A World War I hero’s family found his story alive and well in Belgium

The World
Frank Burke is honored at the Ohio Bridge rededication in Belgium.

In my family, we only have two photos of Great Uncle Frank, and both show him grinning from ear to ear at the camera.

In one, he is a young man gathered with his family. The other is from his World War I base camp in Alabama, where Frank holds what probably was the camp mascot — a live monkey.

My mother, who never got to meet her Uncle Frank, told us he died at the end of World War I from influenza. But it turns out there was more to his story.

A month before Franke Burke died in 1918, he assisted his sergeant, Paul Smithhisler, in a daring undercover mission: a swim across the icy Scheldt River. It took place at night so the men could secretly map out German machine gun and artillery positions.

But as they were crossing, “[Paul] heard a German voice yell and he says, ‘I knew they had spotted me,'" recalls Jack Smithhisler, Paul’s now 85-year-old son. When Paul came up for air, the Germans were bombarding them with gas.

“He said, ‘I had no strength by then. I was gasping for air.’ And Burke pulled him out of the water, and he said, ‘I remembered he slapped the gas mask on me,’” Jack continues. “He never said anything about Private Burke other than, you know, ‘He saved my life. If he had put his gas mask on first, he’d have been okay and I’d be dead.’”

Sgt. Smithhisler woke to the sound of artillery and knew that the German positions were being wiped out. Thousands of British, American and French troops crossed the river that day where he and Burke had scouted. The Hindenburg Line, the Germany Army's main defenses, had been broken.

Days later, on November 11, the war was over.

Sgt. Smithhisler never saw Great Uncle Frank after that morning — he died within a month of that night’s gas attack. General John Pershing, the top American commander in Europe, decorated the Paul for his actions with the Distinguished Service Cross; he also received medals from France and Belgium.

Frank Burke’s body was eventually brought back from Europe and buried in Cleveland in 1921.

Chris de Walle, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Belgian Army, made it his mission to find the family of the forgotten World War I private from the Ohio 37th Brigade — that’s Uncle Frank — and officially recognize him for the part he played on that cold November night in 1918. To do so, he got in touch with an Ohio newspaper.

That's how 14 of us Burkes found ourselves with Paul Smithhisler’s son, Jack, and grandson, Tom, in Oudenaarde, Belgium, this year for a four-day commemoration marking the 100th anniversary of World War I.

After the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, Americans rebuilt the bridge that was destroyed by the Germans; the locals named it the Ohio Bridge. It was destroyed again in World War II and rebuilt, again, by Americans.

The day of the Ohio Bridge rededication ceremony, hundreds of townspeople came. We were told there would be a new plaque added — and a gasp went up from our family when it was unveiled.

There he was: Uncle Frank with his mascot monkey on his shoulder, smiling for all the Belgian people and the world to see. At his left was his sergeant, Paul, a man who survived the war but faced a lifetime of PTSD — or "shell shock," as it was called back then.

“I just wish my grandfather would have thought about it in a positive way, like, look at all the men that are alive today because of what I did, rather than the opposite — dwelling on the death he saw, on the blood-red river and everything,” says Paul’s grandson, Tom. “But how many thousands of children like my sons are alive that don’t even know that they’re alive because of what two men did 100 years ago?”

My mother never forgot her namesake, Frank Burke, and she taught her children to remember him. But what surprised us was that in another country, almost 100 years from the day he died, strangers are still remembering him and his service to our country — and to theirs. 

Listen to the classic World War I song "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag" as performed by The Male Choir of Oudenaarde (Oudenaards Mannenkoor) at the rededication ceremony.

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