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.
“I was drawing off my mother’s energy,” he said. “She was a family historian as well.”
Anderson turned to Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee’s office, hoping someone with more powerful connections than his would open doors.
He was right.
“He had tried to work with the Army Review Board to get the Purple Heart for his grandfather, but with World War I being so long ago, he had a hard time showing that his grandfather had been gassed,” said Jessica Christopher, Lee’s casework director.
A subsequent Senate inquiry to a national clearinghouse for military records didn't help. No records existed in that archival repository, which was destroyed in a 1973 fire in St. Louis, Mo.
What Anderson and Lee’s staffers lacked was a sessions number — an identification number that would make tracking easier.
“Many World War I records were destroyed in that fire, so everything pointed to that fire being the problem,” Christopher said.
The problem called for brainstorming.
One of the staff members in Lee’s office decided to reach out to another Congressional liaison for veterans’ issues.
“We do try every avenue we can think of, even those out-of-the-box avenues before we close a case or tell a family that we cannot help them anymore," Christopher said.
They soon learned that despite the fire in St. Louis, the records could have been stored at another facility.
“That set her down a different path to an off-site archives office.”
They were hooked up with a records keeper in Maine.
Christopher said when they asked if it was possible to locate the record, the answer was achingly and joyously simple.
“It’s in my hands right now.”
That was a few months back, a discovery the grandson of a soldier describes as a “watershed moment.”
Bradley Anderson traveled down to Lee’s office in Salt Lake City to pick up a box of 324 records.
“I broke down and started crying when I saw the binder,” he said. “It still chokes up me up.”
The application for a Purple Heart now sits before the Army Review Board. There are many more before it, from many wars, involving many veterans and families seeking affirmation of sacrifice, of getting the record straight.
Bradley Anderson hopes the acknowledgement comes — for his own children, his own grandchildren and the others in generations to come who won’t have to go looking for the truth.
He has it in a box of documents, hard fought and hard won. Like so many wars, like the one to end all wars.
“I feel like I know my grandfather, I really know who this man was.”
About the Meuse-Argonne Offensive
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the greatest American battle of the First World War. In six weeks the American Expeditionary Forces lost 26,277 killed and 95,786 wounded. Ground forces fought through rough, hilly terrain the German Army had spent four years fortifying. Its objective was the capture of the railroad hub at Sedan which would break the rail net supporting the German Army in France and Flanders and force the enemy's withdrawal from the occupied territories.
The bulk of the forces engaged in the initial onslaught had to be transferred from the St. Mihiel Salient — assaulted less than two weeks earlier — to a new jump off line north and northwest of Verdun. This new section of the front extended 30 miles east to west. The reshifting of forces in such a short period of time was one of the great accomplishments of the Great War. These logistics were planned and directed by Col. George C. Marshall establishing his reputation and preparing him to lead American forces to victory in the Second World War.
Source: The Great War Society, as taken from "The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces." http://www.worldwar1.com
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