Fort Missoula Bicycle Corps

A full account of the Bicycle Corps can be found in That Beautiful Little Post: the Story of Fort Missoula.
Fort Missoula Cover
That Beautiful Little Post: the Story of Fort Missoula

In 1896 a far‑sighted Army officer named Lieutenant James A. Moss of the 25th Infantry learned that several European Army’s were experimenting with bicycles, and he began his own tests on the suitability of bicycles for military purposes at Fort Missoula, a frontier military post in Montana. Although the officers were white, the 25th Infantry was a “crack black regiment.”

The 25th Infantry bicyclists climb Minerva Rerrace in Yellowstone National Park
The 25th Infantry bicyclists climb Minerva Terrace in Yellowstone National Park

Moss sent his uniformed cyclists pedaling through the valleys of western Montana in the summer of 1896, delivering messages to remote outposts. By the end of the summer, Moss and his men embarked on an eight hundred mile tour of Yellowstone National Park which proved so successful that Lieutenant Moss decided to push his bicycle corps to the limit, and during the winter of 1896 he planned a new trip. His goal was St. Louis Missouri, half a continent away. Since many of the roads in the West were little more than unimproved horse trails, Moss planned to follow the route of the new Northern Pacific railroad to Billings, then along the route of the Burlington railroad to St. Louis. Knowing he had no sag wagon to rely on, Moss chose his route carefully, shipping supplies and spare bicycle parts to fourteen railroad stations along the route.

Mansfield Library UM 73-31
Mansfield Library UM 73-31

“Bad roads, Hard Winds, Alkali Water, Rattlesnakes and many other pleasures” was how a local newspaper described the United States Army’s first extensive test of the bicycle. Armed with the grandiose title of the Fort Missoula Bicycle Corps, twenty‑three soldiers pedaled their heavy, balloon‑tired bicycles past the front gate of a frontier military outpost in Montana on a cloudy gray day in 1897. The cyclists (they preferred to be called wheelmen) were headed to St. Louis Missouri, nineteen hundred unpaved miles from their starting point. Members of the 25th Infantry, they carried rifles, ammunition, and camping gear as they pushed their bikes through a blizzard on the Continental Divide, dealt with hailstorms, rattlesnakes, intense heat, and roads that were never intended for bicycling. Mud clogged their tires, rain soaked them day and night, and illness, “skeeters”, and exhaustion took their toll; nevertheless, their forty day journey to St. Louis was an unqualified success.

FMBC map
Route map from Missoula to St. Louis

Newspapers across the country, including the New York Times, had been following the progress of the Bicycle Corps, and in Lincoln Nebraska the cyclists were mobbed by so many curious citizens that they were forced to camp on the statehouse lawn. On the following day they met a family of German immigrants who plied the hungry soldiers with milk, bread, cookies, and cake. Edward Boos reported “when the corps left the place I dare say that not a crust remained in the bread box of the dear woman.”

Mansfield Library UM 672-240
Mansfield Library UM 672-240

 On July 24, forty days after leaving Fort Missoula, the Bicycle Corps were escorted into St. Louis by local bicycle clubs. Thousands of curious onlookers lined the streets as they pedaled the last few miles to their campsite at Forest Park. The weary troopers regaled local cyclists with their adventures, while Moss, Kennedy and Boos were entertained by the leading citizens of St. Louis.

A few days later, the soldiers cheered the news that they would be returning to Montana by train. Despite the rain which had plagued them two out of every three days, Lt. Moss and his men had conclusively demonstrated that bicycling was an effective means of military transportation. Although one man had been unable to keep up and had returned to Missoula halfway through the trip, the soldiers and their bicycles had stood the trip remarkably well. Resting only two days out of forty, they had averaged forty‑seven miles a day on their nineteen hundred mile journey.

Read more about the history of Fort Missoula  and the Fort Missoula Bicycle Corps

Fort Missoula Cover
That Beautiful Little Post: the Story of Fort Missoula
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Iwo Jima and Louis Charlo

Seventy years ago this month an invasion fleet loaded with U.S. Marines sailed towards the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima. The attack transport USS Missoula carried the men of the 28th Marines,  including at least two Montanans, Louis Charles Charlo of Evaro Montana and PFC Donald Ruhl of Columbus, Montana. When the men of the 28th Regiment left the Missoula to board their landing craft, they took with them a small American flag that was destined to make history.

Louis Charlo was a member of the Salish tribe and a great-grandson of Chief Charlo. He enlisted in November 1943, one month after he turned 17, then trained at San Diego. He was serving as a BAR man with F Company on February 23, 1945 when he and three other men were sent to climb to the summit of 546-foot-high Mt. Suribachi.

Louis Charlo
Marine Louis Charlo

 

Expecting certain death, they instead found no resistance. They slid back down and reported to Lt. Colonel Chandler Johnson what they had found. Lt. Harold Schrier and a platoon of Easy Company were sent back up the mountain, where several men found a 20-foot piece of pipe, to which they lashed the flag taken from the USS Missoula. As they raised it over the island, Louis R. Lowery of Leatherneck
Magazine snapped a photograph just before a Japanese grenade hit near him, breaking his camera, but leaving the film unhurt. According to the official Marine Corps account of this first flag-raising, Louis Charlo was one of the men in the photo, although others have disputed this. Decades after the flag-raising, another Marine claimed that it was he and not Charlo who was shown in the original photo, but there is little to substantiate his claim.

Iwo Jima flag raising
The first flag-raising on Iwo Jima

Since the small flag couldn’t be seen from afar, or perhaps because Lt. Colonel Johnson wanted to keep the flag for the 28th Marines, a second flag was raised over the island two hours later. The famous photo of this second flag-raising was flashed worldwide and won Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize. This image, the most famous photograph of World War II, became the logo for a three cent stamp (issued in June 1945), the logo for the
Seventh War Bond Drive, and as the inspiration for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, dedicated in 1954.
A catholic priest held a mass after Mt. Suribachi was captured. A photo taken during the mass showed Louis Charlo in the group. It was the last known photo of the man from Evaro. Charlo was killed in action on March 2, 1945, and his remains were returned to Montana in 1948. After extremely heavy casualties on both sides, Iwo Jima was finally secured on March 17.

Montana's Home Front World War II
Montana’s Home Front During World War II
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Devil’s Brigade awarded Congressional Gold Medal

Forty-two members of the legendary First Special Service Force, better known as the Devil’s Brigade, attended a ceremony in Washington DC on Feb. 3, 2015 to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.  The First Special Service Force was a joint Canadian-American group of commandoes trained to drop behind enemy lines in occupied Norway during World War II. Fourteen of the attendees at the ceremony were Canadians.

FSSF ski training
Ski Training along the Continental Divide at Blossburg, Montana

When the mission to Norway was called off, the Forcemen were sent to assault the Japanese held island of Kiska in the Aleutians, then were sent to the mountains of Italy. In Italy they climbed the German held mountains of Monte La Difensa and Mount Radicosa.

The Devil's Brigade at Anzio
A Devil’s Brigade outpost at Anzio.

During the landing at Anzio, the Forcemen mounted large-scale night raids into German territory, their faces blackened by shoe-polish. German soldiers, terrified by their commando tactics and night raids, dubbed them the “Black Devils.” They eventually led the Allied advance into Rome.

The First Special Service Force participated in the invasion of Southern France, but was disbanded December 5, 1944, with the Canadians returning to their own army.

The surviving members of the Devil’s Brigade who were unable to attend the ceremony in Washington will receive their Congressional Gold Medals at a ceremony in Helena during the summer of 2015. Stay tuned for more information.

Suicide Mission: The Devil’s Brigade

Learn more about the Devil’s Brigade here.

Last two members of the Devil’s Brigade pass away in Helena

 

 

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