- The Captain Who Fought
World War I in Butte, Montana
- by George
- Captain Bradley's
military career seemed to be hurtling toward a dead end.
Prospects could not have been bleaker for this career U.S. Army
Infantry officer in 1918. He was three years out of West Point,
a graduate of the class of 1915, West Point's "class the
stars fell on," so nicknamed because 59 of the 164 graduates
of that class attained the rank of general. Only the class of
1917 came close with 43 members reaching the rank of general
in their careers.
During World War I, though, his career seemed over. Instead of
being sent to France to command
troops in battle, he was assigned to duty in Arizona to help
guard the nation's southern border against incursions by Pancho
Then a ray of hope for a military career officer: he was assigned
to Vancouver Barracks, Washington to train new recruits for eventual
deployment in France. At last his career may be back on track.
He may be late but he would have an opportunity to further his
career by distinguishing himself on the battlefields of Europe
in what was being described as the war to end all wars.
All that evaporated with the arrival of new orders. Capt. Bradley
was dispatched at the command of Company F to police the strategic
copper mines in Butte, Montana. Instead of leading his men into
battle in France, he had pulled guard duty for the raw copper
essential for casings for bullets and bombs and the copper wire
that were all crucial to America's military.
Labor unrest and the threat of sabotage had resulted in the stationing
of federal troops in Butte and throughout Montana wherever strategic
metals were mined or refined. Other troops served in Anaconda
and Great Falls. In fact, Butte was intermittently occupied by
state militia and federal troops from 1914 until 1921.
When Captain Bradley arrived in Butte by train with Company F
on January 26, 1918, it was 40 degrees below zero. He established
a barracks for his five officers and 86 men at the School of
Mines campus on a bench on the west edge of Butte overlooking
the city's mines.
He would turn 25 on February 12. His wife Mary arrived that month
with her mother, Dora, to join her husband at his remote post.
Mary had recovered from a serious bout with typhoid fever while
Bradley was on border duty in Arizona but she was still weakened
by the disease. Now she was seven months pregnant with their
first child. Whether her recent illness was the cause, or the
bleakness of Butte in February was to blame, she soon went into
labor and the result was a stillborn boy.
To top it off, Bradley found himself in the awkward position
of commanding troops who were draftees from Butte, Irish miners
or miner's sons expecting to be sent to France to fight for their
country. They were among the first young men from Butte drafted
into the Army during World War I and sent to Fort Lewis, Washington
for basic training. Instead of being sent to France, however,
they were turned around after basic training and sent back for
guard duty against their civilian neighbors in their own hometown!
In 1918, Bradley's duty included policing the streets during
a rancorous St. Patrick's Day celebration on North Main Street
in Butte that quickly disintegrated into a riot.
Butte was a city populated by Irish immigrants, some who had
come directly from Ireland to work in Butte's mines. Events in
Ireland included the Easter Uprising of 1916 and the effects
of that turmoil were felt as strongly in Butte as in Dublin.
Also, it was the spring following the Granite Mountain Mine disaster
that killed 168 miners, a miner's strike and the murder of Frank
Little, an I.W.W. organizer who spoke in public about opposing
the war and forming "One Big Union" to oppose capitalism
in Europe and America. Among the suspects for Little's murder
were federal troops offended by his unpatriotic speeches.
Bradley's troops arrested more than 50 men, mostly Irish members
of the Pearse-Connolly Club wearing green and yellow ribbons.
They spent the night in the City Jail according to the newspaper
accounts of the event and one protestor played Irish tunes on
a penny whistle until a few of his tired compatriots took it
from him and smashed it to pieces.
After the event, Bradley commented on the performance of his
men during the riot. "We have no part in the policing of
Butte," Captain Bradley said, "but when my men are
ordered to do a thing, I believe they will do it. We got orders
to assist the police in quelling a riot and had no alternative
but to quell it. I am glad nobody was seriously hurt, but I would
rather have seen a lot of people hurt than to feel that my boys
fell down on the job. I am proud of every boy in my command."
From then on, most of Bradley's time in Butte was taken up giving
patriotic speeches to civic groups, and at Liberty Bond drives,
coaching baseball, and drilling new recruits and draftees.
- One last engagement in harm's
way remained, however.
On Friday, September 13th, Bradley led a raid on the Metal Mine
Workers Hall on South Idaho Street and then the Finlander Hall
on North Wyoming St. where they arrested about 50 suspected members
of the I.W.W. who were preparing fliers to call for a general
strike. Among them was William F. Dunne, editor of The Daily
Bulletin, who was arrested and charged with sedition.
Three days later, on September 16th, troops of the 23rd battalion
from Fort Douglas near Salt Lake City arrived in Butte. Captain
M.S. Gone relieved Major Bradley of his command. After remaining
in Butte to ensure a smooth transition, Bradley received orders
to report to Camp Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa. There, Bradley's
hopes of being sent to Europe were high when they arrived on
September 25 and began intensive training for field conditions
in France. However, by October, those hopes were crushed by an
outbreak of influenza that killed or incapacitated hundreds of
soldiers in the camp. In November, the war ended as did Bradley's
hopes for a combat command.
Of course, more than 25 years later, General Omar N. Bradley
oversaw quite a bit of combat in World War II as he helped plan
and execute the Allied invasion of Europe and the defeat of Germany.
During his career, Bradley earned a reputation as being one of
the best infantry commanders in WWII. He commanded the 82d and
28th Infantry Divisions before going on to command the 1st Army
and the 12th Army Group. After the war he served as Chief of
Staff of the US Army from 1948-1949 and as Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff from 1949-1953 while holding the rank of General
of the Army (five stars).