Veterans Day 2020

Two veterans in my family tree came near death in war and survived, or I would not be here. One was my father, whose wounding at Tarawa in the South Pacific during World War II I’ve written about before: Tribute to a veteran: Robert Earl Richardson

My maternal great-great-grandfather Allen Danford Lile served with the Michigan Volunteers’ Company F , 18th Infantry Regiment, which was called into service by President Lincoln in July1862. In mid-September, 1,000-strong, the unit left Michigan for Cincinnati, where they crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky. After fighting their way through central Kentucky, in August 1863 they were ordered to Nashville to act as a rear guard for Union forces.

During the summer and fall of 1864, the Michiganders did garrison duty at Decatur, Alabama, as part of the First Brigade, Fourth Division, Twentieth Corps occasionally pursuing Confederate troops when they approached that part of the state. Allen Lile was among some 200 troops detached to reinforce the Union garrison at Athens, Alabama, about 15 miles to the north across the Tennessee River. On Sept. 24, 1864, the detachment was attacked by about 5,000 Confederate troops under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest near their destination. After fighting for five hours, the entire command was surrounded and captured with “heavy loss in killed and wounded.”

The survivors were imprisoned at Athens, Alabama, until the end of the war. On April 22, 1865, they were exchanged for Confederate prisoners at Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. A few days later, they were among 1,866 troops crowded aboard the Steamer Sultana headed upriver for home. In the early morning hours of April 27, near Memphis, Tennessee, “the boilers of the steamer exploded creating an appalling tragedy. Those on board were hurled into the air by the force of the explosion and their mutilated bodies fell into the Mississippi. Of the 1,866 troops on the steamer, 1,101 were lost. The hundreds who were not seriously injured were thrown into the river and drowned.”

Sixty-eight members of the Michigan regiment were killed or drowned; only a small number survived. My second great-grandfather, Allen Danford Lile, was one of them. He was mustered out on 10 June, 1865 at Camp Chase, Ohio, and returned to Michigan to farm and raise a family at Boardman in Kalkaska County. The steamship accident was the subject of a board of inquiry, but no cause of the explosion was determined.

Tribute to a veteran: Robert Earl Richardson


From Robert Earl Richardson’s June 30, 1987 obit in the Detroit Tribune:

   A three-page US Navy public relations report of the [sniper] incident written when Richardson returned to Royal Oak on convalescent leave reported that the then-father of one [yours truly] was wounded while treating a Marine.
   “The little Marine came running up with his Tommy gun. Suddenly he threw his arms up in the air and fell to the ground…blood gushing from his chest but he wasn’t dead.”
   Richardson, after treating an injured officer, was running to aid the Marine when he was struck by the bullet.
   “I was knocked cold and thought I had been hit with a rifle butt. That is until I saw the two bullet holes in my helmet and blood pouring down my face.”
   After that time with more than four years in the Navy-Marines, Richardson, who fought on both islands, said he would prefer three years of Guadalcanal to three hours of Tarawa.
   “Guadalcanal was a picnic compared to Tarawa,” he wrote.
   I was three years old when my father was wounded. My earliest memory of him was his return to Michigan during the convalescent leave mentioned in the obit. I had been told that he had been wounded and had a silver plate in his head, which did not make much sense in my three-year-old mind.
   Bob, which is how I knew him, picked me up, took me out to his car and opened the trunk. There lay his helmet with those two bullet holes, a souvenir of the battle of Tarawa, one of the bloodiest South-Pacific landings in the war.

[Not his actual helmet]

   I’ve pondered how that early experience may have contributed to my strong, lifelong anti-war beliefs.