. The moment became surreal as if they were in a silent movie like the ones Ralph had watched in the hospital camp cinema room.
The German’s bony finger closed on his trigger.
Ralph bowed his head. With his remaining strength, he tried to conjure up a picture of her in his mind. Her photograph, weeks ago, had been obliterated by artillery.
He closed his eyes. Then he could see her. She looked so pretty in her white nurse’s uniform.
Ralph smiled gently. “Love ya, Edyth…”
Ralph’s girlfriend (and my future grandmother) US Army Nurse Edyth Lemmon, Camp Upton, New York, 1917.
Private Heller and the Bantam Boys: An American Medic in World War I is a narrative nonfiction book based on my grandfather’s combat diary. It covers Private Ralph Heller’s training and subsequent Allied campaign experiences on the Somme and Marne battlefields in the United States Army Ambulance Corps. He was a volunteer with Princeton University Bantams as a medic and ambulance driver detailed to French forces from 1917 to 1919. He was a first year medical student in Battle Creek, Michigan. He originally joined Dr. Case’s Battle Creek Boys but transferred to the Bantams to get to France right away. Everyone thought the war was almost over. My grandfather and the Bantam Boys were in for an awful surprise.
The savage war would last 18 months from June of 1917 to November 1918. Even with the involvement of the United States, another million soldiers on both sides of the trenches would die. The final French and American combat statistics tell a tragic story:
FRENCH AND AMERICAN WORLD WAR ONE CASUALTIES
American Battle Deaths: 53,513
French Battle Deaths: 1,357,800
American Wounded: 204,002
French Wounded: 4,266,000
Estimated Total Deaths in the Great War for Allied and Central Powers Countries: 21,228,813
My grandfather, Ralph Heller, died before I was born. I originally wrote this manuscript for my family. And for me. I wanted to get to know the man that nobody spoke about. My quest started as a transcript of his diary. Then I did considerable research on the history and conduct of World War One. Some of that research is on this site.
As a psychologist, I rewrote that first transcript into a “psychological autopsy.” I wanted to see what drove a promising young medical student into a troubled life after the war. I evolved that effort into a study of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or “shell shock” as it was known in that era. I had treated Vietnam veterans in the 1980’s. I wanted to see how treatment evolved and perhaps write an academic paper on the subject. Then something changed.
In brief, the only way I can describe it is that my grandfather’s story demanded to be told. I struggled to write it over and over while having unusual dreams and vivid combat nightmares. And dreams consisting of me having a “dialogue” with Ralph and, as I call them, “my Bantam Boys.” At times I did wonder if I had taken a long walk off a short pier.
But I finally found my grandfather. I discovered that, despite their extreme anguish in the war, Ralph and his Princeton University buddies were thoughtful, sensitive and they could be hilarious.
As their Sergeant Lee once said, “Heller, you’re funnier than a one-legged Boche trying to jump a ten foot trench.”
After the Great War, Ralph’s leather bound diary lay forgotten in my grandmother Edyth’s attic for 43 years. Ralph and Edyth divorced in the 1930’s. My grandfather died alone some twenty years later. When my grandmother passed away in 1963, my grandfather’s personal effects were given to the eldest son, my uncle Ralph. The diary stayed with my uncle until 1998 when he presented it to me.
Privates Bill McClenaghan and Ralph Heller near the Marne River, 1918,
after 30 hours of nonstop driving
and saving over seventy wounded French soldiers.
Ralph was a fine medic. He saved hundreds of lives and won numerous medals. He was one of the most highly decorated American medics of the Great War with two French Croix de Guerres (Cross of War) with Bronze Palm (the highest order), the American Purple Heart, a French Citation for Valor, the Victory Medal with four battle claps and a pictorial Citation signed by President Woodrow Wilson that now hangs on my office wall next to a dramatic, color illustrated French combat scroll for bravery.
Private Ralph Heller in full battle dress and brand new mustache.
Ready for the winter of 1917. And it was a cold, nasty year.
My greatest hope is that the book and website would have made my grandfather proud.
Private Heller and the Bantam Boys: An American Medic in World War I is dedicated to Private Ralph Heller, the Princeton University Bantams,the United States Army Ambulance Corps and every man or woman who has ever gone to war not to take lives, but to save them.
Ralph’s two Croix de Guerres.
You can’t say civilization don’t advance. In every war they kill you in a new way.
–Will Rogers (circa 1920)
If we remember old wars, perhaps we will be less likely to start new ones.
All website photos and content © 2015 Dr. Gregory Archer