The units of the American Expeditionary Forces technically served under the command of the Allied Forces, but General John J. Pershing had been ordered by the War Department to create, train, and field an independent American Army. On 10 August, Pershing finally got what he was hoping for: a General Order was signed establishing the First United States Army. Their first engagement would be the Saint-Mihiel Salient.
This battle was the first time Americans units used armor and aviation in combat. The air campaign involved 1,481 aircraft, most borrowed from the British and French. The armor and aerial units were needed to defeat the enemy’s elaborate systems of trenches, barbed-wire entanglements, concrete shelters, and fortified machines-gun emplacements. Over 555,000 U.S. and 110,000 French soldiers conducted the successful attack.
The Saint-Mihiel campaign was the first in which the American Expeditionary Forces functioned as an independent Army. Its joint operations with the Allied Forces proved significant in establishing how the United States formed its military alliances and international partnerships.
The cruel nature of this battle — which included massive artillery shelling, aerial bombardment, armored vehicles, severe weather, and trench welfare — left the battlefield of Saint-Mihiel destroyed, making it difficult for medical operations and burial details. The dead had to be buried in temporary plots. When it was time to establish the permanent Saint-Mihiel American Cemetery, the middle of the battleground was selected.
Because of the painful sacrifice suffered by American families, the United States would plan, design and establish overseas cemeteries and memorials to honor the men and women who gave their lives in what was supposed to be the “War to End All Wars.”
Beginning in 1919, American families were given a choice relative to the repatriation of their loved ones back to the United States. The choice of repatriation or relocation to permanent cemeteries was made to all families, irrespective of race, creed, or social stature. Those not returning home were moved from the small temporary cemeteries to permanent sites like Saint-Mihiel. This cemetery is the third largest World War I American cemetery in France. The 4,153 burials at Saint-Mihiel represent about one-third of the total number killed during the offensive.
Although the United States Army was segregated, the soldiers and civilians buried at the Saint-Mihiel American cemetery experienced a unity in death. The burials were integrated, ignoring gender, race, rank, unit, date of mortality, or of military/civilian status. Forty per cent of all the soldiers who fell during this battle remain in the Saint-Mihiel American Cemetery.
In the decades following the war, it would be the task of a new Federal agency to support and manage overseas commemorative efforts – the American Battle Monuments Commission.
In 1923, the American Battle Monuments Commission was created to manage the proliferation of monuments and memorials to American soldiers overseas. Later, it was given the task of honoring in perpetuity, the courage, competence, and sacrifice of the American men and women who died during America’s overseas military actions by managing American overseas cemeteries.
The Commission, led by the former commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, General John J. Pershing, worked with some of the nation’s most renowned sculptors, architects, and landscape architects, to design classic works of public art.
The simple white stone memorial consists of a colonnade with a large rose-granite urn and carved drapery at its center. The urn features a decorative winged horse, symbolizing the flight of the immortal soul to the afterlife.
To the right of the peristyle is a museum where the names of 284 missing soldiers are recorded on the walls. An inlaid marble map depicting the St. Mihiel Offensive, by renowned mosaic artist Francis Barry Faulkner, faces the door.
The bronze door to the left leads into the chapel. Your immediate attention is drawn to the ivory-tinted altar. The mosaic above the altar depicts the symbolic Angel of Victory after the battle, sheathing a sword, surrounded by doves of peace bearing olive branches. Mosaic shields display the colors of the United States and France. The ceiling is decorated in gold and blue, while the floor is green inlaid marble.
Architect Thomas Harlan Ellett placed behind the chapel two weeping willow trees correspond to the position of the flagpoles in front. The original trees were planted in 1934, the year that the chapel was completed.