A World War I hero's family found his story alive and well in Belgium

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Marco Werman: ‘m Marco Werman and you’re listening to The World. Today is the 96th anniversary of the end of WWI.  You know, the 11th day of the 11th month, at the 11th hour. It’s impossible to get your head around the number of people who died in that war -- at least 16 million. But here’s the story about one of them, a 23-year-old guy from Ohio, and it’s told by my colleague, Jane Pipik. Jane usually sits on the other side of the studio window, working the control board. But today, she is on this side of the glass with a story about her great uncle Frank, who fought in Belgium. First of all, what did you know about your great uncle Frank when you were growing up?


Jane Pipik: Well my mother, Francis Burke Pipik, always talked about great uncle Frank. She told us that he was a soldier in WWI and that he died of influenza. That’s what I knew.


Werman: Right, that’s kind of a one line story though. So, you start to dig in and learn more about great uncle Frank’s story. What did you find out?


Pipik: Well actually, we weren’t the ones doing the digging. Chris de Walle, a retired colonel from the Belgian army, decided that he was going to make it his mission to find Frank Burke. He checked records, databases, contacted people in Ohio, and eventually an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer said “Looking for members of Private Frank Burke’s family.” A genealogist there said “Hey, you know, I know those folks.”


Werman: So this Belgian man, Chris de Walle, was pretty determined to find you and tell you these stories about your great uncle Frank that you didn’t know.


Pipik: Well, I learned that Frank was part of a secret mission at the very end of WWI with his sergeant from the 37th Brigade, Sergeant Paul Smithhisler. We met Jack Smithhisler’s son, who was 85, in Belgium. He told my family the story that his father, Paul, had told him. He had asked my great uncle Frank if he would help him on this mission.


Werman: What was the mission? What did the sergeant ask your great uncle Frank to do?


Pipik: He asked my great uncle Frank to stay at the side of the river, and then Sergeant Smithhisler swam across the river, snuck around the German machine guns and the artillery, made a map, he was very good at map drawing, put it in a special waterproof pouch that had been designed specifically for the mission, because of course in those days they didn’t have plastic, and then he got back in the water and swam back to the Allied side. He asked Frank that if he got into trouble, would he help him. But when he got back into the river, he was spotted. Well, here’s what Jack said his father told him.


Jack Smithhisler: He said “I had no strength and by then ‘m gasping for air.” Burke pulled him out of the water and he said “I remember he slapped the gas mask on me,” and then he said “I thought I smelled the gas.” He said “Later on, I realized that Burke got some gas.” He never said anything about Private Burke other than “He saved my life. If he’d have put his gas mask on first, he’d have been okay and ‘d have been dead.”


Werman: Wow. So, your great uncle Frank, did he die of influenza or did he die there that day?


Pipik: We’re not really sure. He died within a month of that secret mission. No one really knows. But we think now that he died of poison gas.


Werman: As you said, this happened just weeks before the end of WWI. In terms of the whole story of WWI, what do you think it meant that your great uncle Frank, Frank Burke, took on this very risky mission with his sergeant. Was it an isolated moment of heroism, or was it more significant?


Pipik: Well in this case, Sergeant Smithhisler’s actions, and my great uncle Frank’s that night, had now become attributed to breaking what they called the “Hindenburg Line” that the Germans had set up all along Belgium and France. So, by getting this map, they were able to quickly take out the Germans and build a bridge across the river. That day, they literally say between 3,000 and 5,000 American, British, and French troops crossed at that point in the river and they broke the Hindenburg Line.


Werman: So, you just came back from Belgium where you met some of these people involved in remembering your great uncle Frank. What was it like being there?


Pipik: We were absolutely shocked at the amount of thought and planning. They had small military band presentations with over 500 soldiers, they invited the Queen’s Grenadier Army to perform for us.


Werman: Just for your great uncle Frank?


Pipik: Just for Sergeant Smithhisler and great uncle Frank. They were re-dedicating the bridge that was built after the war, very near where Sergeant Smithhisler had done his swim, and put up a beautiful plaque of Frank and Paul Smithhisler. I have their picture, if you’d like to see it. One thing that’s great about Frank, we only have two photos of him. One is this one that you see here now. It’s Frank at his base camp in Alabama, they had sent him down there, and he’s got the camp mascot on his shoulder, it’s a monkey. You can just see that grin from ear to ear. The thing about Frank is he was such a fun-loving, happy guy. My family was devastated by his death and it’s just so interesting to us now that these strangers in another country have remembered him, they’ve never forgotten him, they’ve celebrated him and they continue to celebrate him.


Werman: When you finally met Chris de Walle -- I know WWI tourism is big in Belgium, but this sounds very personal for Chris de Walle; a retired colonel, but he was so determined to find you. Why did he do it?


Pipik: It’s a little hard to say, except for that I think Chris de Walle has never really forgotten what the Americans did for his country in both WWI and WWII, and I think he had a soft spot for Frank. He really wanted him to be recognized because Sergeant Smithhisler suffered very greatly from PTSD, what they called back then “Shellshock,” and he went to his grave saying “This mission never would have happened if it weren’t for that kid Burke.” I think he felt that until he found Frank Burke, they weren’t really doing justice to historical facts.


Werman: Considering how little you and your own family knew about your great uncle Frank, where does this reorient him in your own minds and memories today?


Pipik: I just so dearly wish that my mother, her brother and sister, would have been able to come to this because they grew up in the aura of great uncle Frank. My mother’s name was Francis Jane Burke, she was born the year uncle Frank’s body was shipped back, he was Francis James burke, and she always, always talked about him to us.


Werman: Jane Pipik is an audio engineer here at WGBH in Boston. She’s been telling me the incredible story about her family’s great uncle Frank Burke and the way he’s still remembered today in Belgium, 96 years after he died. Jane, thanks for telling us this story. Really great.


Pipik: Thanks so much Marco.