Jim Smith is last living link to American Legion Marne Post 13
PLAINFIELD – Jim Smith of Plainfield is the only living member of American Legion Marne Post 13 in Plainfield with ties to that battle.
It’s especially amazing considering Smith, 88, joined this post in 2002 simply because it was closest to his Plainfield home. Smith never realized his connection until the Sons of the American Legion Marne Post 13 began.
A true son
Billy Schneider of Plainfield said he helped start the Sons of American Legion Marne Post 13 in 2015 to help out the post with its mission, now that many of its members were elderly.
“The sons get the job done,” Schneider said.
Only veterans can join an American Legion, Schneider said. And only sons of veterans can belong to the Sons of the American Legion.
Smith knew his father, William Smith, was a World War I veteran. Jim had his father’s military paperwork, which his grandmother Jesse Smith had given to him, but Jim had never looked through it.
However, Jim needed to prove he was the son of a veteran, so he sifted through them for William’s discharge papers. And that’s when Jim found out.
“I knew all the battles he was in,” Jim said, “but I didn’t know they came under the heading of the Second Battle of Marne.”
Historians consider the Second Battle of Marne to be a pivotal point in World War I.
“The post is named after that battle,” Schneider said.
But Jim’s discovery did more than allow him to join the Sons of American Legion. It initiated an absorbing exploration into World War I in general and his father’s military career in particular.
“I did a lot of research on the computer and dug up a lot of things,” Jim said.
A World War I hero
Jim learned that his father enlisted in the U.S. Army on Feb. 11, 1917. He did his basic training at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, and then was sent to Texas as a mounted cavalry in pursuit of Pancho Villa along the border.
“I can’t imagine my father galloping on a horse,” Jim said. “Then they entered the war and turned all these cavalry men into infantry men, and he was in one of the first troops that went to France.”
William became part of Company A, 18th Infantry, 1st Division. During the Second Battle of Marne, William was in the following actions: Second Battle of the Somme, March 1918; Cantigny, May 1918; Soissons, July 1918; and the Battle of Chateau-Thierry, July 1918.
“During his service, he was mustard-gassed, shot in the left wrist – the bullet visible and still in his arm at discharge,” Jim said in a written statement. “He was captured by the Germans and forced to dig trenches. He and a buddy hit the German guard with a shovel and escaped back to the Allied lines.”
Jim said William rarely spoke about those days. When he did, William mostly shared about trench warfare.
“It seemed like there was always water in the bottom of the trenches,” Jim said. “Trench foot was a big problem; they had to keep their feet dry. He used to write home, ‘Send me socks,’ because they went through socks really quick.”
Jim said during this time Jesse wrote to William’s commanding officer saying she hadn’t received a letter from her son in almost a month.
“So his officer wrote back, ‘He’s a fine upstanding young man. I’m sure he’ll write you as soon as he can,’ ” Jim said. “Of course, my father wrote a letter home: ‘I’ve been a little busy.’ ”
Eventually, William was sent to the hospital with gastric ulcers, where he received a letter from Harry S. Truman. William was a sergeant when he was discharged – for medical reasons – in February 1919.
Jim said William had bleeding ulcers off and on until the day he died. Among his father’s papers, Jim found the letter from Truman, letters William wrote home and a newspaper clipping with the headline: “Ottawa Lad in France Writes. Mrs. Jesse Smith Receives Letter from Her Son.”
Speaking of Jesse and letters, Jim shared one of his own. While Jim was in the U.S. Navy stationed in Korea – in combat – the executive officer of the ship approached Jim and said, “I just want to let you know you’re grandmother wrote and said she was seriously ill with heart problems, that you should come home on leave.’”
Well, Jim was in no shape to leave, so the Red Cross was sent to check on her.
“She was out shopping,” Jim said, adding his superior handled it this way: “After further review, we find no reason for you to leave.”