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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published October 23 2011

Eriksmoen: North Dakota man earns highest honors for bravery

One of the most heroic actions taken by a high-ranking officer during a combat situation involved a North Dakota man.

The bravery of Lt. Col. Fred E. Smith in the forest of the Argonne in Europe during World War I saved the lives of soldiers under his command and earned him the highest honors given by the U.S., France and Italy. It also cost him his life.

On the morning of Sept. 29, 1918, communications between Smith’s division and the forward unit was interrupted by the infiltration of Germans armed with machine guns. Smith personally led 12 men to try to reopen communications. They came under fire from “German machine guns only 50 yards away.” After making certain his men had proper cover, Smith charged the machine gun emplacements with only a pistol. Despite being wounded repeatedly, he continued his assault until he was finally killed. His action allowed most of his men to get safely out of the range of the machine guns.

Smith was born May 29, 1873, in Rockwell, Ill., to Eliphaz and Sarah Emma (Barnes) Smith. Eliphaz was a Rockwell merchant and city alderman. In September 1880, the Smiths moved to Grand Forks, where Fred attended grade school and then took high school classes at the University of North Dakota preparatory school.

Smith took classes on military drill and tactics that continued when he enrolled at UND as a college student. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in spring 1894, rising to the rank of cadet captain after five years of military courses.

Smith found work as a clerk in Bartlett, 20 miles southeast of Devils Lake. He joined the North Dakota National Guard and was assigned to Company D, the unit that met in Devils Lake. On May 16, 1898, the Guard promoted him to regimental sergeant-major, and on June 21, transferred him to Company K out of Dickinson. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, the eight North Dakota National Guard units were formed into the 1st Infantry Regiment and sent to Manila Bay in the Philippines in July 1898.

On Feb. 6, 1899, the U.S. Senate approved terms of a peace treaty ending the war with Spain, but rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo led an insurrection movement against the American forces. Smith was summoned to Manila and notified that the next day he would be given an exam prepared by West Point instructors to determine if he would qualify to be an officer in the regular Army. He aced the test and, on Feb. 24, was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. On July 26, 1899, Smith transferred to the 36th U.S. Volunteers, which was created “from state volunteer veterans” to pacify the natives and defeat the Army of Liberation led by Aguinaldo.

After the Americans defeated Aguinaldo, Smith returned to the U.S. and was stationed in Syracuse, N.Y.; Fort Thomas, Ky.; Fort Meade, Md.; and Fort Slocum, N.Y. He rose to the rank of Army captain.

By early 1917, it was becoming apparent that the U.S. would soon be involved in World War I. Germany sank a number of ocean vessels containing American citizens, and the State Department gave notice that American merchant vessels would be armed. On Feb. 3, President Woodrow Wilson informed Congress that he had broken off diplomatic relations with Germany and dismissed its ambassador. On April 2, he sought a declaration of war, which was passed by Congress. On April 2, he advised Congress to declare war and, four days later, they did just that.

Needing qualified officers, the Army noticed the leadership ability of Smith and promoted him to major on Aug. 3, 1917, and to lieutenant colonel on Aug. 29. He was assigned to the 15th Infantry and sailed to England on April 25, 1918, arriving in France on May 14. He was transferred to the 77th Division on July 12 and went to the front lines on July 17.

Smith and his men clean out some German outposts in late July and, on Sept. 22, accompanied Gen. John Pershing as he prepared to enter the Argonne Forest in eastern France along the Belgium border. Pershing commanded the 1st Army. On his left flank was the 77th. At the time, Col. Paul Prescott was the commanding officer of the 77th and he sent the 308th Infantry under Maj. Charles Whittlesay into enemy territory. Smith replaced Prescott as commander of the 77th on Sept. 27.

The 308th met little resistance and soon outdistanced the rest of the 77th. German forces rushed in and cut off communications. On the morning of Sept. 29, Smith gathered a dozen of his soldiers and led the squad in an attempt to locate Whittlesay. Smith’s guide got lost and led the men into an area infested with German troops fortified with machine gun nests.

With enemy fire coming in on the squad, Smith ordered his men to take cover, pulled out his pistol and opened fire on the Germans. He “fell severely wounded in the side, but bravely regained his footing and continued to fire on the enemy until most of the men of his party were out of danger.”

For his action, Smith posthumously received the American Medal of Honor. From France, he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, and from Italy, the Croce di Guerra.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.