As October ended and November began, the Great War was clearly nearing the end, but not before a Mount Vernon native earned a Distinguished Service Cross for heroic action.
The Austrian lines in northern Italy cracked under a new Italian assault (with assistance from British and French troops as well as part of the American 83rd Division on hand), the Austrian commander Oct. 31 asked the Italians for an armistice.
The same day, it was reported that an armistice had taken effect with the Ottoman Empire in what amounted to an unconditional surrender by the Turks.
Nov. 2, Tsar Boris of Bulgaria abdicated after only a month in office and Bulgaria gave up.
Terms of the armistice with Austria were announced Nov. 4 and included demobilization of its army, surrender of parts of its navy, evacuation of any occupied territory and Allied use of Austrian railroads against Germany.
Germany was increasingly isolated and continued to retreat in the face of British, French and American attacks on the Western front. The retreats were generally orderly and the Germans were still trying to obtain terms short of complete surrender, but the Allied high command, especially Gen. Pershing, were pushing to continue the fighting and actually drive into Germany.
By the end of October, French and American forces were stalled at the Escaut River (also called the Scheldt River) in Belgium. The French and the American 91st Division failed in efforts to cross the river in the face of heavy machine gun and artillery fire and the task fell to the U.S. 37th (Buckeye) Division, especially the 148th Infantry Regiment and the 112th Engineering Regiment.
According to accounts found on the Internet, especially one written by Smithhisler’s son, the 112th put out a call for volunteers to swim the river and scout the German positions, pinpointing artillery and machine gun positions.
Shortly before midnight Nov. 1, Sgt. Paul A. Smithhisler, a draftsman in the 112th and a native of Mount Vernon, slipped into the narrow, but swift, river and swam across undetected. He scouted a 500-meter section of the German lines, sketching their gun positions.
His drawings safely in a waterproof pouch, he headed back for the river, but was detected as dawn approached and he started across the river. The Germans also called in an artillery barrage, including mustard gas, which arrived as Smithhisler, exhausted, emerged from the river. A waiting soldier, another volunteer, got a gas mask on him, but didn’t get his own on in time. He would die about a week later, although it’s not clear whether from the gas or other wounds.
Smithhisler’s sketches helped American artillery pinpoint the German positions and the 148th’s attempt to cross the river was successful.
At Christmas, the war over, he was still in a French hospital being treated for hypothermia and seared lungs, and on Jan. 25 he was personally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Gen. Pershing.
He also received the French Croix De Guerre and he and the regiment received the Belgium War Cross.
The story of Smithhisler’s exploit was finally published in the Daily Banner Jan. 23, 1919. It identified him as the son of Mr. and Mrs. Michael J. Smithhisler, 305 Braddock St.
Smithhisler would live until December 1982, when he died at the age of 93 and was buried in Maricopa County, Arizona.
The accounts raise some questions, especially whether Smithhisler was the only man who crossed the river, or did other scouts cross in other sectors? The area Smith scouted was where the 112th got its bridge across, so he would have received the most attention.
In 2014, The Ohio delegation in the House of Representatives introduced a resolution to upgrade the DSC awarded to Smithhisler to a Medal of Honor. As far as I can determine, the measure was never voted on.
Actually, there were two Paul A. Smithhislers from Knox County in World War I. The other, called “Gus,” was from Danville and was a private in Battery E, the National Guard unit from Mount Vernon. He died in 1976 and is buried in St. Luke Cemetery at Danville.