We never asked Uncle Dick what he did in the Great War. It was a taboo subject when we were growing up in the 1950s.
He was such a jolly man — robust and muscular, with a full head of hair atop a fleshy, burnished face and a smile as bright as a sunrise. His house was full of hunting trophies from around the world: mounted heads of antelope, rugs made of animal hides and, most gruesome of all, an ashtray mounted atop the foot of an elephant.
And guns, lots of guns.
Uncle Dick’s full name was Richard G. Dunton, a 19-year-old preacher’s son from Tiskilwa, Illinois, when he enlisted on March 26, 1917.
Uncle Dick lived a long life, dying in 1976 from emphysema when I was 30 years old. When I last saw him he was tethered to an oxygen tank and he said he’d learned to smoke cigarettes in the Army. That was the first time I heard him say anything about his military experiences — nothing more than a quip that World War I had taught him to smoke.
But after his death I was able to learn a few things about Uncle Dick’s experiences in that war. He was a member of the St. Louis-based 138th Infantry Regiment, which was called into federal service in March 1917, the same month Dick enlisted. The regiment became part of the 35th Division sent overseas.
Uncle Dick had been promoted to corporal by the time the 138th joined the climatic final battle of the war, known as the Meuse-Argonne campaign. It began on Sept. 26, 1918, and continued officially for 47 days until the armistice ended World War I on Nov. 11.
More than 26,000 Americans were killed during the Meuse-Argonne campaign, which was the largest in U.S. military history, involving 1.2 million Americans. The 138th suffered its heaviest casualties during the first five days of the battle. Histories of the war say the 35th Division — and by extension the 138th — was largely inexperienced and poorly led.
But it was heroic: The 138th had two Medal of Honor recipients during the war.
Another notable thing about the 35th Division was its 129th Field Artillery, remembered because an officer named Harry Truman was commander of Battery D.
The 35th Division, however, was shattered within days by a German counteroffensive and was taken out of combat, though remnants returned to the battle later. Uncle Dick’s service history says he was in combat in the Argonne during the first week from Sept. 26 to Oct. 3, when the Division was first slaughtered, and then from Oct. 12 to Oct. 19. Two trips to the slaughterhouse.
Was he wounded on Oct. 19? Yes, according to my mother, who was Uncle Dick’s youngest sister by 11 years. But her memories were clouded not only by age — she was in primary school when Dick enlisted — but also because 1918 was the year she and her older sister almost died of the Spanish flu.
Mom did say, however, that Uncle Dick came home a changed man.
But if Uncle Dick changed, it wasn’t the kind of change you often hear about: nothing about depression, anger, shell-shock. It was exactly the opposite. Uncle Dick, my mother said, never let anything bother him, at least not for very long. He roamed about the world for some time. That’s where the trophies were bagged. And then, eventually, he became the manager of a large estate in Connecticut. He married twice, outliving his first wife and being survived by his second.
“His attitude was the life ought to be enjoyed,” my mother said. And he didn’t talk about the war, not once that anybody in the family could remember. Perhaps he had put some of the worst things that could happen in life behind him. And, no doubt, the worst horrors.
The last time I saw Uncle Dick was when he was living in Florida with his second wife in a nice little house. The trophies and guns were gone. When I asked him why he had gotten rid of them, his perpetual smile widened.
“You have to grow up sometime,” he said.
Retired reporter David Hawley is a disabled veteran. He was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for his service as a military policeman.