Photo: Courtesy Minnesota Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial
Photo: Courtesy Minnesota Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial
November 08, 2018 09:05 PM
George Mallon's story was a tale Steve Chicoine felt a need to tell.
While Mallon was one of only two Congressional Medal of Honor winners from Minnesota in World War I, and went on to mount a postwar bid for statewide office as a progressive politician, his life and accomplishments have not been widely shared over the years.
"He's not as well-known as he should be," said Chicoine, a local historian and author.
"He was really a remarkable guy, not just because of what he did during the war. He's a guy, who had he chosen to run for office as a Republican or Democrat, probably could have gone a lot further," he said. "I'm not the only one to say that. Newspaper men said at the time that he could have gone a lot further than he did. He had a lot of credibility as a genuine war hero."
That's part of the story Chicoine set out to tell in "Captain Mallon: Doughboy Hero," a new book set for release in June and available on Chicoine's website. He also hopes to eventually have it available in bookstores throughout the Twin Cities.
It comes at a seemingly appropriate time.
Last month marked the 100th anniversary of America's entrance into World War I. The conflict had an enormous impact on American society. And in Minnesota, 118,499 of the state's residents served, according to research conducted by Doug Thompson, the curator of the Minnesota Military Museum located at Camp Ripley, north of Little Falls.
Thompson said about 1,432 Minnesotans were killed in action between the U.S.'s entry into the war in April of 1917 and the armistice on Nov. 11 of the following year.
Another 2,326 died of diseases like influenza, which spread widely through military camps in France.
"There were a lot of Minnesotans who served very bravely," Thompson said.
That bravery was personified by Mallon, who was a veteran of military service long before the war started.
According to his biography, the Kansas native joined the Kansas Volunteer Infantry as a private during the Spanish-American War of 1898. But Chicoine said his unit did not see action in combat, causing him to re-enlist in the regular Army the following year.
He saw action in the Philippines, where the military was dealing with a rebellion in the newly-acquired territory. He was finally discharged with an excellent service record in 1902.
"His unit got to Tennessee in the Spanish-American War, then it got sick," Chicoine said. "He re-enlisted and got sent to fight in the Philippines, so he had combat experience."
He and his wife were married in 1906, and the couple moved to Minneapolis the following year where he installed sprinkler systems for a fire extinguisher company.
"He was not a military lifer," Chicoine said. "He came to Minnesota and got involved in the labor movement. He was already 40 by the time (World War I) came. But he went and offered to volunteer at officer's training camps. He'd been in the army before. He'd been in action; and he had natural ability as a leader, so he was made a captain pretty quickly."
Mallon eventually arrived in France as part of the American Expeditionary Force in May of 1918 and entered battle in July of that year, seeing action in engagements like the Battle of the Argonne Forest.
It was there, on Sept. 26, 1918, when he and nine men became separated from the balance of their company. But they pushed forward in spite of that, capturing nine hostile machine guns. Mallon then led the men into an attack on a battery of four 155-milimeter howitzers, capturing the battery and crew.
It was said Mallon personally attacked one enemy solider with his fists in the engagement. Later, after sending his men to the flanks, Mallon took the lead in rushing forward under fire to capture two more machine guns.
In all, Mallon and his men captured 100 prisoners, 11 machine guns, four 155-millimeter howitzers and one antiaircraft gun.
"It's crazy to imagine that," Chicoine said. "He just had a few guys with him, and you talk about the fog of war. They were literally dealing with fog, but he never faltered."
Just five days later, on Oct. 1, 1918, he was wounded in his right thigh at Meuse River and remained under medical care in France until Jan. 14, 1919.
His bravery earned him not only the Congressional Medal of Honor, but a place in AEF commander John Pershing's 100 heroes of the war, the French Legion of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm.
"We tend to think of commanding officers more traditionally giving direction to others charging on the front lines," said John Kraemer, the chair of the Minnesota Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial Board. "But to lead is to inspire by action too, and that really seemed to be what George was all about."
Mallon was eventually discharged in June of 1919 and returned to Minneapolis where he accepted a position with the Building Trades Council. He also got involved in politics, running for lieutenant governor as an independent in 1920, when he was endorsed by the Working People's Non-Partisan League.
It was a tough time for progressive politicians. Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs even ran in the 1920 election from a prison cell where he had been jailed for sedition after urging resistance to the military draft.
"At a time when people who were fighting for labor rights and those kind of issues were all being portrayed as Bolsheviks, he brought real credibility," Chicoine said. "This was a genuine war hero. No one could accuse George Mallon of being un-American."
He went on to serve eight years as a Hennepin County Commissioner and was active in veterans' causes before dying at the age of 57 following a stroke in 1934.
But in the years since, his story has not really been told in-depth.
His family said they donated Mallon's medals to Fort Riley in Kansas in the early 2000s, though a grandson said they are not on display there.
But Mallon is among the names of all the state's Congressional Medal of Honor winners displayed at the Minnesota Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial, which was dedicated on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds last October. His likeness is also portrayed in an exhibit at the Military History Museum depicting his bravery under fire.
Now, with his new book, Chicoine is hoping to present his story to an even wider audience.
"Not many people know about Mallon in the Twin Cities, and those who do likely just know his name as a Congressional Medal of Honor winner," Chicoine said. "You just don't hear anything about his political history. And that's part of what made him so interesting to me.
"He was a guy who did a lot of things," he added.