The History of New York State
Editor, Dr. James Sullivan
Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam
The American success was not a crushing blow to the Germans. Its most encouraging effect upon the allies, and the contrary upon the Germans was the demonstration it afforded that the New World was indeed new; that its "lean. clean, keen" soldiers were in the first vigor of optimistic young manhood,. Strong, virile, fearless, and positively possessed of the will to conquer. This spirit, at a time when even the imperious German had lost some of his early high opinion of himself as a super-soldier, was most disheartening to the Teutons. The handwriting was on the wall, not yet clear , though it was soon to become so unavoidably legible that every German would see it, and ultimately see that no hope of victory for Germany remained. General Pershing said of the Cantigny engagement: "Although local, this brilliant action had an electrical effect, as it demonstrated our fighting qualities under extreme battle condition, and also that the enemy's troops were not altogether invincible."
Marshal Foch hesitated no longer. He may have reasoned that American troops, although somewhat inexperienced in the special tactics of this peculiar warfare, were fresh, and therefore might prove more effective than the war-battered legions of France. In any case, there was desperate need of men, experienced or not. The Germans had swept like a flood across the Chemin des Dames. Hard-fighting French divisions and some of the Fifth British Army, which had suffered so severely in Picardy in March, found that an orderly retreat southward was their only option. On May 28th he Germans had attacked Soissons, pouring thousands of explosive, incendiary, and poison gas shells into the city, which was crowded with wounded. Next day the Germans had taken Soissons, and has pressed on to and across the Aisne. On May 30th, they had crossed the Vesle River and had taken Fere-en-Tardenois. On the last day of May the German hordes had reached the Marne, and were closing in on Chateau Thierry. In five days the Germans had swept through five successive lines of allied defense and penetrated more than twenty-five miles.
Certainly the moment was critical. Her, at this moment, the Germans were to see in raw Americans their Nemesis. The 7th Machine-Gun Battalion of the 3d American Division had been rushed in camions seventy miles across France, and had reached the bridgehead facing Chateau Thierry before the Germans could cross the river. the retreating French had told the Americans that they also must retreat. "Retreat, hell!" they are said to have retorted. "We just arrived." As Floyd Gibbons wrote, in his "And They thought We wouldn't Fight"; "Our novices in battle were guilty of numerous so-called strategical blunders, but in the main purpose of killing the enemy, they proved irresistible." In this, the first glimpse that American machine-gunners had of real war, they proved that in initiative and effective daring they were excellent.
During the night, while the German artillery raked the south bank of the river with high explosives, those Americans shouldered their machine-guns, marched into the city and took up positions in houses, gardens--all points indeed that commanded the bridge approaches. One unit even took position on the north side.
With the dawn the Germans began to rush for the bridges. American machine-guns check every attempt. The German wilted before the American defense. Mass formations did not now mean irresistible waves, but incredible heaps of German slain. Gibbons writes:
The American machine gunfire was withering. Time after time, in the frequent rushes throughout the night, the remnants of enemy masses would reach sometimes as far as the center of the big bridge, but none of them succeeded in reaching the south bank. The bridge became carpeted with German dead and wounded. They lay thick in the open streets near the approaches. By morning, their dead were piled high on the bridge and subsequent rushes endeavored to advance over the bodies of their fallen comrades. In this battle of the bridges and the streets, our men showed a courage and determination which aroused the admiration of the French officers, who were aware by this time that forty-eight hours before these same American soldiers had seen battle for the first time.
The vigilance of the Americans frustrated every German attempt. Finally enormous charges of explosives were placed beneath the bridge and the span was blown to bits. But the Germans were still on the north side. Thus, inexperienced American troops, whose greatest asset was the unconquerable American spirit, saved the day at Chateau Thierry--perhaps saved Paris.
Another especially portentous effort by Americans soon followed. The 2d Division, which included Marines, was called upon to clear Germans out of Belleau Wood. It was grim fighting--mostly bayonet work, from tree to tree, against chagrined Germans who could not yet believe that their drive was checked, and that they were being actually driven back by novices--lusty novices it is true, men who take deliberate aim, and have strong shoulders to press home the bayonet. Tactics not expected disturbed the German plan. They had been told that they were on the road to Paris and to an early dictated peace. Now they found green Americans in their way, and such awkward obstacles that to pass over them was impossible. Youth was flouting age. Palmer, in his "America in France" describes the difference between American soldiers and Europeans of that late phase of the war. He writes:
. . . .their most striking characteristic in those surroundings was their youth and the energy, the drive, the impatience of youth. Even our truck and ambulance drivers were young, while the French drivers were middle-aged. I have imagined the road of a French column of trucks saying: "We are old at war and wise at war!" and of an American column saying: "We are young and we want to learn; gangway for us!" With this went the masterfulness of youth as well as the elasticity of youth.
There were many New York soldiers in the fighting at Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood, and it makes glorious New York history.
The Belleau Wood fighting was terrible. The German machine-gunners had so thoroughly penetrated a thicket that it seemed impossible to dislodge them. To even attempt to do so seemed suicidal. In a wood so dense that a distance of fifty feet would completely screen a man, machine-gun nests, with a range of 3,000 feet, were hidden, and so placed that from any angle the approach could be murderously raked. Veteran soldiers would have decided that only way of clearing that dark clump of trees was by powerful artillery work which would leave only the blasted trunks of old trees standing. But American Marines could not be held back by prudence. They concentrated their rifle fire upon every machine-gun, when located, and took little heed of fire that came upon them from some other direction. The wounded crawled to whatever shelter they could find, but the fighting went on. As Palmer, who witnessed the engagement, writes: "the instinct of our men, caught in such a mesh of fire which was every minute causing a casualty, was to come to close quarters; and they wanted to go free of packs, of blouses, shirts open, rifles in hand, with their faith in their bayonets. Hot cries accompanied the flashing drive of the cold steel through the underbrush. Many bayonets might drop from the hands of the men who were hit, but some bayonets would 'get there.' And that was the thing--to get there."
"We have always fought in this way," continues Palmer. "It is tradition and our nature. 'We go to it!' as we say. German gunners ran from their guns in face of such assaults; others tried to withdraw their guns; others were taken in groups, huddled in ravines as youth, transcendent in its white rage of determination, bore down upon them and gathered them in or, again, drive the bayonet home into gunners who stuck to their guns until the instant that forms, with eyes gleaming, leapt upon them. Our young platoon commanders had the task of leading all to themselves in the thickets among the tree trunks, as they always have in such fights, while senior officers wait on the results."
After twelve days of fighting the Marine and Regulars of the 2d Division, had accumulated many prisoners as well as wounds. The prisoners, write Palmer, "regarded their captors in a kind of wondering and tragic stupor. Their staff had told them that the American were untrained, a mob, negligible. Yet these Americans had charged straight at the machine guns; they had crept around the machine guns and then leapt out of the thickets with furious abruptness. They were untamed, wild, refusing to consider the rules laid down by the German Staff for their conduct. Captured German intelligence reports, contradicting German propaganda, spoke of them as only needing a little more training to be first-class shock troops according to the German conception--which was a real German compliment."
However, mind cannot for all time control matter. Physical fatigue must eventually overcome spirit. After twelve hours of the most terrible
fighting, a rest was necessary. So a regiment of the 3d American division--new to the front-line tactics, and of little training in France--was sent up re relieve the tired Marines. They gave good account of themselves while the Marines were resting. Six days later, the latter were again in the front-line, determined to finish the job. One of the reports of this final fighting in Belleau Wood reads: "Our men went through them like a bunch of wildcats!" Palmer could not think of any better description. He writes: "That last rush, after artillery preparation, had a catlike ferocity which put all thickets and all machine-gin nests behind it, and looked out into the open beyond the object of three weeks of straining muscle, sleepless vigil and desperate courage. Once we were among then, the German who remained alive bent to the storm. The two hundred prisoners taken in that little area was further proof of the importance attached to the wood. The German dead who are buried there, after they had fought with a fiendish resolution that trained German soldiers should not yield to untrained Americans, were still further proof."
Early in July, upon a German prisoner was found an army intelligence report of examinations made by German intelligence officers of men of the 2d American Division captured during the Belleau Wood engagement. the intelligence officer found that the men were likely to make "redoubtable opponents" with more training. He reported that "The troops are fresh and full of straightforward confidence. A remark of one of the prisoners is indicative of their spirit: 'We kill or get killed'." Undoubtedly the Marines killed many Germans at Belleau Wood, and many Marines were killed by Germans, but the Americans took more than 700 Germans alive out of the woods. The Marines took another 500 in a dashing attack which gave them possession of the village of Vaux, near Chateau Thierry on July 1st. In this engagement, the Marines were in control of their objective within five minutes of going over the top. They advanced so rapidly that the Germans had no time for effective resistance. Confidence, which had never been lacking, was now strengthened in the American soldier. The war was as good as won already, thought the Marines. "There's nothing to it; it’s a cinch!" declared one of the captors of Vaux.
There can be no doubt that the Baptism of Fire--bloody thought it was--administered to the Americans at Castigny, Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood, and their behavior during the ordeal, stiffened the morale of the tired French veterans, and brought new hope to the heard-pressed British. Americans were building a wall which would be higher than the highest German tide. A little fortitude and a little more patience were all that was asked by America of their war-spent allies. There were many American division already in France, or in England, and they would soon be in the front-line; and there were millions more eager and soon to
come over. New York, gallantly represented in the four division that had already given good account of themselves, was soon to be more directly represented by divisions more fully their own. The 77th division had, in May and June, been brigaded with British in the Ypres and Mount Kemmel sectors and had seem much artillery carnage. They had also suffered many casualties, in the nightly trench raids that the Germans persisted in. But this New York Division of drafted boys had not been called upon for active offensive movements such as the Marines and Regulars of the 1st and 2d divisions had carried through. Still, the 77th division was to have the distinction of being the fist of the National Army divisions to take over front-line responsibility. It was to move from its training area to the Lorraine sector, and there take over from the 42d division the front--line trenches at Baccarat, releasing the 42d for sterner operations elsewhere.
The 27th division was also in France. Major-General O'Ryan and his staff had crossed the Atlantic in the first days of May on the "Great Northern," and his division had followed, in American ships, during the first part of that month. There were sent to a training area at Rue, on the French coast. There, early in June, Field-Marshal Haig, the British commander-in-chief, had reviewed them. He was much impressed by their appearance and promise. "My!" exclaimed the field marshal to Major-General O'Ryan, as the latter's command marched past, "but what seasoned troops. This is certainly no war-raised division. What magnificent chaps they are!"
The men were probably as fit as they ever were. They knew much more than they had been taught of soldiering along the Mexican /Border, or at Camp Wadsworth. Yet, there are still much that they must learn, before they could be permitted to face the Germans unsupported. On May 27th the day upon which the Germans began their third great drive, the newly- arrived 27th division had been sent in the box-cars that bore the now well-known alternative sign: "40 hommes--chevaux," into a British sector north of the Somme. It was a billeting area, and there, as they were to be brigaded with the British, they were instructed in British technique and material. Fortunately the course was a short one, and three weeks later the impatient National Guardsmen went nearer to the front-line. Orders for their transfer to the St. Valery sector, south of the Somme, had been issued on June 16th, but three days later another plan called for their movement to the vicinity of Doullens, in support of the Third British Army, commanded by General Byng. Assignments were apt to change quickly in that time of extreme pressure. The school period was shortened, and the strong self-reliant Americans were expected to makeup in initiative what they lacked in technique. On July 2d, General Perishing inspected the 27th Division Next day they began to move, the new assignment being in important part of the line in
Flanders, where they would be brigaded with the Second British Army, which was then passing through an exciting time. The defense of the Channel ports devolved upon them, and although the intense pressure of the German offensive was farther northward, there was considerable activity along their line, and the smoking volcano might at nay moment burst into violent eruption. The 30th American Division was also assigned to this sector. Both of the divisions from overseas soon became quite familiar with the noise of artillery and the excitement of bombing. The 27th took position in the exposed area of Steenevoorde, with the 19th British Corps, the 30th American division adjoining on the north, with the 2d British Corps, defending the East Poperinghe line. As the month passed, detachment--sometimes as large as battalions--of the 27th began to take place in the front-line, with the 6th and 41st British divisions.
There were many exciting moments, and many illustrations of the American spirit. One was in the fearlessness with which Sergeant Edgar F. Anderson, an American serving with the British, went out into No Man's Land to bring in wounded members of a patrol. He had brought in one wounded man, and it had seemed that only by a miracle had he himself escaped; but when it was found that there was another helpless man to be brought in, Anderson again volunteered. The British officer protested. He though that it was the duty of the British to look after their own wounded. "Sir," exclaimed Anderson, surprised, "this sort of thing is what we are here for." Undoubtedly the mass of American soldiers at that time in France were possessed by the "big brother" spirit; they had come over to help their blood brothers, the British, and their republican brothers, the French. They did not go about their crusade with lone faces, either. No misfortune could shroud the American light-heartedness. For instance, Lieutenant Albert V. Clements, who was later to command a company of the 14th New York Infantry, was caught in an artillery deluge near Mount Kemmel. He was severally wounded in an foot, but as the medical officers were cutting away his boot, all he did was to laconically remark; "Another pair of shoes gone to the devil!"
The 27th and 30th American divisions remained with the British in Flanders for a long time. Field marshal Haig particularly requested that the 27th be permitted to remain, after Marshal Foch had decided to recall all American divisions from the British area. On August 6th, King George, of England, reviewed part of the 27th. On august 21st the division took over a front-line sector, relieving the 6th British Division, and facing one of the best Prussian divisions,. There were some trying incidents, as one may well realize from General O'Ryan's own description of their Flanders experience. He writes:
Not soon will the survivors of the division forget such names as Scherpenberg, The Bund, La Clytte, Scottish Wood, Ridge Wood, Gordon Farm, Milky Way, Hallebast
Corners, Indus Farm, Gretna Farm, Ouderdom, Reninghelst, Busseboom, Anjou
Farm, Walker Farm, Hague Farm, Longbarn and Remy siding. Every relief on its way forward, every detachment of troops coming out, messengers, runners, carrying parties and supervising officers going forward and returning, at one time or another, have passed through or visited most of these places during their service on the Flanders's Front. All will remember the ghastly nights with their pyrotechnic display which marked the actual front, the constant banging of our own eighteen-pounders as they barked from some unexpected place past which men were picking their muddy way, the deeper roar of the heavier guns, as they flashed their missiles into the night, the throbbing of the enemy bombers overhead, the barking of the Archies as, with the aid of searchlights and supplemented by the unusually fruitless hammer-tapping of the machine guns they sought to bring down the enemy planes. But most enduring of all will be the memory of those nights when the enemy shells came crashing down on the roadways at important crossings like Hallebast Corners, Ouderdom and Busseboom, when the enemy sought to harass our troops.
In a recent work is a description of the first major engagement in which the 27th took park. It reads:
Now came the battle of Vierstraat Ridge, upon which point the 53rd Infantry Brigade advanced August 31 at 11:30 A.M., and patrols of the 2d Battalion, 105th Infantry, advanced through the 3d Battalion of that regiment ,commanded by Captain Stanley Bulkley. In this attack, the 53rd Infantry Brigade advanced with the 106th Infantry on the right and the 105th on the left. The 30th American division on the left was called upon to make a short advance for the purpose of taking the village of Voormezelle, and this division acted as a pivot while the 27th moved forward. Correspondingly, the advance of the 105th infantry was to extend from this pivot and conform to the greater advance to be made by the 106h Infantry on its right. The 105th advanced successfully and consolidated their position, and the 106th advanced in their sector and occupied and consolidated the enemy trenches. The attack of the 106th covered a greater depth than that of the 105th. By 5 p. m., both regiments were consolidating the new line, both had captured a number of prisoners and considerable booty in the way of machine guns, anti-tank rifles, grenades, ammunition and other supplies. The following day, the 105th held their position while the 106th advanced until their line ran due north and south. The enemy defence strengthened, but both regiments advanced. The 106th took Chines Trench, but were subjected to a severe enemy fire, the casualties were such that Captain Sullivan, of Company M, withdrew the troops under his immediate command for a short distance and the enemy regained the trench. After artillery preparation, the trench was regained and held by parts of the 106th infantry, which by hard fighting on the same day, advanced to the line of railway near the foot of Wytchaete Bridge. The divisional line was advanced and secured September 2. The attitude of officers and men in the first major operation of the division showed confidence, and perhaps too much of the latter. Orders from the 19th Corps prohibited the use of a barrage and directed that the advance be made with the front covered by patrols pushed well out. The patrols came under the fire of snipers and light machine gunners, who had been left in position to inflict casualties.
The terrain afforded the enemy excellent observation and it was almost impossible for the attackers to conceal themselves. The 106th infantry was commanded by Col. William A. Taylor, whose conduct in the operations was marked by coolness ands a profound sense of responsibility. His men seemed to understand that the loss of any of them was to him a matter of sincere personal grief. The regimental operations officer was Capt., Arthur V. McDermott, who seemed throughout the action to bear a charmed life. On the first day of this battle Maj. Ransom H. Gillet reported at headquarters from one of the army school in Paris, and seemed to feel as though he had been imposed
upon because the battle had been started during his absence from the regiment. he was assigned to command the 1st Battalion of the 1-6th Infantry. He prorated during the night, having walked most of the way in the darkness, and during the battle maintained his record for fearless aggressiveness. Shortly before the battle Maj. Sidney G. DeKay, who had been convalescing form an attack of pneumonia, reported for duty and was assigned to the 106th Infantry. When his battalion went forward to the attack, Major DeKay advanced his headquarters and took over three enemy dugouts, one of which he used as a post command. He left his dugout to supervise a par of his line, but had not proceeded far when he heard a muffled roar. Looking about he saw one of the dugouts had been blown up, evidently by a mine left there for that purpose. The dugouts has been inspected and passed "clear" by the personnel of one of the British tunneling companies operating with the 106th Infantry. As a consequence of this enemy trap First Sergt. William J. Doherty, Crop, James A. Harrington, Corp. John A. Tyack and Priv. John J. Michaels, of Company K, 106th Infantry, were killed. Among those of the 106th who especially distinguished themselves were First Lieut. Lennox C. Brennan and his brother, second Lieut. York W. Brennan and Second Lieut. Edward A. Gray. Captain Sullivan, whose company had very hard fighting in and about Chinese Trench, spoke highly of First Lieut. Willard M. Webster, who was later killed in the battle of the Hindenburg Line. The one-pounder guns of the 106th Infantry, under command of First Lieut. Erdmann Brandt were condemned by a British officer as "the handiwork of devil and an invitation to the enemy for retaliation." And those of the 106th had no opportunity for a time to demonstrate. When they did get into action, however, their work was terrible.
Two seriously wounded men of Captain Sullivan's company of the 106th Infantry were necessarily left in Chinese Trench when the company withdrew. When the count-attacking Germans entered the trench, they found these soldiers, who expected to be killed. Their first-aid packets were confiscated, but their wounds were dressed with German paper bandages, and the men made as comfortable as possible in the circumstances. A German officer, who spoke English, told the men that his command were Saxon troops, who always treated their enemies ina chivalrous manner. He added that the Americans were apparently preparing to retake the trench; that the Americans didn't seem to care whether they were killed or not, and that the trench was not worth holding anyway. He added that his force would anticipate the counter-attack by retiring, and that soon they would be in the hands of their friends. Thereupon, he and his men withdrew. The wounded men survived the artillery fire from their own side that preceded the retaking of the trench by the 106th. General O'Ryan, on the third day of the battle, passed through the Advanced Dressing Station at Longbarn, and noted the spirit of the wounded there of the 105th and 106th, who were oblivious of the shells dropping about them. One of sitting wounded, asked who was the bravest man in his company, replied: "General, the bravest man in our company is that Wop behind you." Lying on a cot was an Italian-American who seemed to be near death. A blanket covered all but his head. His eyes were closed and his face was pallid. Asked how he felt, he slightly opened his eyes and with difficulty forced a smile as he said: "I feel a fine!" This was the spirit of the men.
The 27th Division was relieved on September 2-3 by the 41st. British Division, In this first major operation, it had acquitted itself well. the casualties of the 53rd Brigade in this battle were: Killed, 40; shell wounds, 126; gunshot wounds, 150; gassed, 33; total, 349. In this battle, 47 German soldiers were taken prisoner. During the battle 63 machine guns, 11 minenwerfers, and I field piece were captured, or at least this was all that was recorded. Much more was gained, but the division left the sector for the Beauquesne area immediately, and before all the captured material could be collected and reported. Just before the battle, John S. Sargent, the great portrait painter, visited General O'Ryan, at headquarters, and become a member of "A" mess for days. It was
Attempted to dissuade him from a desire to get actually into the thick of things, but he finally visited trenches, smelled gas, and was under a bombardment while in the remains of Ypres. He made a fine portrait of General O'Ryan while a guest of the 27th.
When relieved, the 27th Division went tot he Doullens area, in which they had earlier been. They were there prepared for much more important operations. A few days after their arrival, they learned that the 27th and 30th American divisions were to cooperate with the British in an attack on the famous Hindenburg Lien, to pass over which earlier attempts has been made but always in vain. This was indeed a mission that would tax even the most vigorous troops. The English had lost thousand of men in struggling to pass over that impassable, impossible wall of concrete. However, the Supreme Commander-in-chief had directed that an attack be made on September 29th. However forlorn the attempt might seem it must be made. Therefore, on September 22 and 23 the two American divisions began to reach the sector of operations. The 27th Division took over the sector held by two British divisions, the 74th and 18th. it directly fronted the outworks of the Hindenburg Line and there were few American officers who did not know how invulnerable that line had been. The Hindenburg Line was organized in 1916, and an immense work of concrete was gradually worked up to that point. The very name Hindenburg Line, seemed to indicate that it was the chief defense, the main reliance of the Germans. In the tunnel sector of the Hindenburg Line, the main defenses consisted of three lines of trenches, with a maze of charged and barbed wire protecting them. The roof of the tunnel averaged fifty or sixty feel below the surface. To give air, shafts had been sunk to the roof of the tunnel in many places. The shafts averaged more then one hundred yards. Some of the tunneling was extended for incredible distances. The St. Quentin Canal, which was a part of the Hindenburg Line system, had been dammed. It ran through tunnel for 6,000 yards. In this tunnel early in 1918 were twenty-five barges, which were used for the billeting of reserve troops. Some of the chambers connected with the tow-path within the tunnel were used for storage; others for electric power production. Supplementing these tunnels were others, which had been built when the Germans organized the system for defense. There were many approaches to this deep tunneling system, and passageways connected the deeper tunneling with the line of resistance above. Like the Verdun defenses, the tunneling of the Hindenburg system provided billeting quarters for reserve troops who could rest easily, being assured that no bombardment, however intense or powerful, could reach them. No attack made upon the trenches above could have much chance of overwhelming the holders, seeing that reserves were so near at hand. A system of underground galleries enabled the reserves to enter or leave the tunnels unseen; there fore, even in the height of battle it would be possible to reinforce the defenders readily,
and with perfect safety. There were other well-nigh inconceivable means of defense. In addition this strong main-line system was connected with outer lines by communication trenches. "The whole," wrote General Monash, "produced in fact a veritable fortress--not one, in the popular acceptance of the term, consisting of massive walls and battlements which, as was proved in the early days of the war at Liege and Namur, can speedily be blown to pieces by modern heavy artillery, but on defying destruction by any powers of gunnery, and presenting the most formidable difficulties to the bravest of infantry." Well might the bravest of soldiers quail at the thought of attacking such a defense which artillery could not reach and which seemed to be able to beat off its concrete walls any human attackers. Five times the British had been beaten back with terrible slaughter. To send men against that line seemed like sending them to certain death.
However, criticism was not in order. The Master Strategist had made certain marks upon his map of the Theatre of War. He and his staff knew the coordinating troop movements that were necessary over the hundred of miles of active front, and had issued orders accordingly. That was sufficient for local commanders. What some of the company officers of the 27th American division may have though, in their restricted perspective, to be inconceivably cruel folly may have been the logical thrust for that moment. In any case, it was a matter for the High command; division commanders had to confine themselves to the task allotted to them, however stupendous it might seem. The thought that American and British troops confronted the most difficult sections of the front did not prompt another thought that it was by the command of a Frenchman that they, not French troops, were there; the crises was so great, the operations so stupendous, that even national thought in this connection seemed to be wiped out. The allies were fighting the Germans and it mattered not whether a Frenchman or a British or an Italian gave orders to an American; they would be obeyed just as unquestioningly as those of General Pershing, so long as they were the words of the accepted Supreme Commander-in-chief of the Allies.
The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927
This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library
Transcribed by Holice B. Young
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