Memorial Day: Remembering a Buxton ‘Yank’

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Alan Richards of Gorham visits the grave of his father, Earl U.B. Richards, at the South Buxton Cemetery. The elder Richards served with the Yankee Division in France during WWI and survived a gas attack.

Alan Richards of Gorham visits the grave of his father, Earl U.B. Richards, at the South Buxton Cemetery. The elder Richards served with the Yankee Division in France during WWI and survived a gas attack.

WWI veteran Earl Richards is pictured as a youth in Buxton. 

Lee Humiston, curator of the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center in South Portland, reviews the history of the Yankee Division in WWI. “They got chopped all to pieces,”  Humiston said.

This Yankee Division WWI Army uniform, left, on display in the Maine Military Museum in South Portland shows what Earl U.B. Richards would have worn.

BUXTON — A  soldier a century ago survived gas attacks, mortar shelling, hunger and thirst in the horror of World War I battlefields. In advance of Memorial Day, the soldier’s son, Alan Richards of Gorham, recounted some of the memories, though he said his father spoke seldom and little about the war.

He regularly visits the grave of his father, Earl U.B. Richards, in the South Buxton Cemetery. The elder Richards served with the 26th Division – the heralded Yankee Division, a New England outfit – in France. The division fought months in offensives.

“They got chopped all to pieces,”  said Lee Humiston, curator of the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center in South Portland.

Alan Richards said his father suffered from gas released by the enemy, inflicting a lifelong infirmity. He survived the attack but his lungs were permanently  impaired. “They got burned,” his son said.

When the United States declared war on Germany in April of 1917,  patriotism swept the nation and volunteers responded to the call for soldiers.

Richards, Buxton-born in September 1897, enlisted in Hollis on July 21, 1917, at age 19. He became a doughboy, as soldiers of the era were nicknamed. The Yankee Division was activated four days later.

He trained at Camp Devens in Massachusetts and was assigned to Company E, 101st Engineers, in the Yankee Division, according to his military record. Alan Richards has the company’s photo and can pick out his father from the ranks.

The 26th was a New England infantry division of National Guard troops, Humiston said. It was one of several U.S. divisions deployed in the American Expeditionary Force that shipped out to France, a U.S. ally, and it was the first full division to arrive, according to John Nelson in a booklet about its history reprinted from he Worcester Evening Gazette in 1919. Nelson referred to the Yankee Division as “shock” troops.

As a teenager, Richards had worked on a farm in Buxton and his experience proved useful in the military. In the Army, Alan Richards said, his father’s early duties in France included handling mules and horses that hauled the big guns. Richards also had duty in the trenches.

In his history, Nelson reported that the Yankee Division suffered from “exposure to cold and rain, from hunger and thirst.”

When short of water, Richards said his father shared his canteen water with a mule. On a trail, thirsty mules could smell water sources from some distance, Richards said his father told him.

Yankee Division troops were well acquainted with marches. “He walked from one side of France to the other,”  Richards said.

Grateful French women would come out from villages to invite troops trudging through the countryside to dine on fresh eggs and chicken dinners.

According to Nelson’s history, the Yankee Division was steadily in battles from Feb. 5, 1918, until the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.

Richards had at least one near miss. A shell landed a few feet away from his father and dented the ground but didn’t explode, his son said.

In the Yankee Division’s 101st Trench Mortar Battery, Stephen Manchester, 31, of Westbrook wasn’t so lucky. He was the first Westbrook man to die in the war. Wounded in action, Manchester died July 18, 1918, according to his gravestone in Woodlawn Cemetery in Westbrook.

The division was decimated by heavy casualties – 1,730 killed, 6,443 wounded, 3,363 gassed, 283 missing and 136 taken prisoner, according to a “Welcome Home YD” publication.

Richards was discharged as a Private First Class on April 28, 1919, at Camp Devens. Coming home to Buxton, he was under a doctor’s care the remainder of his life with lung problems, Alan Richards said.

A Hollis friend of his father’s, who was also gassed in World War I, committed suicide. he said. But, despite lung problems, Richards’ father worked a full time job and didn’t accept a military pension.

Earl U.B. Richards died at age 76 on Feb. 12, 1974. His death nearly coincided with the day he first went into battle on Feb. 10, 1918, according to his records.

Robert Lowell can be reached at 854-2577 or rlowell@keepmecurrent.com