I grew up with the knowledge that my great uncle died in World War 1. My dad was born in 1924, so he’d never met him.
But Dad did, over the years, add some details about Leo Ross Porter’s life to our written family history. Never married, Uncle Leo was a political cartoonist for the Lansing State Journal before joining up. He had attended art school and traveled some in the west, away from his small Indiana hometown. He trained as a soldier in Camp Graying, Michigan.
We had a copy of a letter he wrote to his brother, my grandfather, from France. It gave a snapshot of a 29 year-old American observing a little air fighting while drawing maps for his commanders, near a stream in the green countryside. He inquired about the folks on the farm. He surmised it was about time for cherries to be ripe back home.
The next page in the family history is his obituary from the Steuben Republican. He’d been gassed on August 12, 1918 and died two days later. Leo’s body was sent back to Angola for burial in Circle Hill Cemetery. Also returned were his footlocker and a violin from the trench he was in, which still remain in the family.
The newspaper said that as a boy he spent hours observing nature, and “always liked birds and animals…they seemed to know him as a friend. Soon after he enlisted in the army, he made his last visit home. While here he told his mother that he knew she would want him to do his duty and he did not want it to be said of him that he was a coward.”
One of Leo’s cartoons in the Lansing State Journal, 1917
According to a letter written by Colonel Chester B. McCormick on board the ship returning to America, Uncle Leo’s unit spent five months in continuous combat. The 199th Artillery joined another division in the Second Battle of the Marne in July, helping capture the city of Fismes (ironically, just west of Metz, the name of the Indiana village where Leo was born).
When I recently transcribed some of my mother’s family letters, I found one written by an aunt in September 1918. “Leo Porter, John Porter’s boy, was wounded in action August 12 and died August 14. The word came here the other day. Mr. and Mrs. Porter are sure doing their bit. They have another son in the army and another that will soon go.”
I was interested to know that my mother’s and father’s side of the family were acquainted before the two of them were ever born. And it gave me another perspective on Leo’s death, which was an exception to the rule: influenza, not combat, was responsible for most deaths of troops from our county.
Last time I posted about the hundredth anniversary of the death of Quentin Roosevelt, the president’s son. I write now of another soldier who died close by a month later, a farmer’s son. They were different but the same. They both did what they thought was right. We honor their ultimate sacrifice a century later.