Like everyone, I have a great number of military people in the family tree. If you go back far enough, there are crusaders and even a Templar in the Rivero woodpile. More recently, on my mother's side of the family, ancestors fought in every major American war, including the Civil war (on both sides). As we celebrate Memorial Day, I am going to tell you about just one warrior; one I had the privilege to actually know and even briefly live with when I was younger. His name was Walter Lewis Smith and he was my maternal grandfather. He fought in WWI.
Walter's military career began when he lied about his age to join the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, under the command of Colonel Leonard Wood. When Wood was promoted to brigade commander, his second in command, Theodore Roosevelt, took over and the unit, who inspired by the then-popular western show "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World", called themselves "Roosevelt's Rough Riders", even though the unit actually lacked sufficient horses and most of the members fought on foot.
Although officially disbanded at the end of the Spanish-American war, the unit held together socially. At the outbreak of WW1, Roosevelt helped form the 26th Infantry Division, based in Boston and formed out of military units in New England, from which it took the name the "Yankee Division." Roosevelt approached his old friends from the Rough Rider days to volunteer, including Walter L. Smith, then serving in the New Hampshire State Guard.
What Woodrow Wilson did not know is that Roosevelt planned to lead the Yankee Division into battle. Wilson, aware what the capture of a former US President by the enemy would do to the nation's morale, refused, for which Roosevelt never forgave him. But the Yankee Division deployed to France, as part of the larger American Expeditionary Force.
Walter Smith's Yankee Division patch
Walter was issued a draft notice, but failed to report to the draft board. As a result, government agents spent a great deal of time trying to track him down. Being New Hampshire folks with no interest in saving the government from their own idiocy, nobody bothered to tell them that Walter was already in France as a volunteer, and entertained themselves sending the marshals on various wild goose chases with the assurance that they had seen Walt over in Chichester just the day before, or some such variation.
Walter eventually became a Captain, fought in most of the major battles, and lost a lung to German Mustard Gas. As ad hoc archivist for the family I still have his WWI helmet and the gas mask, provided by the lowest bidder and still stained from the German gas, along with his Captain's bars, and the original New Hampshire Guard buttons and patches from his uniform tunic. War material being in short supply at the start of the war, the Yankee Division marched into battle wearing their existing state guard uniforms with only new buttons and patches hastily sewn on.
Walter served with distinction in that hell-on-Earth called Trench Warfare; a system which seemed almost designed to kill the maximum number of humans while destroying the least amount of real-estate in the process. But scars can take a lifetime to heal, and even then never completely fade, and satellite images taken of those almost century old battlefields still show the ghostly outlines of those trenches where so many died.
Fortunately, Walter Smith survived that war, albeit minus a lung. He is shown below photographed in France just before his return home with his Victory Medal with four campaign bars. He was awarded other medals as well including the Croix de Guerre, although he refused to wear it, and went to his grave refusing to say what he won it for.
Walter Lewis Smith returned home, and after settling matters with the local draft board (the battle medals were helpful), married and raised a family. Walter remained active in New Hampshire politics, and remained in contact with other surviving members of the Yankee Division, including Walter Brennon, the TV star.
Walter Smith was a close friend and often drinking buddy with Richard Nixon, who following his loss to Kennedy in 1960 was a frequent visitor with New Hampshire Senator Styles Bridges (who lived nearby), who planned to run against Kennedy in 1964.
Walter was a curmudgeon, drank whisky, and even with only one lung smoked large cigars well into his 80s, gave them up, and lived to be over a hundred. Walter earned his living as a cabinet and furniture maker. He taught me woodworking at a little waterwheel powered wood shop he owned (which still stands). He also taught me how to shoot and how to hunt. We didn't always get along. I guess you don't see what Walter saw and remain entirely cheerful for the rest of your life.
So, here is one soldier; not a glyph on a wall, but a man with a name, a face, and a history. To his friends and family he was a real human being, even though to the War Department he was just another statistic.But as I think back on him, I know for a fact that he and the millions of others who served in all the various wars the United States became entangled in would be shocked and saddened to see that the government for which they sacrificed so much has become the very embodiment of all that they fought so hard against. No more First Amendment, warrantless spying on Americans, show trials, confessions extracted by torture, rigged elections; for this Walter gave up a lung?
So, this week, in between the sporting events and the barbecues, take a moment to look at the flag for what it used to represent rather than the globally hated symbol it has since become. Consider all those in your family who risked and sometimes lost all in America's wars, and decide for yourself how they would feel about the government of this nation as it exists today.