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Grandfather#039;s journal provides glimpses of WWI

Every Memorial Day, my thoughts turn to the war veterans in my family who proudly served America in distant lands or on the home front. I salute my father, grandfathers, uncles and cousins on that special day of honor.

My late father was one of the proudest vets and patriots ever put on this earth. He would get tears in his eyes whenever he saw a color guard pass by or Stars and Stripes wave. Every year, Dad marched proudly in Ironton's Memorial Day parade, wearing his Army uniform from the 1940s and a wide grin, surrounded by his Company K pals.

On a recent trip home to Ironton, my mother presented me with a gift that immediately became one of my most prized possessions: A small journal my grandfather, Harold E. Miller, wrote in 1918-19 when he served with the U.S. Army Company B. 128 Engineers, A.E.F., in France during World War I.

Through the journal, I can listen to his words from way beyond the grave. He died in 1962, after a rich and joyous life as a loving family man and U.S. mail carrier. He carried mail in a leather pouch for over 30 years. My favorite picture of him shows him carrying me, a tiny, blonde curly-haired tot, in that strong pouch.

The 3-by-5-inch red leather diary is full from front to back with tiny, neat handwriting. Some days the ink in his pen nearly runs dry. Other days the torrential rain in France causes the ink to run.

In staccato daily entries, he tells his story of leaving Cincinnati by train Sept. 22, 1918, for New York and eventually the rain-soaked fields of France.

One of the most shocking events happened in early October, during his passage to France on the "good ship George Washington" with 9,000 other soldiers. Let him tell you the story:

"Oct. 2. The flu started on this day and it was this that took all the joy out of our trip. Over 300 cases reported the first day.

"Oct. 3. Disease continued to spread and we had to wear white gauze masks. 11 reported dead.

"Oct. 4. 2,000 down with the flu and 20 reported dead. Got our throats sprayed.

"Oct. 5. Continued cases of flu reported with 33 dead.

"Oct. 6. 2,500 sick. My main pal, Clark Mazy from Newark O., taken to hospital. 40 dead.

"Oct. 7. They got control over the flu after a bitter fight. The gauze masks had a good deal to do with keeping it in check, as they did not have much medicine. 47 dead.

More than 72 of his fellow shipmates, including Mazy, would die before they reached France on Oct. 13.

After they arrived at Brest, he lived the hard life of a soldier/engineer in the mud and rain, working long days and sometimes sleeping outside in driving rain.

"Oct. 13. Our day to land. We had to march 4 miles to camp and many of the men fell out and were brought to the camp in trucks. Everyone weak from flu. Arrived at camp at 4:30. Almost dark. Made our bunks on the hard ground and had to go to bed without even a bite to eat. At 10:30 it poured rain and almost all the boys' clothing got wet. Some experience that night!

"Oct. 14. Most of the boys woke up in a puddle of water but I had a high spot and did not get a thing wet. Had a cup of coffee and a jam sandwich for breakfast. Called us for work at 6:30 with rain coming down in torrents. Some rest camp, as they called it. Rained all day.

"Oct. 18. Woke up sick. Couldn't eat a bite. Rain.

"Oct. 19. Very sick. Had to walk a mile to the infirmary. Could hardly make it. Rain. Sunshine in afternoon.

In the following months, he would write from across Europe. He would do heavy drilling, build roads and structures, move mountains of heavy rocks and do KP duty - an assignment he loved because it kept him indoors, out of the rain.

He lived for mail from his sweetheart and family in Ohio and the silent films he saw. He wrote hundreds of letters, enjoyed the ship's newsletter and griped about the rain.

"Rains 300 days a year in France," he quipped. "Went to work at Field One on hangars and got a good soaking."

While he spent most of his time in France building roads, a gymnasium and "General Pershing's Stadium," he did get occasional passes out of camp. He visited Issoudon frequently, replenishing his ink supply as needed. He traveled to Lourdes and hiked up into the Pyrenees to the Spanish border. He savored the lights and sights of Paris.

He arrived home in Ohio July 22, 1919, and flew straight to the arms of his sweetheart, Gladys, who would become my grandmother within the next year.

As I proudly watched the historic Memorial Day parade, Monday, I thought proudly of Grandpa Harold, Dad and everyone who served or gave their lives for us and our freedom.

Connie (Justice) Crowther, writer and public relations counselor, grew up in Ironton. She has lived in the Bahamas and Florida for the past 35 years. Her mother and brother, Joyce and Greg Justice, still live in Ironton.