By Andy Weddington
Memorial Day—Monday, 28 May 2012
"The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example." Benjamin Disraeli
He was born on Monday, 10 December 1894 in South Carolina to proud parents Harris Landreth and Mattie Condrey Landreth. They named him James Esley Landreth. Available genealogical records contain little about the son of Harris and Mattie. There is no mention if James was an only child or had siblings and if so how many, their gender, and birth order. Considering the day, and though only a guess, he was probably not an only child.
What is known about James is that sometime early in life he picked up the nickname “Dutch.” Who tagged him with the moniker and why is not known. But that history is of little concern. Since for most of his life he was known as “Dutch” so he'll be for the rest of this story.
There's no reason to believe Dutch had anything more than a typical childhood; at least typical for the times. Nothing is known of his formal education, likes and dislikes, interests, or hobbies and little about his work experience though there is mention he was a textile worker. So, odds are good he worked in a mill or two during his teens and early twenties. Having worked in a Carolina textiles mill during my late teens, I suspect Dutch probably started at the bottom in the noisy sweatbox and worked his way up—first tending spindles, then doffing cloth and maybe even weaving, fixing looms, and grading cloth. Whatever his job(s), work in a mill is tough. And there is no question work conditions were tougher in Dutch’s day.
On the second Monday in May, the 14th to be exact, 1917, at the ripe old age of 22, Dutch, with a few bucks in his pocket and apparently with an eye for older women, married Fannie Lee Kirk—a North Carolina girl from Rowan County. “Old” Fannie was not quite a year Dutch’s senior. How they got together is not known. But get together they did and it would prove a lasting union.
Not too many months into their marriage, the United States Army summoned Dutch for duty in the First World War. Like millions of other strapping young men across the country the patriotic southerner answered the call. Found fit for service gives a clue that he was not born with any physical deformities and managed to escape disqualifying injuries and diseases while growing up. Regrettably, family records—at least at this writing—do not detail Dutch’s training, unit assignments, ranks earned, battles fought, or decorations awarded. However, in “John Kirk And His Descendants–Volume 1,” by Jean Kirk Ramsey, there is a hand-written entry on page 347 as follows: (WWI—Disabled Veteran).
Family oral history reveals that young Dutch was shipped overseas. Like the rest of the sketchy material about Dutch’s life, the front he fought on and in what battles is not recorded in family history. But fight he did. Dutch was seriously wounded in combat—suffering traumatic head wounds and the loss of a leg. In fact, his injuries were so extensive he was not expected to live and per triage protocol, Dutch was relegated to the “Dying Porch”—the station where all the gravely wounded not expected to survive were “assigned.” Dutch was one among the more than 204,000 Americans wounded during the war.
At some point while on "the Porch," Dutch regained consciousness and, realizing where he was, found the spirit and physical strength to live; at least try. Who knows, perhaps it was the thought of not wanting to leave his new bride that stirred his defiance to face and cheat death. Though continuously treated for his wounds, Dutch's grim prognosis resulted in two more stints on the “Dying Porch.” Army medicine was doing all possible to save him but few were surviving the scope of his injuries or infection. The third and last time Dutch was removed from the “Dying Porch” he was not to return. He survived—Dutch’s destiny was not to be among the more than 116,000 Americans who died in combat, or otherwise, while in uniform during the Great War.
But in a sense Dutch did give his life for his country.
Dutch returned home to Fannie a much different man than the one she married. He was different mentally and emotionally—he had seen, participated in, and barely survived the horrors of combat. He was different physically—he was missing part of his brain and a steel plate had been placed in his head—for the rest of his life. The leg of bone, cartilage, tendons, blood, and muscle that had served him up until his injury had been replaced with a crude wooden one with rubber foot—hardly an aesthetic prop and an uncomfortable one at that. His prosthesis was nothing like the remarkable bionic models custom-fitted to war casualties of the 21st century. Dutch, having served his country with honor, returned home a 100% Disabled Veteran.
Dutch and Fannie took up residence in Tampa, Florida. They lived humbly in a trailer park where most, if not all, the residents were war veterans. The lot was plain, the trailers small and basic, and there was no air conditioning. By no means were any of these people living a life of luxury but they had the necessities. They made do.
Years passed and for whatever reason Dutch and Fannie never had children. As they aged the concern of needing help with daily life became reality so sometime in the early 1960's they relocated to North Carolina—to be closer to family. Settling in Salisbury (Rowan County) they moved into a small four-room house on Liberty Street (how ironic yet fitting) that had been built by family to accommodate Dutch’s disabilities and wheelchair. In that home, as they did in Florida, they lived humbly and spent the remainder of their lives.
Dutch died on 05 April 1969—a Saturday. A few days later he was laid to rest in Chestnut Hill Cemetery, Salisbury, North Carolina. Neither the President nor Secretary of Defense nor the Army’s Chief of Staff attended the funeral. There were no generals nor colonels nor lieutenant colonels nor even majors at the cemetery. But the United States Army did render proper military honors to Dutch. A firing detail sounded a gun salute; a bugler played a haunting rendition of Taps; and Fannie was presented our Country’s colors folded into the traditional respectful shape of a triangle and offered kind words by a Soldier on behalf of the President (Woodrow Wilson had ordered Dutch into battle and Richard Nixon was thanking him) and a grateful nation for Dutch’s selfless service. Family and friends mourned.
Fannie died seven years later.
Family remembers Dutch as a “cranky” man and Fannie as a tolerant, patient woman. Were war wounds the cause of his disposition? Probably. Understandable? Of course. Though there was no talk of post traumatic stress disorder in those days, one can only guess the emotional distress and physical pain Dutch endured and he and Fannie lived with—for life. Not an excuse for his temperament—merely an explanation.
Today—Memorial Day—we Americans, all of us age not withstanding, have a duty to pay tribute to men and women who don uniforms at great personal risk, and sacrifice their lives, to protect our freedom—our liberty. Grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles bear responsibility to remind grandchildren, children, nephews and nieces that amusement park visits, beach trips, lake outings, picnics, barbeques, hotdogs, hamburgers, cold colas and beer are a gift—a costly one—to be savored, never taken for granted, all courtesy of extraordinary citizens.
Dutch was a warrior. And to many a hero, an idol.
Dutch was my great-great uncle.
I did not know Uncle Dutch. I remember meeting him on only one occasion and though not a physically imposing man, he made an impression on me—that wooden leg with rubber foot he was not shy nor embarrassed about showing to a curious 10 year-old boy. This he did at a family gathering celebrating his and Fannie’s 50th wedding anniversary at the best eatery in Salisbury—Jay’s Grill—owned and ran by my maternal grandparents, J.C. and Catherine Kirk otherwise known as “Pop Pop” and “Nanny.” That small brick building, situated at the corner of streets Lee and Liberty, was razed years and years ago.
Less than two years later I witnessed Uncle Dutch’s funeral. I remember the uncertain and scary and somber feelings about death and the impression the military’s respect for and final salute to one of their own left on me that day. The memories clear—sounds crisp, colors vivid, and the smells of spring air and gunpowder linger—slightly more than 40 years later.
Today's Commentary was first posted on Memorial Day--Monday, 25 May 2009 and is reposted with a few minor edits. It's now been slightly more than 43 years since Dutch's funeral. I still remember; clearly.