In the Argonne Forest, October 8, 1918, Sergeant Nathaniel N. Rochester became one of the first Costa Mesans to die for his country.
Nat, as he was called, moved to what was then Harper in 1908 at age ten. His parents were artists, but he was drawn to patriotic duty, like the great-great grandfather for whom he was named, the Revolutionary War colonel and founder of Rochester, New York.
He enlisted with Company L, “Santa Ana’s Own,” in 1916, and briefly patrolled the Mexican border against Pancho Villa’s raids. The Company mobilized again in 1917 when the US entered the Great War, and was stationed first in San Luis Obispo, then at Camp Kearny.
Nat returned home for the last time in April, 1918, taking a place of honor among the color guard at the “Homecoming of Company L,” considered one of the largest parades ever held in Santa Ana.
The company was deployed to Europe that summer. Nat was transferred to Company B, 308th infantry, and sent to the front.
Nat’s letters home contained his inveterate cheerfulness. He urged his mother, when he learned he would be fighting on her birthday, to celebrate by waving Old Glory. The supreme sacrifice, he said, “would be like skipping a grade in school.”
In October 1918 Nat’s division advanced quickly but reinforcements were delayed, allowing the German army to surround what would become known as the “Lost Battalion.” 554 soldiers fought for six days against overwhelming odds, with little food or ammunition, and water only reached under enemy fire. Only 194 men were rescued. The rest were captured or killed.
On the last day of the siege, October 8, Nat was shot and killed, a month away from his 21st birthday. He died, it is said, furiously working the bolt of his rifle, saying: “Don’t surrender.”
When his family and friends learned the news, they vowed to commemorate their beloved Nat. A tablet was unveiled with great ceremony at the Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana, where it remains in a place of honor. His mother dedicated a book of poetry to him, From Star to Star, in print today. And his father campaigned to memorialize fallen heroes in the names of city streets.
So on this Veteran’s Day, or whenever you’re on Rochester Street, take a moment to remember Nat, the cheery lad from Costa Mesa who sacrificed everything for his country.