By ROBERT COOK
A couple of years ago I was walking through St. Boniface Cemetery, at 20th and State Street, when I noticed a gravestone with a Marine Corps flag on one side and a U.S. flag on the other. "William C. Siepker, 1898--1918, 75th Reg. Co. B 6th Div. A.E.F." The gravestone had a Marine Corps symbol. A few months later I saw one of my Marine Corps buddies, George Staerker, who had served with Marine Aircraft Group 16 in Vietnam. I wondered who put up the flags. George looked at me and grinned. "I did," he said. He had noticed the gravestone and wanted to honor the deceased serviceman.
Siepker was killed in World War I. World War I began June 28, 1914, with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. It ended on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. By the end of the war four major powers -- the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires --ceased to exist.
I had a hard time finding any information about Siepker until I spoke to Jean Kay at the Historical Society. She found some articles in the Quincy Daily Whig and the Quincy Daily Journal and other information. William Clem Siepker lived at 313 Chestnut in Quincy. His father, Clemens H. Siepker, ran a saloon at 427 Hampshire with George Giesing. Clemens died in 1909, and his wife, Minnie, married Philip J. O'Brien, an alderman from the First Ward. Clemens is buried next to his son, and O'Brien and Minnie are buried on the other side.
Siepker had completed a two year course at Valparaiso University. He was in Chicago on Feb. 8, 1917, when Germany announced that it would resume full unrestricted submarine warfare, which it had suspended following the sinking of the Lusitania. Siepker wrote home that, "Most everyone in Chicago was wild." The Lusitania was a British ocean liner sailing from New York to Liverpool, which had been torpedoed by a U-Boat off the southern coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. There were 1,198 people killed, including 128 Americans. This caused an international uproar, which resulted in a curtailment of German U-Boat warfare for two years. The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, together with the Zimmermann Telegram, a message from Germany proposing that Mexico make war against the U.S., pushed U.S. public opinion over the tipping point. On April 6, 1917, war was declared on Germany.
Siepker was in a theater on Feb. 8, attending an opera, when a Marine officer made an appeal for volunteers. Siepker joined and shortly thereafter left for Port Royal, S.C., now Parris Island. He described his boot camp experiences in a letter published in the Quincy Daily Journal. "We were put through a severe test, both physical and mental. One was to run 100 yards in 13½ seconds, another was to carry 150 pounds 300 yards and many other things which test a man to the limit of his endurance. Then we received our rifles. Nothing like the little shot gun I carried out home and bagged rabbits with, but a big ten pound young cannon which seemed to weigh a ton after I carried it through a drill period, but it seemed lighter after a few weeks. On the rifle range the record day, I made expert rifleman's mark and was awarded $5 a month and a medal."
Siepker spent some time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and was eventually transferred to a Navy cruiser, the U.S.S. Olympia, which operated along the Irish coast doing convoy work and helping fight submarines. In August 1918, Siepker was sent to France.
The late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of change for the Marine Corps. The Corps had gone from keeping order aboard ships and fighting sea battles to participation in small land conflicts such as the Banana Wars, a series of military landings in Central America. The Navy and the Marine Corps were developing programs for amphibious landings, which would be used heavily in World War II, but World War I was the first conflict to deploy Marines as regular ground units, similar to Army units. That happened again in Vietnam.
Siepker was a member of 75th Company, 6th Regiment, 2nd Division, American Expeditionary Force. The 2nd Division was an Army Division, but it was under the command of Major Gen. John A. Lejeune, later Commandant of the Marine Corps. The 6th Regiment served as the reserve unit in the Sept. 12 attack to reduce the St. Mihiel salient near Verdun. On Oct. 3, the regiment attacked and seized the Blanc Mont ridge in the south of France about 100 miles north of Marseille. Siepker was killed on Oct. 8, the same day his unit took the village of St. Etienne. The badly depleted 2nd Division was relieved by elements of the 36th Division by Oct. 10. Marine casualties in the Blanc Mont battle totaled 2,369.
Quincy lost a number of residents in the World War. Lt. Joseph Emery Jr. was killed July 18, 1918. Brigadier Gen. Henry Root Hill was killed Oct. 16, 1918, in the north of France near Verdun and is memorialized with a drinking fountain at the old Quincy Public Library. Patrick McGinley wrote an interesting article about Gen. Hill in the May 13, 2012, Herald-Whig, mentioning that the General's body was returned to Quincy Sept. 1, 1921, and "Mayor Philip J. O'Brien issued a proclamation that all businesses be suspended for 10 minutes on September 3, the time of the funeral."
Millions of Americans celebrated the news that the war had ended on Nov. 11. But the Siepker family's celebration was short-lived. The next day, on Nov. 12, 1918, they received the message from Washington that Pvt. William Clem Siepker had been killed in action.
Robert Cook recently retired as a Justice of the Illinois Appellate Court. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Historical Society.
"Billy Siepker, Quincy Marine, Tells of Work against Germany." Quincy Daily Journal. February 15, 1918.
"Clem Siepker Died Yesterday; Had Been a Resident during the Forty-Six Years of His Life." Quincy Daily Whig. May 16, 1909.
Hoffman, Jon T. and Beth L. Crumley. USMC: A Complete History. Quantico, Va.: Marine Corps Association, 2002.
Morison, Samuel Eliot Henry Steele Commager and William Edward Leuchtenburg. The Growth of the American Republic: Volume II. London: Oxford University Press, 1980.
"Philip O'Brien Weds; Mrs. Minnie Siepker Becomes His Wife This Morning--Ceremony Occurs at St. John's Church." Quincy Daily Journal. October 10, 1912.
"W. C. Siepker, A Yank Marine, Killed in Action." Quincy Daily Journal. November 13, 1918.
Wikipedia. "6th Marine Regiment (United States)." Last modified November 19, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/6th_Marine_Regiment_(United_States).
Wikipedia. "History of the United States Marine Corps." Last modified February 17, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_United_States_Marine_Corps.
Wikipedia. "John A. Lejeune." Last modified February 17, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_A._Lejeune.
Wikipedia. "Lusitania." Last modified January 28, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lusitania.
Wikipedia. "World War I." Last modified February 18, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I.