A Day for Remembering Heroes
Hero: Honors for a humble man
Fred Wilson 98, receives WWI 75th anniversary medal to add to collection.
By Judith Spikes, Larchmont Correspondent
November 12, 1993
Grandpa in full dress uniformAlready the holder of a World War I Victory Medal, two Silver Stars, the French Croix de Guerre, a Purple Heart, and a Distinguished Service Cross received from the hands of General John J. Pershing L himself, 98-year-old Fred T. Wilson of Mamaroneck, a retired Army colonel, has just received another decoration.

As one of more than 30,000 surviving veterans of World War I, he is the recipient of a World War I anniversary medal. The medal, inscribed "A Grateful Nation Remembers: 1918-1993" was commissioned by the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation and awarded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Wilson who lives with his daughter Elaine Kuck in Mamaroneck was born at 88 Jefferson Ave. in 1895. He has lived in Mamaroneck all of his life, except for six years in the armed forces -- two during the Great War and four during World War II.

A citizen soldier, Wilson was a 21-year-old bank employee when the U.S. declared war on war on Germany on April 6, 1917. He applied for Officers Training School "as soon as war was declared," he recalled. He was sent to the front as a second lieutenant in September.

Although barely old enough to vote, he had a keen awareness of participating in historic events and kept a diary of his activities. He lost the diary in battle, but it was returned 15 years later by a relative of the soldier who found it.

Trench warfare

The first entry is dated Sept. 7, 1917. His transport -- the H.R. Mallory, a small coastal steamer -- weighed anchor in Hoboken and sailed for Saint-Nazaire, France. The crossing took 14 days, most of which Wilson spent assigned to the crows nest on the lookout for submarines.

After a five-week training course in trench warfare, he was ordered to the front to serve with Company B, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Division. A typical diary entry of that time reads: "Rained most all day. Drilled in morning, lectures and reading in the afternoon. Had a little talk by a general. Asked all troubles. Naturally we had none. Caught cold. Took quinine and brandy and a good sweat."

As commanding officer of the second platoon, Wilson's duties included censoring soldiers' letters home -- as many as 100 a night. And, as he duly recorded in his diary: "inspecting all men's billets and all mules' billets."

He made his final entry March 27, 1918, as his regiment prepared "to move at an instant's notice to 'play our part in this last offensive by the Germans against world democracy." The next day he participated in the first American assault of the war, in which the 1st Division captured the high ground at Catigny.

After four months in the trenches, his division was ordered to advance over several miles of open terrain and cut the Paris-Soissons Road in a surprise attack.

"That road lined with tall trees was a veritable dead line," according to 16th Infantry records. "Every tree sheltered a machine gun, and from nearby knolls the road was literally swept clean by light maxims."

Of the 1,100 men who initiated the attack, fewer than 40 survived. Mr. Wilson was one.

"God was with me that day," he said.

As his platoon approached the road across a flat wheat field, a shell burst beside him and his runner, a young Russian immigrant named Francis. Shell-shocked and terrified, Francis fell to the ground and wrapped his arms around his commander's legs. "I had to kick him away from me in order to advance with my platoon," Wilson recalled. "As an officer, I carried only sidearms, but I picked up Francis' rifle. I was carrying the rifle diagonally in front of me with my right hand on the bolt, when I was hit in the hand by machine gunfire. Had that rifle not been there, the bullet would have hit me dead center in the chest. I wrapped up my hand in a handkerchief and carried on with my platoon. By noon we had taken the road."

Modest Hero

The wound ended Wilson's combat career. He was sent to a base hospital near Saint-Nazaire for treatment, which lasted until the Armistice.

The rest of the story you will not learn from Wilson.

"I'm no hero," he said. "I did my job and they seemed, to appreciated it, but don't play that up."

No "play-up" is 'needed; the bare facts suffice. His citation for the Distinguished Service Cross, as recounted in the Winter 1990 issue of "Over There! An Illustrated Journal of the First World War," reads: "For extraordinary heroism in action near Soissons, France, July 18, 1918. Wounded early in the engagement, Lieutenant Wilson refused to be evacuated and remained with his platoon throughout the day's fighting, until the objective was reached. Although he was suffering acute pain from his wounds, he personally attacked several machine gun nests and aided other wounded men."

After his discharge in 1919, Wilson returned to Mamaroneck and married his childhood sweetheart, Louise Gedney. The ceremony was performed by his regimental chaplain, the Rev. Earl H. Weed. Other colleagues from his regiment served as usher and best man.

About the same time, he began a 55-year career with the Mamaroneck Co-op Savings and Loan Association (now Sound Federal Savings and Loan) as secretary and chief operating officer. He also served Mamaroneck as village clerk and treasurer in the 1920s.

But his allegiance to his military colleagues remained strong, and at a 1943 reunion he was persuaded to re-enlist. He entered active duty as major assigned to the Troop Movement Division at the New York Port Of Embarkation and was soon promoted to lieutenant colonel. He retired from active duty in 1946, and was appointed colonel in the Officers' Reserve Corps in 1946, a commission he resigned two years later.

Wilson proudly recalled that he and his wife, who died in 1988, built "the Sixth house in Shore Acres" at 420 S. Barry Ave. and lived there from 1923 to 1953. They then moved to a house on Soundview Drive across the street from the home he now shares with his daughter and her family.

His sunny second-floor apartment is filled with photos, scrapbooks books and other mementos of a remarkably long and productive life. His sharp memory and an enthusiasm for life promise much more yet to come.

Copyright Gannett Suburban Newspapers. Reprinted with permission.

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