How I met my grandfather

 My grandfather as a child

Two years ago I watched the HBO mini series "The Pacific" about Marines in the South Pacific during World War II. I knew that my grandfather, Paul Smith, was one of those Marines (although the mini-series is mostly about the 1st Marines and my grandfather, I would come to find, was in the 4th Marines). My mother Paula adored her father and most of the stories of my grandfather have been of his kind, loving nature. She knew very little about his war experience or even his upbringing. Paul was adopted as a child by his Uncle Elbert Smith and his wife Estelle, who he considered his parents, never speaking of what happened before his adoption.

My grandfather died in a house fire on March 22, 1981 in Upper Arlington, Ohio. He had struggled with alcohol his entire adult life and one night while smoking cigarettes in bed and drinking, he fell asleep and the bed caught fire. He was found a few feet away from the door. I had just turned 5 years old, so my memories are not too good of Grandpa Smith. My son (who was born 27 years and 3 days after) is roughly the same age now as I was then. I don't expect him to recall much of this time in his life. We had visited Columbus the summer before he died and it's hard for me to tell if memories I have are real memories or recollections of stories from that summer that my mother told me. She said the next couple times we went to Columbus that I knew where all the roads were and how to get to the nearest Baskin Robbins. My grandfather and I shared a love of ice cream. I think I remember his voice, but there's probably no way for me to prove this. I definitely remember his wife, Nyla (my grandmother), her voice. She died in 1997 however, when I was in college.

Something about the watching that mini series on HBO made me want to dig a little deeper into my grandfather's military history, then later on, into the rest of his life. With a name like Paul Smith, searching for records on the internet was nearly impossible. After a week of searching I found this:

I was fairly certain from pictures I had seen that the man on the left was my grandfather. I confirmed with my mother. From the site I had hit a goldmine - complete information on where he served. My grandfather, Captain Paul Smith, was the company commander of the 4th Marines, 3rd Division, 23rd Battalion, Company L. It was fairly easy to find out from there that the division saw combat in Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima. Casualties were alarmingly high. Nearly a third of the company was killed in action. My mother recalled that Captain Smith was injured twice and I found out that he was seriously injured in Saipan and when he recovered was moved off the front line. I found that all but three of the officers of Company L were killed.

After a month of searching, I found, searching Facebook of all places, that the Company L has an annual reunion. Roughly two dozen or so of the men of Company L or their spouses are still living and have gathered annually for the past 30 years. Through the article I found with Facebook's web search engine (never came up on Google or Yahoo), I got in contact with Company L veteran Everett "Bud" Hampton. Bud Hampton is still actively speaking on behalf of veterans at VFW Halls and other military reunions throughout the South. I found his contact information on the internet through a VFW Hall where he had spoken and waited a day then called him from work one afternoon. My first impression was, this is what an old Marine sounds like! We spoke for 15 minutes or so and I asked him what he remembered of his company commander. Said he was fair, well respected, and followed the rules. Told me he'd taken away his weekend pass at Camp Pendleton (where they were training) after a mistake he'd made. At the time Bud was upset, but then he'd later realize that sort of discipline was necessary (although even the commanding officers had no idea what they would be experiencing at war.)

I got on the Company L mailing list, which included the names and contacts of the living veterans and their family. One caught my eye right away: Wilbert Hager - Meriden Connecticut - as in, the town where I worked, an amazing find since most of the Company was from the midwest or deep south. I waited a day (I found it best to write down exactly what I wanted to say and be prepared for long answers) and called Wilbert. He agreed to have me visit him that afternoon. Wilbert's house was about a mile or so from my office (about 3 blocks from where I got coffee). He lived in a part of Meriden that has definitely changed since he'd moved there (which was over 40 years ago). I don't know if it was because of my visit, but the Marine colors were visible in the window. I knocked on the door and it was another "raggedy ass Marine". Wilbert and I talked for an hour - he loaned me a book from the 4th Marines (which I would scan that evening). Wilbert knew my grandfather too, had a few small stories about him, mostly during training. It seems the commanding officer was fairly separated from everyone else during combat. My grandfather likely suffered his serious wound in Saipan with other officers by ambush, not in combat. I came back the next day to return the book to Wilbert and enjoyed our discussion, which was about the military, the Marines and the country in general. He certainly had some interesting opinions which I'd not frame as either "extreme right or extreme left".

I read through the materials and got a very close first-hand recap of what Company L had accomplished. But there was one more detail my mother remembered - she remembered that Grandpa's best friend died in his arms and another friend died at Iwo Jima. The one who died at Iwo Jima, I found through my research, Felix Bevens (third from the right in small photo above), had a daughter that he never met. He was killed right after she was born. Through another article I found her, Anne Adkins. Anne's story amazed me. Her mother remarried, and her stepfather (who was raised her as a daughter) and mother provided her with a wonderful loving home. In her later teen years, Felix's mother passed away and the family travelled to Louisiana (where Felix was from) to retrieve personal items. Anne had two caring parents and knew in her early teen years that Felix was her father, but learned of her father mostly through letters written home that were saved by Felix's mother. Boxes and boxes of letters. Cherished words. This image has stuck with me ever since the day she told me this story. Her advice, talk to people now, no one is getting any younger.

Alas, part of the problem was time. Frank Sullivan (second from the left in the small photo above) died about a decade ago. He would have been a great resource. So would have the other men. My mother remembered my grandfather being close with "Sullivan".

I had a good idea now about my grandfather's experiences in war and as a leader. My mother told me about how he had gotten his doctorate at Penn State, then moved on to teach at University of Arkansas, then Ohio State. I'd met his best friend and fellow faculty member Elvin Davenport at my grandmother's funeral. I remembered meeting Elvin as child as well. Elvin and his wife Minnie both passed away a few years later, as did their son, at a young age. More people I could have talked to who were gone. But those years when grandpa was at Ohio State, my mother has very clear stories about - how he defied Upper Arlington culture by not tending to his yard weekly, how he was a science professor, but strictly believed in the seven-day creation of the world as described in the Book of Genesis, how he worked with Indian students who had come to the United States to study (before many Indians were in the country). My mother and father (who also attended Ohio State) as well as my grandma and grandpa Smith - all big Buckeye football fans. Scarlett and Gray runs in the blood on both sides.

After this, I decided to research my entire family's genealogy, but most of it was to find out more about my grandfather's family, since he'd been adopted. After learning the adversity he'd overcome as a child, it's amazing he even went to college let alone finished high school.

Paul David Locke (I found out from my mother that this was his birth name) was born February 17th, 1919 in his house in Lebanon, Kansas to Opal Smith Locke and Terrance M Locke. Paul was their fourth child. Paul had two brothers, Charlie and Lewis, who were born when Opal was a teenage, and a daughter Vera who was a couple years older than Paul. At some point Paul was adopted by Elbert and Estelle Smith, Elbert the older brother of Opal. The rest of the family genealogy came together quickly (mostly due to research by my great-grandmother Mary Isa Teel and numerous research projects of the Pidcock, Phillips and King-Lay families on my father's side).

I was stuck on what happened to Opal or Terrance. After my grandfather died, my mother got in contact (through her mother Nyla) with Lewis Locke and his wife Polly. They lived in Oregon, and traded phone calls and letters throughout the years (sadly, during my research in June I found that Polly had passed away. Polly was really the "glue" that held together the remaining Locke family. My mother never uttered anything but kind words for her aunt Polly, who she never met in person - she never met Charlie or Lewis in person either). Vera was cared for by Elbert and Estelle (although never actually adopted) and Vera and Paul grew up together. Paula was close with cousins Elmer and Tranda (Vera's children) as a child, although they lost contact throughout the years before Tranda and Paula got back in touch a couple years ago through email.

After six months of spinning in circles, I'd found a couple of my mother's second cousins who were Lockes, Anita and Beryl, who knew much of the Locke family, but not much of Terrance, other than he had a well attended funeral in the 1950s. One day, I randomly stumbled on to the "Find a Grave" website which contained information on Terrance Locke's grave, among others in the Locke/Smith families. I contacted the man who put up the information, Earl, and I could tell right away that he'd done some very extensive research (he'd also pieced together quite a bit of Terrance's mother's family going back to German roots in the 1700s). He sent me this picture:

This was the first time my mother ever saw what her grandparents (by birth) looked like. Amazingly, Estelle and Elbert in the photo as well (although the child labelled Vera is not Vera, but she's in the photo as well.) Paul and his brothers are together. My mother hadn't seen a photo of her father so young before. I received a few more photos as well from Earl. It was while providing some information to Earl that I learned of Polly Locke's death. I got her daughter's name from my mother, who had old letters from Polly (she wrote every year at Christmas except 2011, when it was too hard for her to write anymore due to blindness). I found her daughter's daughter (my second cousin) through Facebook, and she got me in contact with Becky (Polly's daughter, my mother's cousin).

Becky and I finally talked while I was on vacation this summer. I told her how grateful my mother was for Polly's letters and gifts. She told me that Polly was devoted to Christ and to family. I read her obituary and knew that this was a truly wonderful person who I wish I could have met. Becky sent dozens of photos and provided family information as to what happened. My mother had a living Aunt she never knew (Charlie's wife Marguirite). All the Locke kids died fairly young, and in fact, Opal Hoff (she remarried) was alive until 1984 and outlived three of the four of them. All those years my mother was alive with these aunts and uncles she never met or never knew existed. They all mostly lived in Oregon. One of her cousins she never met, Terry, is in Maryland. During his life, my grandfather didn't have much to do with his birth family. My mother says it's because he thought it would have been disrespectful to his adopted parents.

I had much of the story now.

The Locke family was poor. Paul's father Terrance, who may have had an alcohol problem himself, was a  preacher. He and Opal married when Opal was a young teenager and they moved from Newmarket, Iowa (where Opal grew up) to Smith County, Kansas. Terrance travelled frequently, and left Opal with the young kids and not much money. Charlie and Lewis used to hop trains and catch turtles to sell for food. My grandfather got tasked with stealing milk of other people's porches. Opal began to travel and leave the kids behind to earn money in ways which likely included prostitution. One day, Opal stranded  the four children in a train station. Likely, this is the last time Paul ever saw his brothers. Charlie and Lewis fled, Charlie joined the military. In the 1940 census they would resurface with Terrance in Colorado. Terrance lost his church, scrambled for odd jobs, remarried, formed a church in Colorado, but died of a heart attack in the early 1950s. He was a well-revered man by all accounts. Opal moved to Kansas City, got married once, or twice, moved to Colorado, then disappeared by my account, before resurfacing in the 1970s in Oregon. Opal attended the same church as Polly, but lived the end of her life blind and deaf and it put her in a bad mental state. Her obituary listed four children (she had no other children other than the four with Terrance) and listed the proper number of grandchildren (my mother and her cousins) and great-grandchildren. Opal knew that I existed (likely through Polly). Lewis had a daughter, Margaret (a cousin of my mom) who passed away a few years ago never meeting or speaking to Paula.

Paul's adopted parents weren't wealthy, but got by by early 1930's Kansas standards. Paul attended Lebanon High School, where he was a basketball player and honor student, earning admission at Kansas State University (where he met Nyla). He definitely overcame a lot, a childhood he wouldn't even mention to my mother (she learned nearly all of this from Paul's wife Nyla, my mom's mother).

I saw a photo from Becky (Lewis and Polly's daughter)'s wedding with all the Lockes there, my grandfather not in attendance. My mother is an only child; she doesn't have much family. It would have been nice for to have known these people. Now they are gone and she'll have to search like I did to find more about their lives.

It was always easy for me to look up to both my grandfathers. I'm absolutely spoiled to have the relationship with my Grandpa King that I have. He's still living, still sharp as a tack in his early 90s. He was a professional baseball player, and his stories in baseball are great. He's also got one of the best senses of humor of anyone I know. My daughter is his spitting image, other than the blond hair. My Grandpa Smith was a war hero, a scientist and a college professor - a lot to be proud of - knowing how he got there is even more impressive. I've only gotten the ability to know him more now by talking to others, seeking out others who knew him. I also think how my kids are the only thing left in the world that will continue from him when I'm gone. My mother was an only child and my sister has no children. My mother told me the first thing she thought about when she saw Josh at the hospital after he was born was how happy her parents (my grandparents) would have been.

My only regret with this research is that I wasn't able to start at this earlier.

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