In honor of Veteran’s Day, and in the ongoing commemoration of the centennial of World War I, today’s post features the Ames Ambulance Unit. This unit consisted of 36 Iowa State College (University) students who volunteered and served on the Italian-Austrian front from 1917-1919.
On April 6, 1917, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson declared war against Germany, officially entering World War I. In May, U.S. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker authorized the formation of the U.S. Army Ambulance Corps and looked to universities across the country to organize volunteer units. Iowa State University was asked to raise a unit of 36 ambulance workers. Nearly 100 men applied and underwent physical examinations as well as tests of their mechanical knowledge, specifically relating to Model T operation and repair. After the 36 men were selected, they began training in first aid, military tactics, automobile operation, and elementary French.
The men enlisted on June 4, 1917, and left for training in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on June 10. Training continued in Allentown for a year before being deployed in Italy. The unit served in Italy until early April 1919, transporting sick and injured soldiers from the front. Harold Benson and Eugene McKibben, drivers in the unit, wrote a chronology of the events of the unit, in which they describe a period of intense action, beginning October 24, 1918: “Offensive opens along entire Italian Front from Lake Garda to Adriatic – Fourth Army spearheads attack up Brenta River – Every ambulance kept busy for next two weeks, Pierce and Dodge trucks pressed into action hauling sitting wounded. As fast as Italians advanced, our posts left Col del Gallo San Felicite and Pove, and moved up Brenta to Feltre, Cismon Primolano, Grigno and Strigno over shell-pocked, camouflaged roads packed with italian infantry and artillery, and miles of Austrian prisoners being marched out of the mountains” (RS 13/16/1, Department of Military Science Subject Files, Box 1, Folder 19).
Armistice was declared November 4 on the entire Italian Front, but the ambulance unit continued its work evacuating soldiers until early April 1919, when they left Italy for France to ultimately return to the United States, to be discharged May 7. In recognition of their service, the Italian government bestowed on the unit the Italian Cross of War.
For more information on the Ames Ambulance Unit, see the Department of Military Science Subject Files (RS 13/16/1).