If my Owen grandparents had planned to celebrate their second wedding anniversary in 1916, what actually happened that day surely isn’t what they had in mind.

Under normal circumstances, they might have left their 7-month-old son, William, with a baby sitter on that June 28 and gone out for a quiet meal at a restaurant in downtown Augusta. Instead, my grandfather, 1st Lt. Frederick H. Owen Jr., was among the many members of the National Guard who were summoned to duty on the Mexican border in response to a guerrilla raid on Columbus, New Mexico, that left 18 Americans dead.

As a result, my grandfather probably spent the day of his anniversary helping his unit — Company M, 2nd Maine Infantry — prepare for a long, hot train ride.

The next day — June 29, 100 years ago Wednesday — Company M set off from the new train station at the south end of downtown Augusta for Texas, just as did Company H from Waterville, Company K from Farmington, and almost every other National Guard unit in the country. In an unprecedented move, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched about 150,000 men to the border to guard it against the possibility of other raids.

“Through lanes of cheering people, waving flags, tear-dimmed eyes, and fluttering handkerchiefs, the sections of the three long trains bearing our State of Maine soldier boys to Laredo, Texas, to serve their country’s flag pulled slowly from the Augusta station Thursday afternoon, the first at 5:20, the second and third at intervals of 15 minutes,” the Kennebec Journal reported, describing the troops’ departure.

The United States had not been in a major war for many years, so it was a rude awakening for those who took part. Many of the activated guardsmen were leaving Maine for the first time, according to 1st Lt. Jonathan Bratten, the Maine Army National Guard’s historian. Also, they left in the summer wearing their woolen uniforms, which quickly became unbearable in the Texas heat, and were exchanged for khakis. Also, stories abound of unseasoned sentries shooting nervously across the Rio Grande whenever they thought they saw a bush sway in the moonlight.

“Most of the Guard units found out they didn’t have enough equipment,” said Ron Roussel, curator of the Maine Armed Forces Museum at Camp Keyes in Augusta, where a few artifacts from the border mobilization are on display.

Many of the soldiers were allowed to return home at the end of the summer so they could go back to school, Bratten said. Others returned because they successfully pleaded hardship. They earned far less in the Guard than they earned at their civilian jobs, and they weren’t making enough money to support their families.

Congress had passed the National Defense Act of 1916 only weeks earlier, and by late June, the military had not had enough time to implement it fully; but eventually, the law aligned the Guard more closely with the Army in terms of its training, weaponry and equipment.

“For me, the border mobilization, along with the National Defense Act of 1916, is the birth of the modern National Guard,” Bratten said.

The Guard mobilization of 1916 is overlooked in history for two reasons, according to “The Great Call-Up: The Guard, the Border, and the Mexican Revolution,” a history of the event written by Charles H. Harris III and Louis Sadler and published last year.

The first reason it gets little attention is that many people conflate it with General John J. Pershing’s simultaneous but separate Mexican Punitive Expedition, which actually entered Mexico in an unsuccessful effort to track down Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the general-turned-guerrilla leader who had ordered the Columbus raid.

The second reason is that about six months after the guardsmen returned from the border, the United States entered World War I, and the deployment to Texas understandably got lost in the shadow of that much larger event.

The Mexican problem and the world war are more closely linked than one might suspect, however. The German government sent the notorious Zimmerman telegram to the Mexican government, trying to convince Mexico to enter the war on Germany’s side, in exchange for which Germany would try to help Mexico recover territory it had lost to the United States in the 1840s. Also, the border deployment helped the National Guard gain valuable experience in organizing men, weapons and equipment and moving them to a conflict zone rapidly, and many of the officers who learned those lessons put them to valuable use the next year on the battlefields of France. Those officers included Col. Frank Hume, who in World War I commanded the 103rd Infantry Regiment, the name that 2nd Infantry took in 1917 and still has today.

Some historians have speculated that the Guard mobilization might have been intended covertly as a form of training that the U.S. government planned because it expected to get involved in the European war, Bratten said, but he added that he has never seen documents that confirm that.

“Did it help, the following year? Definitely,” he said.

By mid-October, 1st Lt. Owen and his comrades were back at Camp Keyes, the big adventure was over, and most of them were mustered out of service a few weeks later.

Joseph Owen is the Copy Desk Chief at the Kennebec Journal.

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