CLEVELAND, Ohio -- On Sept. 26, the families of two Ohio soldiers who served during World War I will be honored and feted in Oudenaarde, Belgium, Sgt. Paul Smithhislerto commemorate acts of heroism and sacrifice performed nearly 100 years ago.
On Nov. 1, 1918, members of the Ohio National Guard's 37th Infantry "Buckeye" Division faced the daunting task of crossing the Escaut/Scheldt River to attack heavily fortified German troops.
Sgt. Paul Smithhisler, of Mount Vernon, Ohio, volunteered
to swim across the 100-foot-wide river that night and sketch diagrams of enemy machine gun and artillery positions. Pvt. Frank Burke, 21, of East Cleveland, waited on the American side of the icy river to lend support and assistance, if needed.
As Smithhisler was returning from his mission, he was spotted by the Germans, who fired machine guns and artillery rounds, including poison gas shells, at him. He reached safety but was too exhausted from the swim to don his gas mask.
Burke fitted a mask to Smithhisler before putting on his own, but that exposure may have contributed to Burke's death, of influenza, a month later.
Smithhisler's drawings enabled American artillery to pave the way for a successful attack by the Ohio Doughboys across the river. He was later awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and French Croix de Guerre for his actions.
Smithhisler became an architect in Cleveland, and died in Arizona in 1982 at age 93.
Two years ago, retired Belgian Army Lt. Col. Chris DeWaele started searching for members of the two soldiers' families for a commemoration of that mission, including installation of a historic plaque at the riverbank site.
A story in The Plain Dealer about his search prompted genealogist Cynthia Spikell, of Middlefield, to track down a great-nephew and great-niece of Frank Burke – James Pipik, of Amherst, and Anne Wisniewski, 61, of Chagrin Falls.
Wisniewski said she will be traveling to Belgium for the commemoration, along with seven of the 10 other surviving family members including her sister, Therese McClelland, of Lakewood.
"I can hardly wait to see the river. I've heard so many stories about it," Wisniewski said.
During the three-day event, members of the Burke and Smithhisler families will meet with Denise Braun, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, visit the river-crossing site for dedication of the historic plaque, tour World War I battlefields and exhibits, and visit the Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial where U.S. soldiers of World War I are buried.
Wisniewski wished that her mother, who passed along stories about Burke and Smithhisler, was still alive to make the trip.
She had previously recalled that her mother told her that Burke's death was "devastating to my great-grandmother. Frank was supposed to have been her favorite, the brightest child graduated from Shaw High School in 1914, and a very carefree, fun-loving young man."
Wisniewski also said her mother told her about the time when Smithhisler visited the family of Frank Burke. "He suffered terribly from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) but he came up to Cleveland to meet my grandfather, Joe Burke, to explain how his (Burke's) brother had saved his life."
Tom Smithhisler, 53, of Dublin, Ohio, also remembers his grandfather's struggles with PTSD.
Smithhisler, who will also be traveling to Belgium with his grandfather's last surviving son, remembered when he first met the old World War I vet. He said he was warned by his father not to ask about the war.
But, "I brought it up the very first thing. I asked how many Germans did he kill during the war, and he started crying," Smithhisler said. "That's the first time I remember my dad spanking me. My grandfather is sobbing, and my dad pulled me into another room and spanked the living hell out of me."
Military tradition runs strong in the family. Smithhisler, who was in the Ohio National Guard, said his father served with the Army Air Forces during World War II. Smithhisler's two oldest sons have enlisted in the Ohio Air National Guard.
Smithhisler said his wife's mother was born in Germany and had an uncle who served in the German air force during World War II, and a grandfather who was a member of the German army in World War I – conceivably facing Smithhisler's grandfather across the river on the fateful night.
Smithhisler said his father was very involved with plans for the commemoration in Belgium until he died in 2011.
That's a big part of the reason why he wants to travel to Belgium for the event. "Part of this is to honor my father, who spent so much time researching the exploits of his father, and what happened back then," Smithhisler said.
"I'm kind-of doing this to honor my father, to honor my grandfather, and participate in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he added.
Smithhisler said he's looking forward to touring the historic World War I battlefield sites, and also thanking the people of Belgium for remembering two American soldiers.
"Belgium really remembers the service of Americans in the First and Second World Wars," he said. "They really take the First World War seriously over there, and I'm looking forward to meeting these people who are going out of their way to invite us to join in their commemoration.
"I'm really humbled by it."