Indian Leads Polish Unit in WWI

Last weekend, we entertained some houseguests by taking them for a tour of Gettysburg Battlefield. In the evening afterward, one of our guests mentioned that her grandfather, an immigrant from Poland who lived in the Detroit area, had served in an all-Polish unit in the U. S. Army during World War I. I recalled from researching William Gardner (a chapter of Doctors, Lawyers, Indian Chiefs is devoted to him) that he was put in charge of an all-Polish unit at Camp Custer during WWI.

An article titled, “Gardner is the Only Real American Officer in Army,” ran in the October 6, 1917 edition of The Fort Wayne Sentinel. In part, it said:

Captain Gardner is in a unique position in the new army, for in the assignment of recruits to the various regiments and companies he was given a large group of men of foreign extraction from Detroit, nearly half of his company being of Polish extraction. Of the Polish contingent in Captain Gardner’s company there were many who could not speak or understand English so the first problem of this real American officer was how to make His new soldiers understand the language in which they will fight.

Gardner, however, in his first problem of his new life in the army, showed the same resourcefulness which made him the terror of foes whom he had met on the gridiron, for he immediately detailed one of his lieutenants to begin to learn Polish. The lieutenant began his duties, learning the Polish words for such commands as “squads right,” and “right face” and when Gardner’s commands were given to the company in English, the lieutenant repeated them in Polish for the foreign born soldiers in Uncle Sam’s army. The Poles were so pleased at Captain Gardner’s efforts to help them learn to fight for their new country that they took to drill with a will.

“My company won’t take a back seat for any company in the new army, even if they did have to learn soldiering through an interpreter.” says Captain Gardner, “They are the best drilled men in camp today, we think, just because they tried to work and show their appreciation of the work my lieutenants did with them.”

 Next time, Part II

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