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A veteran's first holiday

Wilbur Smith and his World War I comrades were the first to be honored with a legal holiday, Veterans Day.

Published November 10, 2003

[Times photo: Janel Schroeder-Norton]
Paul Smith sits in front of his father Wilbur's uniform, a certificate honoring his service signed by Woodrow Wilson and the flag that draped his father's coffin.
[Photo courtesy of Peggy Smith Hawkins]
Wilbur Smith, left, is shown on a troop ship bound for Europe during World War I in a family photo. Troops wore civilian clothes on the trip. Only after the disembarked were they issued their weapons and gear.

Wilbur Smith was a 19-year-old soda dispenser at a South Carolina drug store when the United States declared war on Germany and entered the first World War. It was April 1917. A month later, Smith enlisted in the Army. He had never handled a gun.

For Smith and others being rushed to the front, basic training consisted of marching with broomsticks over their shoulders, pretending they were carrying rifles. They nailed stove pipes to boards and imagined they were mortars or cannons. They planted pasteboard boxes out in the fields and wrote "TANK" on the outside.

"Bang Bang!" they yelled, their broomsticks aimed at the boxes.

Months later, they hastily sailed to France in civilian clothes to face real enemies. Only after they disembarked were they issued their weapons and gear, and marched into the maw of a new kind of mechanized warfare for which their tactics and training had done little to prepare them. They charged across battlefields drenched in poisonous mustard gas, faced the splattering rain of machine-gun bullets and sudden death from artillery barrages, and lived in the mud and squalor of deep trenches alongside their dead comrades.

"Heck of a way to train for a war," Smith's son, Paul Smith, said recently from his home in San Antonio, in Pasco County. "They deserved (all of the honor) they got."

The United States declared war on April 6, 1917. At that time, the number of troops in the Army numbered about 200,000. By the time the armistice was signed, over 4.7-million men had served in the U.S. armed forces, with more than 2-million in France. Of those, more than 116,000 died, and 204,000 were wounded.

U.S. losses were a small fraction of the 10-million killed and 21-million wounded in the war, which had been raging for three years before the United States entered the fight.

The war came to a dramatic end on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month - 11 a.m. Nov. 11, 1918.

"At the designated moment," says the Encyclopedia of American Facts and Dates, "the entire western front opened up with gunfire as war-worn troops sought to fire the last shot. Then silence fell."

Wilbur Smith and his comrades in arms of The Great War became the first veterans to be honored with a legal holiday - Armistice Day. Today, it is known as Veterans Day. The national holiday, which is Tuesday, is steeped in solemn history itself.

Congress in 1926 proclaimed each Nov. 11 Armistice Day, calling on all officials to display the American flag at government buildings and for schools and churches to "observe the day ... with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples," according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It marked the end of what some had touted as "the war to end all wars."

It did not work out that way, as the unresolved conflicts in Europe smoldered, then ignited again. After World War II, veterans groups called for the word "veterans" to replace "Armistice" to honor all soldiers. The change became official on June 1, 1954.

Then in 1968, some Americans wanted more three-day weekends. A bill passed to celebrate Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Columbus Day on Mondays.

But some military groups decried the move, so in 1975, President Gerald Ford signed a law restoring the annual observance to Nov. 11.

Since 1978, the nation has paused for parades, prayers and moments of silence on that date to honor those who served.

Among those who will be honored for generations to come is Wilbur Smith, the 5-foot-61/2-inch soda dispenser who came home to Columbia, S.C., with a bullet in his knee, a scar on his hip and a nose that couldn't smell.

Paul Smith, 73, is a veteran himself, having served in the Korean and Vietnam wars. He said that like many vets, his father rarely recounted his war experiences with the Army's Rainbow Division. But the tales his father did share are as real as the wool World War I Army uniform that still hangs in his closet today.

Wilbur Smith received his discharge papers on May 15, 1919. He came home with his Army uniform and black and white snapshots of a blown-up German cemetery, soldiers aboard ocean liners and fighters in trenches.

He participated in five major battles. A land mine detonated near him and he suffered a concussion. He lost all of his teeth. What didn't get blown out, they had to pull. In the squalor and mud of the trenches, body lice infested his wool uniform.

When the two sides left their bunkers and closed on one another, the fighting was primitive and personal. One such encounter left Wilbur Smith with a bayonet wound to the left hip. He also took a bullet in the left knee.

It was poison gas that robbed him of his sense of smell, and he likely counted himself lucky for, though it left him permanently maimed, he had avoided the ghastly fate of those who encountered its full, toxic effect.

John Ellis, in Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I, describes the searing damage from exposure to mustard gas: "The skin blistered, the eyes became extremely painful and nausea and vomiting began. ... The gas attacked the bronchial tubes, stripping off the mucous membrane. The pain was almost beyond endurance and most cases had to be strapped to their beds." Dying took a month or more.

The horrors of World War I left their mark on a generation. "You could say, he truly suffered from that war all his life," said Wilbur Smith's daughter, Margaret Smith Hawkins, who lives in Lauderhill, just outside Fort Lauderdale.

Wilbur Smith marched home to South Carolina just in time for the Roaring '20s and the Great Depression. He married a nurse and became a baker. According to his son, Paul, he was "the greatest cook you've ever seen."

He would cook fried chicken on the stove but couldn't smell a thing. And every change of seasons, the palm of his left hand would break out from the effects of the poisoned gas that remained in his system.

He was given a certificate honoring his service, signed by Woodrow Wilson, and later awarded the Purple Heart. His disability pension ultimately reached $36 a month.

When he died in 1961 at age 62, he was buried with shrapnel still embedded in his left knee.

"I wish that as I had grown up, I would have known better how to address (my father's war stories), how to talk about it," Hawkins said. "He could have written quite a memoir ... We could've, too."

[Last modified November 10, 2003, 01:33:27]

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