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History Snoopin’: They called him son

“If you fail to hear from me within a month after the receipt of this letter,” Russell wrote to his parents, “you may know that a German shell has come over the line with my number on it.”

Russell Hawk lived with his mother, father, two sisters and three brothers near Derby, a forgotten rural post office that sat north of Eagle Point, near the Butte Falls Highway.

Born in Pennsylvania in August 1892, Russell and the family moved to our valley in 1905.

He had been constructing wooden fruit boxes on his father’s farm when he registered for the draft in June 1917. Four months later, Oct. 4, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He began basic training at Mare Island, north of San Francisco, and then was sent to Quantico, Virginia, and eventually Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

He was trained as an aerial machine gunner, but with the war heating up he transferred to the Sixth Marines. On Jan. 19, 1918, he was on his way to combat in France.

It wasn’t until mid-March that the Sixth entered fighting on the front near the devastated city of Verdun. After they weathered weeks of heavy German artillery fire and frequent gas attacks, by mid-May the Germans finally began to fall back.

Given less than a week to rest behind the lines, Russell and his unit were rushed into the bloody 20-day battle of Belleau Wood. On June 26, the American headquarters received a message from the front: “Belleau Wood now U.S. Marine Corps’ entirely,” it said. The Marines’ tenacious attacks had earned them the German nickname “Devil Dogs.”

Since they began fighting, the brigade had lost nearly 55% of its strength, with 1,062 Marines killed in battle and an additional 3,615 casualties; yet, Russell was still alive. It was about this time that he wrote that ominous letter to his parents.

The Marines were driving hard, still on the front lines of the battlefields near Soissons, France. Suddenly, on July 15, the Germans attacked in one last desperate attempt to stop the American advance.

The Marines and Allied forces counterattacked across level ground that contained no protective cover and was in full view of the enemy. German artillery and machine gun fire decimated the Marines, cutting down over 50% of Russell’s remaining battalion — including Russell.

He was buried in a temporary battlefield grave. After the war, Congress ordered the War Department to identify all dead Americans and create American military cemeteries in France. Russell was located and reburied in the Belleau Wood American Cemetery.

In 1920, Russell’s parents received a letter asking whether they wanted their son’s remains returned to the United States. Because of a new law, next of kin could choose between a permanent burial of their loved one on foreign soil, or bring them home for a private funeral. In all, six Jackson County boys would be brought back home.

In late May 1921, Russell arrived in a flag-draped coffin. His funeral service and procession to the cemetery on Memorial Day was one of the largest in the city’s history. Among the flowers overflowing on his casket was Russell’s photograph, wearing his uniform, complete with the military citations he and his military brothers had earned.

A Forest Service airplane flew over the Main Street procession, dropping flower petals on the marching veterans below. In tribute to all soldiers who had died while serving, flowers were strewn on Bear Creek from the Main Street Bridge. Then, the procession moved to Eastwood Cemetery for Russell’s funeral service.

When the “Unknown Soldier” arrived in Washington, D.C. later that year, columnist George Rothwell Brown saw him as the representative of every fallen soldier.

“Hundreds of millions of people have called him ‘son,’ and given to him a name that for all time to come, in every heart, shall be a synonym for sacrifice and loyalty.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “Forgotten Voices of WWI.” Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.