Brad Anderson never knew his grandfather, but he did know the stories. As he understood it, Walter H. Anderson fought in World War I, was gassed by the Germans and suffered eye problems for the rest of his life. By the 1950s, those problems escalated until Walter succumbed to a rare form of melanoma and died.
But Anderson, a son of Walter's youngest boy, wanted to know more.
"We knew he was gassed," Anderson said recently. "We didn't know the extent of it."
But Anderson added that despite his grandfather's experience, he was never honored for the injuries he suffered.
"Back in World War I the chemical war technology was new and they didn't consider it a wound or war injury," he explained.
Years later, the government reclassified gas-related injuries. Eventually, it occurred to Anderson that he might be able to get his grandfather a posthumous Purple Heart. The question sparked a months-long quest that ultimately spanned the U.S. and tested Anderson's own resolve.
Walter Anderson lived in Toquerville when the Great War began. He was a farmer, Anderson said, and when he was 22 years old married Lola Button on June 28, 1917 in Kanab. Less than five months later, he left for war.
According to Anderson, Walter enlisted on Oct. 2, 1917 in St. George. He joined the 91st Infantry Division and reported to Camp Lewis in Washington where he was trained and outfitted for battle. Just before he left, he wrote home to his new wife. The three-paragraph correspondence -- addressed to "my dear darling lover" -- captures the atmosphere in the camp just before shipping out.
"Got home from town tonight about midnight," Walter wrote. "But didn't rest very good cause we had part of our bedding packed up. I just came back from the canteen, I got me a piece of pie and a bottle of milk. Ha ha, see I am the same old milk eater. I also got a hair cut this morning. So I am ready for the trip. It will be long and hard. But I am able to stand it."
Still addressing Lola, Walter later warns not to "worry lover, if you don't get a letter for quite a while."
Anderson's own quest began last year with an intensive search for more information. A longtime history and war buff, it didn't take long before he realized that the family stories and fading photos he already had wouldn't suffice to get the Purple Heart.
Anderson consequently checked with the Veterans Administration, local and state historical societies and other record-keeping entities. He would later tell family members that at times the effort became "bogged down" and hit road blocks. Still it kept him busy for months.
"My effort had to be full force," Anderson recalled. "This was my own thing. It was my own quest."
Walter's journey from the U.S. to the war began July 13, 1918. In a letter to his father written shortly after the war ended, Walter describes boarding a ship then sailing with a convey along a "zig zag course way up in the arctic regions."
"We had a great convoy of 14 ships, including great battleships and man of war," he wrote home.
After 12 days at sea, he landed in Liverpool, spent a couple of days in England, then shipped out again for France and the front.
By January, Anderson was struggling to find more information about his grandfather's time on the front and decided to reach out to Sen. Mike Lee's office. Anderson said he had a "good feeling" about the office and that they "really wanted to go after this." Soon, he recalled, he was working with staffer Wendy Johnson, who delivered some sobering news. Among other things, Anderson remembers learning that the waiting list for Purple Hearts had 20,000 names on it. The delay after submitting applications was 10 months long. And worse still, applying for the award required specific documentation.
All Anderson had, on the other hand, was stories. He quickly became discouraged.
"We came up against incredible odds and we were just completely shot down," Anderson recalled.
Jessica Christopher, Lee's case work director, conceded that the case was a difficult one. She said when Anderson's request came into the office it was unique. Unfortunately, however, some initial work suggested that Walter's documents may have been destroyed in the 1973 National Archives fire in St. Louis. The fire burned millions of government documents and the news that Walter's documents may have been destroyed didn't bode well for the quest to get him a Purple Heart.
"We did think this would be a little tougher than other cases we worked on," Christopher said.
By March, Anderson was ready to give up.
"After discussing your last email with my father it's been decided not to continue pursuing a posthumous Purple Heart award for my WWI veteran grandfather Walter H. Anderson," Anderson wrote Johnson. "It's a combination of being 93 years too late and so much bungling over the years of his destroyed and discarded military and medical service records. My decision is final and so I don't want to keep the process going any longer. The odds are too stacked up against Walter Anderson."
Though Anderson was discouraged, Johnson didn't accept his decision to give up. She continued reaching out to congressional contacts, archivists and others. And at one point, she saw a glimmer of hope.
"She tried another congressional contact she had here locally," Christopher reported. "She reached out to him and he found one little statement that indicated the file might have been transferred before the fire. It indicated the file was not necessarily in the building that had burned."
Walter landed in France in September 1918. With the rest of his division, he walked and rode train box cars until he finally reached the front on Sept. 5.
"We traveled by night, and hid in the daylight and went up in reserve to the famous Toulon front," Walter wrote to his father. "After being here a week we were sent in the Argonne, in the Verdun country or sector, and, dad, our famous old 91st Division fought the most wicked battle in the war, and we drove those Huns through the great forest and barbed wire and we went through 10 days of hell that I pray to God that I never have to go through again, nor my children."
The "wicked battle" Walter mentioned was the pivotal Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The battle began in September of 1918 and concluded when Germany finally signed the armistice on November 11 -- a day still celebrated in the U.S. as Veterans Day.
Walter's letter goes on to recall living "in a hole" filled with water, and concludes that the details of the experience were "too awful to write about." Anderson said that Walter also described that entire towns of 50,000 people had been decimated and characterized himself as a "hard-boiled soldier."
Documents Anderson has collected also state that Walter's best friend was shot and "killed instantly before him." The bullet reportedly ricocheted off Walter's helmet, which Anderson still owns.
According to Anderson, military documents state Walter was gassed on Oct. 2, 1918. Details are sparse, but Anderson said gas appeared increasingly on the battlefields as the war came to a close.
"The chlorine gas and the mustard gas was a blistering agent and it'd get in your eyes and respiratory system," Anderson said.
Johnson's investigation eventually led her to a records facility in Maine. In August, she made a phone call to the facility and as soon as she hung up she fired off an email to Anderson.
"We have the records," she wrote. "They are the originals. I would recommend you come and make copies of them. I will need to return to the VA. But the best news is that we have official record stating he was gassed and where he went to get healed."
Walter spent weeks convalescing in a French hospital. Family stories indicate that while he was there he shook the hand of Prince Albert. According to Anderson, he then returned to the U.S. and was discharged on April 29, 1919 in Russell, Wyo. He took a bus home, where he reunited with his wife and a son who was born in his absence.
Anderson said that for the next several decades Walter suffered from pain and the loss of eyesight. He eventually developed a rare form of melanoma which, according to Anderson, "flared up in his right eye," in the 1950s. By 1952, Walter lost the eye. Three years later it spread along his optic nerve and entered his brain. He died a week before Christmas in 1955 at the VA hospital in Salt Lake City.
Anderson was overwhelmed with emotion when he learned his grandfather's documents weren't destroyed.
"I just broke down," he recalled, as he sat surrounded by grainy old photos and his grandfather's shallow steel helmet. "And I still break down."
After receiving the documents from Maine -- there were more than 300 of them -- Johnson and Anderson ran to the nearby Kinkos to make photo copies. Anderson keeps them in huge three-ring binders.
With the documents in hand, Anderson and Johnson were able to complete the paperwork for Walter's Purple Heart. The long waiting list means it is still pending, but Christopher said she expects a positive outcome.
"Now we're waiting for the review board," she said. This is going to take several months, but we're excited."
Anderson is excited too. He said that given the many factors that could have thwarted his efforts he feels fortunate to have succeeded. Sitting at his table as the autumn leaves rustled outside, he added that he feels his ancestors may have been watching out for him, helping him honor his grandfather's service.
"I think the powers of heaven have rained down on me," Anderson said.