Posted at 7:38 AM on Sunday, May 28, 2000
By NATE JENKINS
It was a test, a mission, ultimately a cliff-dive into the World War I history he had only a cursory interest in before one of those sturdy historical markers that seem to proclaim "History here!" caught his eye in an Arkansas state park.
For two to three months, Bruce Powell made phone calls every day, trying to dig up information on a man the park is named after, whose career the marker traces, Herman Davis.
Davis, it says, was listed fourth on Gen. John Pershing's list of the 100 top heroes of World War I. Pershing was the Army general who commanded the American Expeditionary Force in Europe in World War I and helped secure an Allied victory.
"Who were the three ahead of him?"
Powell said he couldn't get that question out of his head.
"Who else is on the list?" he said.
In his quest to find out, Powell talked to Arkansas state officials, an organization in Europe called the Battlefield Monument Commission, checked every Web site dedicated to World War I and chatted with archivists, curators and librarians.
He even talked to Gen. Pershing's biographer.
And Powell, who lives in Georgia, got nowhere. The academicians, the history buffs, the Arkansas department responsible for the marker and park didn't have a clue.
"I quickly found out nobody knew about the list," Powell said.
"The first thing I suspected was that the state of Arkansas made it up.
"I was obsessed with it because I couldn't figure out why nobody knew about it."
A stroke of pure luck
But 18 months after he saw the marker, 18 months after embarking on what Powell said was partly "a kind of test of the Internet," he was browsing the New York Times Web site and saw a reference to the Liberty Loan Campaign and the list. He made some calls, wound up talking to a person with the National Archives and got hold of the list. Sure enough, Herman Davis was on it, though the names weren't listed in any particular order.
"It was pure luck I talked to the one person there who knows about the list," Powell said.
The list, according to Powell, was sent to the Secretary of War in 1919 to make short films, pamphlets and other media material to support the money-raising effort of the Liberty Loan Campaign.
An introduction to the list in the July and August 1919 issues of the Ladies Home Journal said the Secretary of War was asked by a government publicity council to request Pershing to select "one hundred typical stories of American heroism during the war." Pershing assembled his board officers, the introduction said, and they selected the 100 representatives.
"It should be borne in mind that there were literally thousands of instances of heroism among our fighting troops in France, and that any selection ... would necessarily omit more examples than it could possibly include," the introduction said.
Powell decided to find out all he could about the men on the list. Turns out, a man named George S. Robb was on the list.
He won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the U.S.'s highest award for valor.
Robb, who died in 1972, was the state auditor for 24 years for Kansas.
He was postmaster in Salina.
He called the city home.
A war hero in Salina
Seventy-eight-year-old David Robb, who lives in Presbyterian Manor, 2601 E. Crawford, is a nephew of George Robb. Pershing's top 100 list isn't a mystery to David Robb -- he has a copy of the list that so many didn't even know existed.
He said his uncle came home to Salina in 1919 "shot full of holes."
That same year in a ceremony in Salina, George Robb was given the Congressional Medal of Honor, making him only the second Kansan at that time to receive the award. About 15,000 people crowded into city park for the event.
A newspaper article described children perched in treetops during the ceremony, silent as they watched and listened.
Robb said he always looked up to his uncle for his modesty while being showered with so many accolades.
When a reporter once asked Robb what he'd done to deserve the Medal of Honor, he replied:
"That is one of the unexplained mysteries of World War I."
In fact, the only reason the ceremony was in Salina was that Robb, when told he was to go to Fort Riley for the presentation, said he was "too busy" and asked if the medal could be mailed to him.
Robb told a reporter after the presentation that he was proud of the medal, "But I deserve it no more than many other men whom I meet on the streets these days, and therefore why make such a ceremony of it. They probably did brave deeds which weren't seen. I do not think I merited the congressional medal any more than many others did. I only did what I was there to do -- the only thing I could do in the circumstances."
Honored by the French and Italian governments as well for his service, Robb received the Medal of Honor while still wounded with four bullet holes.
According to Robb's citation and the story told under his picture on the copy of Pershing's top 100 war heroes list, Robb was recognized for what happened on Sept. 29-30, 1918, near Sechault, France.
Wounded, again and again
Robb, a first lieutenant with the Army's 369th Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division, was in charge of a platoon of "negro troopers" on Sept. 29 when his outfit made an assault on Sechault, a German-held village in northeastern France.
Robb was severely wounded by machine gun fire. Instead of going to the rear to be treated, he remained with his platoon until ordered by his commanding officer to go to the dressing station.
Robb returned 45 minutes later and remained on duty throughout the night of Sept. 29, inspecting lines and establishing outposts.
Early in the morning, Robb was wounded again but remained in command of his platoon. Later that day, he was hit again by a bursting shell that added two more wounds. That same shell killed his commanding officer and two other officers in his company.
The severely wounded Robb assumed command of the company and organized its position in the trenches and, according to the citation, Robb was the only officer of his battalion who advanced beyond Sechault.
The citation reads, "By clearing machine gun fire and sniping posts he contributed largely to the aid of his battalion in holding their objective. His example of bravery and fortitude and his eagerness to continue with his mission despite severe wounds set before the enlisted men of his command a most wonderful standard of morale and self sacrifice."
Badly shaken by the war
David Robb said his uncle didn't talk a lot about the war.
"He told his brothers some of his experiences, and other uncles recited them to me," said David Robb, who knows his uncle's military and professional career well.
"He was badly shaken up by that war."
He shook it off quickly to become a well-respected man not only in Salina, but throughout the state. George Robb was "a refined and cultured and well-educated gentleman for his time," David Robb said. The former history teacher was educated at Park College in Parksville, Mo., and obtained a master's degree in 1915 from Columbia University.
"He knew everybody in the state of Kansas and had friends in every town," his nephew said.
But that was all a long time ago.
"There's hardly anybody in Salina that remembers him," Robb said.
After the war, Robb, who was born on a farm near Assaria in 1887, was in the real estate business in Salina until he was appointed postmaster in 1923. He served there until 1935, when Gov. Alf Landon appointed him state auditor. He retired in 1960 and is buried in the Gypsum Hill Cemetery.
A touch of bitterness
Monday is another Memorial Day, but in so many ways it won't be like it used to be. And that makes some, like Robb, speak with a tinge of bitterness about the lack of understanding and respect for the day that was set aside to honor people like his uncle who served their country.
"City and towns used to shut down," said Robb, sitting at his kitchen table, dressed in a coat and tie, a picture of his Uncle George on the table. He used to have more pictures of his uncle, but his children, he said, "got the genealogy gene" and took many of them.
"It was a holiday. It wasn't a day to go fishing and get drunk," he said.
"Patriotism has been lost."
Check the entire list at: Pershing's 100