‘Commissioned’ to tell their story 100 years later

Editor’s note: The First World War, or Great War, was fought from July 28, 1914 until November 11, 1918, which became known as Armistice Day (an agreement for peace). The following piece was submitted by Danny Hitt, who with his wife Linda are business owners of the Laurel Mills Store.

By Danny Hitt

I am Danny Hitt and I live in the village of Laurel Mills. This place is very near to where several men left for the U.S. Army’s Camp Lee on Oct. 31, 1917. One of the men was Frank Lewis Smith, who was my grandfather Charles A. Smith’s brother.

Frank Lewis Smith Courtesy image

Frank Smith was born near Viewtown in 1894. As a child, I was very interested in history and my grandfather told me that his brother Frank was killed the last day of World War l. Very curious, I questioned my grandfather and grandmother, Bertha Smith about the events surrounding his death, but they had very little information. My grandmother, who could be superstitious, told me “I knew he would not make it home, because he kept stopping and looking back.”

Never look back, I guess.

I thought about him many times over the years and especially as I got older. With the onset of the internet, I found it was easy to find the most detailed historical information. One day around 2007, I accidentally ran across some material concerning Frank Lewis Smith on the Library of Virginia website. To my surprise, I found out that his death was mentioned in a 1933 publication, a self-published book by Private 1st Class Rush Young titled, “Over the Top with the 80th Division.” I also found out that Pvt. Young was in the 318th Regiment, Company B, 4th Platoon of the 80th, same as my Great Uncle Frank Smith! I found a rare copy of his book that gave me a day-to-day insight on what they went through from Camp Lee to the end.

From Pvt. Young’s book, I was able to summarize what happened. By the beginning of November 1918, fighting had left the trenches and was taking place in the open. The Germans were in full retreat in an effort to return to Germany. The 80th Division, with the 318th, was in pursuit. On Nov. 4th, the German 3rd army were ordered to retreat in sections that were engaged with the 80th Division. On Nov. 5th, the Germans were crossing the Meuse river. At that time the 80th with Frank Smith’s regiment were close to the Meuse that is southwest and near a village called Sommauthe. While there was not heavy fighting that evening, German rear guard machine gun coverage was causing problems. Patrols were sent out that night to ascertain German positions concerning this machine gun fire.

Frank Smith was sent on patrol with his platoon leader, Sergeant Curtis Hood. Sgt. Hood, who according to records was originally from Louisa County. During that patrol Frank Smith was killed. Rush Young, in the aforementioned book, stated the following about that night: “Late that evening, Sergeant Curtis Hood, commanding the 4th Platoon of Company B, and Privates Clinton Perkins and Frank Smith were killed, together with several others. Sergeant Hood went ‘nuts’ before he was killed. His nerves had completely gone.”

While Frank Smith didn’t get killed the last day of the war, he was killed the last day the 80th was on the front. The 80th division was relieved by the 77th division the next morning. Just a few more hours and Frank would be on the way home!

I was a child in the 1950’s and I remember going to a country auction with my grandfather. I heard him ask an elderly man, “You were in the army with Frank, what happened to him?” The man responded that a shell had landed near Frank and shrapnel hit him in the side of his body, crushing his ribs, and he died shortly afterwards. Listening very closely, I also heard him say that Frank was a very brave soldier. Later in life, I spent some time in Europe. On one of these trips, I went to Paris, rented a car and drove to Sommauthe and the Meuse river. It was such a moving experience as I searched the maps and the records to pinpoint where this event took place. That fall day was perfectly clear and very peaceful. I am sure a profound contrast to the night of Nov. 5, 1918.

One hundred years later as I sit on the pews at Forest Grove Church, I can see Barbara Smith Coffey, Janice Smith Cooke, and Peggy Smith Stringfellow in attendance. Frank Smith was their great uncle, too. These being related from Frank’s other brother Russell Smith. There was another Smith with Frank during the war. His name was Stockton Brown Smith (no relation). He spent most of his life near Viewtown. He was in same company and platoon. He was wounded in the early days concerning the push to the Meuse. This would have been in September 1918.

The Forest Grove pianist, Geraldine Woodward, is great niece to Stockton Brown Smith. Riley Utz also went to France with this group. He was in “A” platoon. In the 1950’s to the early 1960’s he ran the Laurel Mills store. I was also told that he suffered from injuries concerning gas attacks. Today my wife and I run the same store. I feel such a connection to these people that have gone on before us.

Dealing in antiques and household junk over the years and ever since getting interested in this story, an abundance of material concerning the 80th Division has come into my possession: Rush Young’s mess kit with his signature and unit numbers scratched on, an 80th division uniform with helmet, the day book from a Little Washington Hotel that has the signature of Frank Smith just before he leaves for France in 1917, and my grandfather’s signature in January 1919 when he stayed there waiting for Frank’s body to come in by hearse. I also have come across a lot of old papers concerning the 80th. I even have the delivery schedule for the ammunition “drop off” to that sector and that night!

It feels like I have been commissioned by this crew to tell their story.

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