Tomahawk Soldiers In The Great War

Nov 11, 2020

Today is Veterans Day in the United States, but prior to 1954 it was known as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War One. To honor Northwoods veterans, historian Gary Entz has a story of two soldiers from Tomahawk who distinguished themselves in the Great War.

In 1928, Orville Scheffner and Robert Coey of Tomahawk were notified that they were about to receive a French citation for valor and heroism on the field of battle that Marshall Philippe Pétain of France had awarded them in 1919. None of the press reports of 1928 thought the award important enough to identify by name, and Scheffner dismissed it out-of-hand. “These things don’t mean bread and butter,” said Scheffner, “and the glamor of the whole business has sort of faded by this time.” In fact, the medal the men received was the Croix de Guerre, one of the highest honors a soldier who fought for the Allies could receive from the French government. It was an achievement worth remembering.

World War I broke out in August 1914, but the U.S. maintained a stance of neutrality until April 6, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. When war was declared, many young men in the Northwoods stepped forward to volunteer for duty in the armed forces. In Tomahawk, John B. Fosnot, who was the local conservation commissioner, was one of 84 men who stepped forward to serve. Fosnot was one of the few volunteers with previous military experience, so he was appointed captain and the job of organizing the recruits fell to him. Among the recruits who joined with him in what became Company A of the 119th Machine Gun Battalion at Tomahawk were Orville Scheffner and Robert Coey.

Born in 1897, Scheffner was not yet twenty when he joined the battalion as a bugler. Coey was born in 1892 and almost twenty-five. The unit formally entered the Wisconsin National Guard in May, was mobilized for service in July, and mustered into federal service in August. In September, the soldiers were sent to Waco, Texas, where they were joined by other Wisconsin recruits. In February 1918, the unit left Texas, boarded a ship in New Jersey, and landed in France on March 4. The soldiers from Tomahawk were among the first units sent to France and were initially stationed in the Alsace sector.

The company was transferred to the Chateau Thierry sector in July 1918 and participated in most of the major battles until the armistice was signed. These engagements included Soissons, Belleau Woods, Cantigny, and the Argonne. It was during the Chateau Thierry drive that the company suffered its greatest casualties.

During the battle, it was Scheffner and Coey working as messengers who ran through heavy crossfire to alert American artillery crews that their bombardment was falling short and causing casualties among their own troops. For their bravery on the field of battle, both men were awarded the Silver Star from the U.S. Army and the Croix de Guerre from the French. The Tomahawk unit lost three of its men during the war and were among the first U.S. troops to set foot on German soil.

The unit was demobilized in May 1919, and both men returned home to Tomahawk. Coey died in 1953, while Scheffner died in 1980.