Nittany Lions Go to War
“I know that he went into the fight as a soldier should. His men trusted him implicitly …. Those of us who knew him intimately … are stunned with a sense of personal loss that cannot be put into words.”
— Captain Robert Kirk, 313th Infantry Regiment to Dorothy S. Kriebel, 1918
A Philadelphia native, Thomas Edwin Kriebel arrived at the Pennsylvania State College in the fall of 1911 and quickly discovered that he had little tolerance for disciplined studies or freshman hazing. Dropping out, he ventured west and settled in Prescott, Arizona, where he elected to pursue a life as a cowboy. Located by his parents, Kriebel was ultimately coaxed back to State College and re-enrolled.
Majoring in commerce and finance, he found an outlet for his willful and rebellious temperament as a member of the college’s recently formed varsity lacrosse team. Competing with the varsity squad as a sophomore in 1915, he played in goal the following season and earned a varsity letter. As the shadow of war loomed over the nation his senior year, he committed to the US Army and prepared for Officer’s Training School that summer. Graduating with the Class of 1917, Kriebel left Penn State with his peers to join a country that had recently entered World War I.
Completing his officer’s training at Fort Niagara, New York, Kriebel received his commission as a second lieutenant in August before joining Company L, 313th Infantry Regiment, 79th Infantry Division. Returning home on leave that fall, he married his sweetheart, Dorothy B. Sanders, in November before returning to his unit at Camp Meade, Maryland. Arriving in France in July 1918, the 79th Infantry Division continued preparing for combat operations. Though relatively green, Kriebel and his comrades found themselves on the leading edge of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive when it commenced on September 26. Tasked with taking the formidable heights at Montfaucon, his regiment sustained terrible casualties during the first day of the operation.
Meeting a friend in a shell hole that night, the 24-year old Kriebel talked about how wonderful it would be to get home to Dorothy, leading his comrade to comment that “he was absolutely foolish about her.” The next morning, Kriebel and the 313th succeeded in capturing Montfaucon. After a pause, they began pushing north towards the Bois de Beuge around 3:30 p.m. and were soon subjected to two hours of shelling, with both explosives and gas, and crossfire from German machine guns. Taking cover, Kriebel, displaying the leadership skills that had made him a success on the lacrosse field, began moving his platoon forward by dashing from one shell hole to the next. Successfully pressing the attack in this manner for nearly two hours, his luck expired when a sniper shot him in the head as he rose up from a shell hole to lead his men forward. Lieutenant Williams of the 313th commented afterward that “Kriebel had shown himself to be absolutely fearless … he was every inch a soldier.”
Buried in France at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Kriebel was one of eight former Penn State varsity letterwinners who lost their lives during World War I.
This April marks the 100th anniversary of America’s involvement in World War I. Kriebel was one of 2,155 Penn State students, alumni, and faculty who served in the war, and one of more than 200 varsity letterwinners (either current at the time or former). A new exhibit, Field to Front: Nittany Lions Go to War, 1917-1919, opens at the Penn State All-Sports Museum this month and will run through April 2018. It features letters, stories, photographs, medals, certificates, and some personal belongings of those who served.
When the United States entered the conflict on April 6, 1917, following continued depredations by German submarines and provocations such as the Zimmermann Telegram, the Pennsylvania State College quickly responded as the campus shifted to offer war-related education and military training. Thousands of students and alumni raced to the colors and joined either the US Army or Navy. The then-current and former Nittany Lion varsity letterwinners rallied to the cause and either joined the military or service organizations such as the YMCA or American Friends Service Committee. While the majority of those who served in the US Army were assigned to the infantry, artillery, or engineers, some, such as Second Lieutenant Thomas A. Jones (1914, wrestling), helped pioneer armored warfare, while others, such as Captain Edgar A. Wilcox (1909, baseball) and Private First Class Harry C. Jester (1911, basketball/track), were assigned to the Chemical Warfare Service or enlisted in Penn State’s Ambulance Service sections.
Though most former varsity athletes saw service with the US Army, 19 elected to join the US Navy. Commissioned as an ensign in October 1917, Donald McKenzie Brown (1916, track) received an assignment as executive officer (second-in-command) of Submarine Chaser 1. Operating from bases at Queenstown, Ireland, and Plymouth, England, SC-1 conducted antisubmarine patrols and escorted inbound convoys. While three former athletes volunteered for submarine service, eight sought assignments in naval aviation. A new specialty, the allure of flight was strong. Though none of the prospective pilots saw combat, one, Ensign David B. Mingle, Jr. (1918, baseball) died in February 1919 when his Curtiss HS-1 flying boat suffered an engine failure and crashed off Pensacola, Florida.
The perceived adventure to be found in the skies drew 19 former athletes to the fledgling US Army Air Service (USAAS). Leading the way for this group was Major Richard Stanley Davis (1916, football/cross country), who arrived in Great Britain in early 1917 with the intention of working with the YMCA. He instead elected to join the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps and saw service in France until transferring to the USAAS in August. Largely trained by the French, he flew combat missions with the 77th Escadrille from June until September 1918. During this time, he engaged enemy fighters flown Manfred von Richthofen’s (The Red Baron) Flying Circus and succeeded in downing two German aircraft. Writing to his mother in July 1918, Davis related that “we got in several mix-ups and I am not sure whether I got a Hun or not … well it was a thriller.” His mood quickly changed as later in that patrol, “I felt a lot of hot oil on my legs … my motor stuck fast, the propeller stopped, and my heart did, too.” Despite the damage to his engine, Davis successfully landed his aircraft in a nearby field. His efforts with the 77th Escadrille earned him the French Croix de Guerre with Palm.
Recognizing that Davis possessed invaluable experience, the USAAS assigned him to command one of the advanced training airfields at the 3rd Aviation Instruction Center at Issoudon. Earning a commendation for his performance from General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), he also encountered several fellow Penn State athletes in this role. Among these were First Lieutenant Benjamin “Casey” Jones (1919, football/lacrosse) and Captain William “Whitey” Thomas (1917, football). The former would see service as a fighter pilot with the famed 94th Aero Squadron and later acted as a key booster for Penn State football during Bob Higgins’s tenure as head coach. Thomas, a standout end who later played professionally for the Frankford Yellow Jackets and Philadelphia Quakers, flew as a reconnaissance pilot with the 12th Aero Squadron. Earning praise from his commanding officers as a “bold, fearless” pilot who was “cool-headed in action,” he received multiple recommendations for the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives.
While some former varsity athletes soared above the front, the majority saw service in the trenches and rear areas below. Former Nittany Lions took part in every major ground campaign in which American forces saw action, including halting the last German offensives and the Second Battle of the Marne in the summer of 1918, as well as the Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives that fall. It was in these engagements that Sergeant Milton L. Bishop (1916, basketball), Captain Kirby B. Sleppy (1911, basketball), and First Lieutenant Edward L. Moore (1918, baseball) all fell.
The oldest former athlete to lose his life in France was Captain James M. McKibbin (1896, football). A doctor in civilian life, the 46-year old McKibben served as the senior officer for the Medical Detachment, 3rd Battalion, 308th Infantry Regiment. On October 14, 1918, he was mortally wounded while attempting to rescue an injured soldier between the lines. For his heroism, he posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross.
Two former varsity athletes who were killed during the war, Second Lieutenant Levi L. Lamb (1915, football/wrestling/track) and First Lieutenant James D. “Red” Bebout (1914, football), have long been recognized by a plaque in the lobby of Rec Hall. Teammates on the undefeated 1911 and 1912 football teams, they served in the 39th and 318th Infantry Regiments, respectively. A three-sport star, Lamb was the first athlete to be killed when he was hit near Vierzy on July 18, 1918. Described by his commanding officers as a “courageous and gallant officer, beloved alike by his fellow officers and men,” Lamb’s memory was honored at Penn State when the athletic annual fund for scholarships was named for him in 1953.
Taking part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive with the 80th Infantry Division, Bebout fell on September 29, 1918. An exemplary infantry officer, he had volunteered to lead a platoon to re-establish contact with a nearby regiment and was struck in the head by a machine gun bullet near the Bois de Brieulles. His family learned of his death via a coded letter sent by future head football coach First Lieutenant Bob Higgins, who also was a member of the 318th Infantry. As censorship regulations precluded Higgins mentioning Bebout by name, he instead referred to “a dear friend with red hair who played football on State and graduated in Nineteen Fourteen.”
With the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918, fighting ended on the Western Front. Most former athletes remained with their units in Europe until returning home in the spring and summer of 1919. To keep American soldiers occupied and out of mischief, several schools and sports leagues were established by the AEF. Brought in as a ringer, Higgins competed with the 89th Infantry Division football team and won the AEF championship. In recognition of the 73 Penn State students and alumni, including the eight former athletes, who were lost during the war, Penn State held a special commemorative service on Decoration (Memorial) Day 1919.
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Field to Front: Nittany Lions Go to War, 1917-1918 will be exhibited at the Penn State All-Sports Museum through April 2018. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit gopsusports.com/museum.