On this day in 1918, two heroes engage in an action that would earn each the Medal of Honor. Pfc. Jesse Funk and Pfc. Charles Barger were perhaps an unlikely pair.
Funk was a Coloradan and the son of ranchers. Meanwhile, Barger was the son of a convicted murderer; he’d been put up for adoption after his father went to prison. His adoptive parents mostly wanted his help on their Missouri farm.
Both men were drafted into the Army during the spring of 1918; they would become friends.
Their heroism came on October 31, 1918, as the two served near Bois-deBantheville, France, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. That effort would ultimately bring an end to World War I, but the two young soldiers couldn’t know that. Instead, they were focused on what they had learned about two patrols sent into “No Man’s Land” between Allied and enemy trenches.
The patrols were to reconnoiter the area and locate enemy lines, but two officers had been attacked and wounded. 2LT John Millis ordered his men to retreat, leaving him and 1LT Ernest Rowell behind in No Man's Land. The soldiers escaped and reported the situation to Colonel Conrad Babcock.
Babcock was in a tough spot. He didn’t want to leave wounded men stranded, but he wouldn’t order anyone to undertake such a dangerous rescue, either. Just then, Barger and Funk volunteered. Together, they grabbed a stretcher and started out into the open.
“Those darned machine-gun bullets were just singing songs around us and I figured every minute they were going to get us,” Funk said, according to Barger’s biographer. They finally crossed the 500 yards to Millis, but Millis wouldn’t leave. He ordered them to take Rowell instead.
Amazingly, the two made it back to Allied lines with Rowell. They had bullet holes in their clothes, but they were uninjured. They went back for Millis, loaded him on a stretcher and ran for their lives.
“The stretcher was hit several times,” Barger described, again according to his biographer, “and I saw bullets slash open the seat of Jesse’s pants. A bullet cut the canvas under the lieutenant from side to side, but he was not hit.”
Would you believe that, after they got Millis to safety, they went back for another wounded soldier they’d found? “The German machine guns ceased firing and the machine gunners stood up and watched us,” Barger concluded. “It was not an act of goodwill; they just couldn’t understand why we hadn’t been killed long before.”
Each man would receive a Medal of Honor, but their stories do not end there.
Barger struggled after the war. Today, he would be diagnosed with PTSD, but in the 1920s no one knew what to do. He tried farming again, then served as a police officer. In 1936, he had a total breakdown and was “temporarily deranged,” according to one newspaper report. He tried to kill both himself and his wife. The episode left him badly burned, and he died of those wounds a few days later.
“That the breakdown was due to his war experience no comrade of Charles Barger would deny,” a Kansas City Star journalist somberly reported. “Yet through the years every effort made by the veterans’ organizations to persuade the government that sent him to war to admit responsibility for his mental condition ended in failure.”
For his part, Funk passed away in 1933 after appendicitis surgery. The public remembered him more fondly.
“Going away virtually an unknown youth of the plains,” one newspaper concluded, “Funk so conducted himself on European soil that he became the greatest war hero of all time to residents of Colorado Springs, El Paso County, and the state of Colorado.”
“[W]hat I did any man would do who had the chance,” Funk once humbly said. “I was lucky to get the chance.”
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A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign (Edward G. Lengel ed. 2014)
A World War Hero Dies (Kansas City Star; March 22, 1933) (page 4)
A World War Hero Shot (Kansas City Star; Nov. 24, 1936) (p. 6)
Colorado Hero Will Not Go Into Vaudeville (Grand Forks Herald; June 26, 1919) (page 2)
Death of a War Hero (St. Joseph News-Press; March 29, 1933) (page 5)
His Glory Dim in Death (Kansas City Star; Nov. 28, 1936)
Jesse Funk, Noted War Hero, is Dead (Abilene Daily Reporter; March 22, 1933) (page 9)
Jesse M. Funk War Hero Mustered Out (Carlsbad Current-Argus; March 23, 1933) (page 3)
Joseph Bowman, Quietly Exploding: The Life of Medal of Honor Hero Charles Barger (2018)
Kathy Feist, He was one of the most highly decorated soldiers during WWI. Now this local hero will have a building in his name (Martin City Telegraph; Nov. 10, 2019)
Medal of Honor citation (Charles Denver Barger; WWI)
Medal of Honor citation (Jesse N. Funk; WWI)
Medal of Honor Monday: Army Pfc. Charles Barger (U.S. Dept of Defense website)
Pfc. Jesse N. Funk (Military Health System & Defense Health Agency website)
Pfc. Charles Barger (Military Health System & Defense Health Agency website)
Pithy News Notes from all parts of Colorado (Elk Mountain Pilot; Feb, 13, 1919) (page 4)
The United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia (Anne Cipriano Venzon ed., 2012)
War Diary of 354th Infantry, 89th Division (compiled by Lt. John F. McGrath) (1920)