In February 2011, the last American veteran of World War I, Frank Woodruff Buckles, passed away at the age of 110. Mr. Buckles was also one of the youngest members of the US Army (16) when he enlisted in 1917 (He lied about his age). Imagine! The last of 65 million World War I soldiers. (Mr. Buckles said he never imagined that he would be the last.) He was shipped off to England during the war, but despite continuous hounding his officers for duty in France never got into action, "But I saw the results" he told columnist, George Will in 2008.
Mr. Buckles had an interesting life. In 1918, he was discharged from the Army as a corporal, took a job with the White Star Lines Shipping Company and traveled the world. He was in Manila when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in December 1941 and was taken prisoner by the Japanese and spent World War II in a prison camp.
Mr. Buckles' passing provokes memories of McCook veterans of World War I. There were many doughboys from McCook and Southwest Nebraska in World War I. Each had a story to tell about his experiences in France or stateside, but none was stranger than the one that a McCook neighbor of ours could tell.
Meet Swantie Swanson.
Swantie Swanson, father of McCook's Bruce Swanson and Mary Poore, was born in a log house north of McCook, near Quick, in Frontier County, in 1895 -- just the right age to be drafted into the Army in 1917. After a short Basic Training session at Camp Funston (Fort Riley) he was assigned as a machine gunner in the 129th Machine gun Battalion and sent immediately to France, where the American presence was just beginning to be felt in the fight against the Germans. Mr. Swanson fought with the British at Flanders Field in Belgium, and finally the Argonne (forest) in France.
Swanson's Map Notes of the Battle of Muese-Argonne, September 1918 give a graphic account of his involvement in the three day battle. Excerpts follow:
"Our artillery giving the enemy a terrific bombardment as we take over this sector. We begin our advance at 6 a.m. Took 26 prisoners. Smoke cut visibility. Lost company commander here; killed while talking to me. One half our men either killed or wounded. Enemy had domineering position ... sun shines! Enemy surrenders -- jumping over top of trench, with hands upraised when rifle grenades were thrown over to his position.
"Saw Allied tank strike a German mine. It covered ½ an acre of ground when it came down. Ground pocketed with shell holes. No buildings left standing. Sign says Cheppy (town) 1 mile. (Note: Another participant at Cheppy was Capt. Harry S. Truman, who was a forward observer for the Artillery.) Captured 50 German prisoners and released 2 French soldiers. Gas shells forced us to put on gas masks here.
"'Very' is name of this village. Saw a white mule standing up dead. Held up by the shaves of the wagon it was pulling. Plenty of rifles and pistols deserted here. Strong resistance here attempted to halt our advance. Machine guns hailed lead on the protective shell holes. Advance was made from one shell hole to another. Some speed records broken here, but unfortunately not recorded. Was carrying a 40-pound machine gun. German aviator guns a Red Cross man carrying a wounded man.
"Slowed by barbed wire entanglements about 50' across. Advanced through the wire one man at a time. Under artillery barrage. I used my mess kit to dig in. My hole about like a wash boiler. Was buried once from shell fire. One man's nerves got the best of him; he was cursed, told to shut up. Stayed overnight. I was on guard from 2 to 4 am.
"At dawn we pushed ahead again. The sun rises, the day is fair. Prairie country, clumps of choke cherry bushes. Abandoned German machine gun nest, sod built up around. We presume it is one of the guns that spent so much lead on us yesterday.
"A machine gunner cuts loose on us. We double time west into canyon to get out of sight. Shell holes so deep and close together that it would be impossible to drive a car through here. Stop on crest of hill. Find overcoats and other German equipment.
"Shelled by artillery and by machine guns from front and left flank. Loss of men tremendous. German plane comes over, flying low. Allied plane gives chase, spitting lead. The doughboys shoot at him with rifles. I still remember his countenance.
"Captain Wark in lead. Commands advance, doubletime, single file. I was knocked down here and wounded (shrapnel and machine gun bullet.) I was running, carrying machine gun. Snodgrass behind me was carrying tripod. He was killed by concussion of the shell that struck me. We were almost through the barrage."
(Swantie, badly wounded, crawled to an abandoned trench and lay there from about 10:30 am until dark.)
"German planes laid eggs on us. I counted 27 German planes. Fear was expressed that our men would be driven out. They stayed!
"An American tank was knocked out by an artillery shell fire. The crew came to our trench. One tank man looked at me, "You look pale. Here, have a drink of hot coffee (which he had kept hot on the tank engine.)
"About 4:30 a Red Cross man appeared. He gave me a drink of brandy to ease the pain, promised to come back at dusk to get me. He did with the help of another man."
Swantie was taken to a nearby brick building, but was forced to walk away when the building came under enemy fire. Later that day he and other wounded were picked up in carts by medics for evacuation. (One of the medics was Paul Beatty, a friend from Oxford Nebraska, who cried when he saw the extent of Swantie's wounds.) They were on the road for two days to Evacuation Hospital, with only one cup of hot chocolate for food.
At the field Evacuation Tent Swantie underwent surgery to remove shrapnel. More operations would follow, including one on Armistice Day, Nov. 11th, when, as he was coming out from the ether, he learned that the war was over. After four months in the Hospital in France, Swantie was sent home to America.
After Swantie was wounded in the Muese-Argonne Battle on Sept. 29, the Army mistakenly classified him as killed in action, and sent the death telegram to his family (which they still have), which reads, "This is to certify that Swantie E. Swanson, Private 1st class, Co. B., 129th Machine Gun Battalion, died with honor in the service of his country, on the 29th day of September, 1918" Signed, Adjutant Gen. A.W. Robertson.
As Swantie would say, quoting Mark Twain, "The report of my death was greatly exaggerated!" Though his wounds were major, and he was later determined to have a 60 percent disability, they did not stop him from farming, nor from working for the Agriculture and Stabilization Conservation Service for 30 years. He died in 1986 at the age of 91.
Source: Gazette 1982: Swanson's Map: Daughter, Mary Poore's unpublished account.