January 24, 1893 (Norwalk, CT) – July 23, 1918; 25 years old
Last local address: 96 Ely Avenue, South Norwalk
Entered the service June 14, 1917
Serial number 64357
Unit: 26th Infantry Division, 102nd Infantry, Company D
Born to James A. Smith (1869-) and Sarah Houghtaling Smith (1867-). One sister, Myra Smith Nathan (1899-1963). Two brothers, Alva James Smith (1896-1981), and Earle Smith (1897-1968).
Also wounded in action March 16, 1918. From an unknown newspaper: Mrs. Sarah A. Smith, of No. 96 Ely Avenue, yesterday received a message from the office of the Adjutant-General of the United States Army, Washington D.C., that her son Russell I. Smith had been slightly wounded in action on the French fighting front. No other particulars were given, and it is presumed that Private Smith is at one of the base hospitals undergoing treatment for his injuries. He enlisted nearly a year ago, when the bridges were being guarded in Norwalk by the New Haven Blues and other organizations of state militia, and has been in France for several months with the regiment.
Lt Godfrey, PFC Smith, and Sgt Paradiso were in the same unit, 102nd Infantry, Company D. Lt Godfrey was killed one month after PFC Smith, and Sgt Paradiso was killed in action 3 months after PFC Smith.
From unknown newspaper; clipping found in Norwalk History Room, Norwalk Library
RUSSELL I. SMITH KILLED IN FRANCE
After Being Gassed and Burned He Returned to the Firing Line and Gave Up His Life
Another gold star is added to Norwalk’s service flag in honor of one more of its brave sons, who willingly made the supreme sacrifice in France. It is in honor of Private Russell I. Smith, who, before enlisting, lived at 96 Ely Avenue. His mother, Mrs. Sarah A. Smith received the official announcement from Washington, yesterday, that her son had been killed in action in France on July 28. He is survived by his mother and two brothers, one of whom has been in the U.S. Navy for the past seven years, and the other is expecting to leave at any moment with the new draft. Private Smith was one of the most popular young men of Norwalk and his death is mourned by all who knew him and by every resident of our city. He was about twenty-three years of age, and was a member of Uncas Tribe No. 26, and the Haymaker’s Loft No. 25 1-2, I.O.R.M., of this city, and before enlisting was a hatter by trade. In the latter part of May 1917 he heard his country’s call to arms, going to Bridgeport, he enlisted in the New Haven Blues, which formed part of the 102nd Infantry. After a little training in this country, he left for the “fields of honor” in France, with his company, which formed part of the immortal Rainbow Division. He underwent additional intensive training in France and was then sent to the front line. With the other boys in his company, he served in a number of engagements, perhaps the most important of which were the battles of Seicheprey and Chateau-Thierry. In one of his engagements the Norwalk lad was gassed and badly burned by liquid fire and, while crawling back to the American lines, was half buried in a shell-hole by the explosion of a shell nearby. He was found there by Red Cross workers, who transported him to the Red Cross clearing station in the back of the lines, and from there he was sent to the Base Hospital Number 8. At that time, he wrote to his mother telling her of the episode, saying he was getting along nicely and requested her not to publish the fact of his being gassed. He recovered from the effects of the gas and burns, and once more rejoined his comrades at the front but was destined not to be with them long, for while in an engagement on July 28, he was killed in action. Thus ended the life of one of the bravest and most fearless men Norwalk has sent to the war. Private Smith not only did his but, but did his all, and to do so and to help his country and his flag, and save democracy, he sacrificed his young life.
From the Norwalk Hour July 20, 1920
The home of one Norwalk mother who has been mourning sorrowfully the loss of her soldier-son in the world war is somewhat brighter today, a message of comfort to the saddened mother’s heart having been brought to the home late yesterday afternoon through a messenger of Uncle Sam. The message was from overseas where her boy lies in a soldier’s grave, where he fell in his country’s cause. The solder is First Class Private Russell I. Smith, a member of Company D, 102nd Infantry, New Haven Blues, killed in action. The mother is Mrs. Sarah A. Smith of 96 Ely Avenue. The message was a postcard photograph of the grave of the hero snapped on the Fourth of July. The grave was outlined very clearly on the postcard. At the head of the grave was a large white cross, upon it the following: “Private Russell I. Smith, Co. D, 102nd Infantry, Killed in Action July 23, 1918.” Strewn over the top of the grave were flowers arranged most effectively. At either side and beyond the local man’s grave were resting places of many others who had fallen even as he. When the postcard in question was delivered at the Smith home, another message came there also. It was a letter from Mrs. Smith’s son in the U.S. Navy, Chief Gunner’s Mate Alva Smith. In this letter Gunner’s Mate Smith told of how while overseas he had gained a furlough and gone to the scene of his brother’s grave in a small town near Paris. There he had found that a French family had given the graves of fallen American soldiers every possible care. He arranged with the family to decorate his brother’s grave for the Fourth and had the grave photographed upon that momentous day, sending home the postcard which will hold a place in the Smith home as one of the most treasured of possessions. Mate Smith is expected home from the navy on a furlough this week when he will tell his mother in fuller detail of the resting place which her son, in his supreme sacrifice, found.
Russell’s mother made the pilgrimage to France as part of the Gold Star Mothers and Widows program in 1929.
In the aftermath of World War I, wives became widows, and mothers outlived their sons. More than 100,000 Americans died during the Great War, creating suffering and pain for those family members they left behind. Through the Gold Star pilgrimages of 1930 to 1933, the U.S. government specifically recognized the sacrifices of these mothers and widows who chose burial in an overseas American military cemetery for their sons or husbands.
As the war raged, the Gold Star became a symbol for mourning the fallen. Families who lost a loved one in the service hung a Gold Star in their windows. Their female relatives referred to themselves as Gold Star mothers and widows, and they created several national organizations for collective mourning and support. These groups lobbied Congress for an official government-funded pilgrimage to visit their loved ones’ graves, which the government authorized on March 2, 1929.
All mothers and unremarried widows of someone buried or memorialized at an ABMC cemetery received an invitation. Over the course of the program 6,654 women participated. These pilgrims represented the diversity of the American army in World War I. However, in keeping with the Jim Crow-Era segregation of the military at the time, the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps racially segregated the pilgrimages. African-American women traveled in separate groups, a decision that created much controversy. While many objected, 168 African-American women still participated as pilgrims.
Even after the crash of the stock market in October 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, the federal government funded the entire pilgrimage. The Quartermaster Corps meticulously organized the program and cared for the mothers and widows. They arranged every detail of the journey and monitored the pilgrims’ physical and emotional health. Escorted by Army officers and nurses, the pilgrims traveled to many of the major tourist sites in the countries they visited, including the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, where they laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They subsequently traveled to the cemeteries and visited the battlefields and memorials in addition to the graves of their loved ones.
Cemetery staff decorated the graves with the flags of the U.S. and the host country. They provided a chair for the pilgrim to sit next to the headstone and reflect. Each pilgrim received a photograph of herself at the tombstone, where she also laid a memorial wreath. These personal touches added to the dignity of the pilgrimages and demonstrated the government’s commitment to the cemeteries.
The Gold Star pilgrimages honored these women’s sacrifices and eased their grief. After her 1930 pilgrimage to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Mrs. O.B. Johnson of Iowa told the Army how “the Government is certainly doing the right and square thing by the Gold Star Mothers. We were treated with respect and deference…on the whole a wonderful trip.” Many pilgrims expressed their admiration for the ABMC cemeteries. Mrs. Ettie M. Brown and Mrs. George Ingersoll visited the Saint-Mihiel American Cemetery and declared that “the cemetery is kept beautifully and we feel our sons have a lovely resting place.”
Through the Gold Star pilgrimages, women played a key role in the early commemorations at the ABMC cemeteries. The government recognized that these women served the nation through their losses, and acknowledged the importance of providing them with the opportunity to visit the overseas graves of their fallen family members. The ABMC mission during the Gold Star pilgrimages was the same as it is today: to maintain military cemeteries with honor, so that the loved ones of the fallen can find solace in the dignified care of their eternal resting place.
For NARA burial file, click HERE.
Private Smith is buried Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, Seringes-et- Nesles, France; Plot A, Row 11, Grave 14.