A World War I soldier's story turns into a family quest for the Purple Heart
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
LEHI — Bradley Anderson cried tears for a man he never knew.
The man was a veteran wounded in the greatest American battle of World War I, gassed and temporarily blinded by the Germans in 1918 as the American Expeditionary Forces sought to capture a railroad hub.
Walter Herbert Anderson survived the Meuse-Argonne Offensive to come back and later struggle in the Great Depression as a dirt-poor farmer with nothing but a family to support and desire to succeed.
He became a self-educated man, an accountant and tax examiner, and politically active as a member of the Salt Lake County Commission and the Utah Legislature.
He was also Bradley Anderson's grandfather, and he died without ever receiving the Purple Heart.
"I grew up hearing these stories about him, these little bits of history passed down from my grandmother, my aunt. This sparked my interest."
Bradley Anderson set about the task to gather his grandfather's military and medical records — 94 years later. At each turn he was frustrated.
"It was an impossible task," he said. "We came up against every dead end, exhausted every avenue, turned up every rock and went back and turned over the rocks again."
He'd heard the stories. His grandfather was an Army man serving in the 91st Wild West Division out of Fort Lewis in Washington state, a group made up of many Utah men fighting in World War I.
He said he came home a "hard-boiled soldier" from that war and in a letter home wrote: "Well our hell ended and I have been all over France and Belgium and on the borders of Holland."
After he was gassed and blinded he spent some time in a rest hospital where he was visited and shook the hand of Great Britain's Prince Albert, who was one of the field commanders in the offensive. He later became King George VI and the father of Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth.
No Purple Heart was issued to recognize the soldier's sacrifice.
Walter Anderson was 60 when he died in 1955, a week before Christmas a few years after his right eye had to be removed when cancer spread from his optic nerve to his brain.
Even though his grandfather died at the old Veterans Administration Hospital on 12th Avenue in Salt Lake City, the oldest files at the existing hospital only went back to 1961, Bradley Anderson said.
He said he was told they had likely discarded the records to make room for more current documents or they had been misplaced in a move.
What he initially thought would be an achievable task was quickly transforming into a disheartening struggle.
“What my grandmother had been saying and what my relatives were saying just didn’t add up when it came down to locating some official military and medical records,” he said.
A history teaching major and military history buff, Bradley Anderson was also motivated in his quest for information by deeply personal reasons — documenting the sacrifice of his ancestor and trying to bury the pain of losing his mother.
“I felt like by digging into the history I could understand him more,” he said. “I wanted to know everything I could about the story I heard about my grandfather. I never knew the guy, but I felt like by searching through history and talking to family, I could.”
The Lehi man was also driven by his mother’s own unexpected death in January this year. She’d been coping with cancer, surviving on her own terms, when it took her on its terms.
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