One of the most heroic actions taken by a high-ranking officer during a combat situation involved a North Dakota man.
The bravery of Lt. Col. Fred E. Smith, in the forest of the Argonne in Europe during World War I, saved the lives of soldiers under his command and earned him the highest honors given by the U.S., France and Italy. Unfortunately, it also cost him his life.
On the morning of Sept.r 29, 1918, communications between Smith’s division and the forward unit had been interrupted by the infiltration of Germans armed with machine guns. Smith personally led a group of 12 men to try and reopen communications.
They came under fire from German machine guns 50 yards away. After making certain that his own men had proper cover, he charged the machine gun emplacements with just a pistol. Despite being repeatedly wounded he continued his assault on the Germans until he was finally killed. His action allowed most of his men to get safely out of the range of the machine guns.
Frederick E. Smith was born May 29, 1873, in Rockwell, Ill., to Eliphaz and Sarah Emma (Barnes) Smith.
In September 1880, the Smiths moved to Grand Forks where Smith attended grade school and then took high school classes at the University of North Dakota preparatory school. Here he was able to take classes on military drill and tactics that continued when he enrolled at UND as a college student. He graduated in the spring of 1894, having risen to the rank of cadet captain after five years of military courses.
Smith found work as a clerk in Bartlett, 20 miles southeast of Devils Lake. He joined the North Dakota National Guard and was assigned to Company D, the unit that met in Devils Lake. On May 16, 1898, the Guard promoted him to regimental sergeant-major, and on June 21, transferred him to Company K out of Dickinson.
With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, the eight North Dakota National Guard units were formed into the 1st Infantry Regiment and sent to Manila Bay in the Philippines in July 1898.
On Feb. 6, 1899, the U.S. Senate approved the terms of the peace treaty, ending the war with Spain. However, the fighting was not over. Rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo led an insurrection movement against the American forces. Smith was summoned to Manila and notified that the next day he would be given an exam prepared by West Point instructors to determine if he would qualify to be an officer in the regular Army.
He aced the test and, on Feb. 24, was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. On July 26, 1899, Smith was transferred to the 36th U.S. Volunteers.
After the Americans defeated Aguinaldo, Smith returned to the U.S.. During his stateside deployment, he rose to the rank of captain in the U.S. Army.
After the U.S. entered World War 1 it needed qualified officers. The Army noticed the leadership ability of Smith and promoted him to major on Aug. 3, 1917, and to lieutenant colonel on Aug. 29. He was assigned to the 15th Infantry and sailed to England on April 25, 1918. Smith arrived in France on May 14, was transferred to the 77th Division on July 12, and went to the front lines on July 17.
Smith led his men, cleaning out some German outposts in late July and, on Sept. 22, accompanied Gen. John Pershing as he prepared to enter the thick Argonne Forest in eastern France along the Belgium border.
Pershing was the commander of the 1st Army and, on his left flank, was the 77th. At the time, Col. Paul Prescott was the commanding officer of the 77th, and he sent the 308th Infantry, under Maj. Charles Whittlesay, to push into enemy territory. On Sept. 27, Smith replaced Prescott as commander of the 77th.
The 308th met little resistance and soon outdistanced the rest of the 77th. German forces rushed in and cut off communications.
On the morning of Sept. 29, Smith knew that decisive action needed to be taken to reestablish communication with the 308th. He gathered a dozen of his soldiers and led the squad in an attempt to locate Whittlesay. Smith’s guide on this mission got lost and led the men into an area infested with German troops fortified with machine gun nests.
With enemy fire coming in on the squad, Smith ordered his men to take cover. Disregarding his own danger, he pulled out his pistol and opened fire on the Germans. Smith was wounded, but regained his footing and continued to fire on the enemy until most of the men of his party were out of danger.
Refusing first aid, he obtained several hand grenades and attempted to take out the nearest machine gun nest before he received his fatal shot.
For his action, Smith posthumously received the American Medal of Honor. From France, he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, and from Italy, the Croce di Guerra.
(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen at email@example.com.)