O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
- From the poem “America the Beautiful,” by Katharine Lee Bates
It was such a hero who inspired Claude Hamilton to join the Army back in 1918.
Hamilton, then a 19-year-old farmboy from Rockford, got news that his friend Edward Leehan was killed during a World War I battle in France.
Hamilton, now 96 and living in the Spokane Valley, said he wanted to honor Leehan’s memory by going overseas to fight the Germans who killed his friend.
“He was the best,” said Hamilton, whose voice faltered at times as he recalled memories from 77 years ago. “I joined because a good man got killed. I felt it was my duty.”
Although he never got to Europe to see his intentions through, Hamilton didn’t forget his motivation for signing up.
In 1921, he and some other Rockford-area veterans founded an American Legion post. They named it after Leehan.
Today, nearly 30 members of the Edward Leehan American Legion Post 165 will commemorate Memorial Day at the Mt. Hope cemetery on Valley Chapel Road, west of Rockford. The ceremony begins at 10:30 a.m.
Back in 1918, after enlisting in the Army, Hamilton went by train to Fort Dix, N.J., where he trained as a machine gunner in the 351st Tank Battalion.
“I thought it would be quite a thrill to run one of those big vehicles,” said Hamilton, one of only about a dozen World War I veterans still living in Spokane County.
But the war ended the day he and his comrades of the 351st were on the train, heading to New York City to ship out.
Hamilton recalled the crowds of people cheering as they rolled out of town for New York.
“I was looking out the window with one of my buddies, and he said, ‘Ham, they’re giving us a good send off,”’ said Hamilton, who sports a strong handshake and a quick wit. “We thought we were on our way.”
The throngs, though, were cheering the signing of the armistice that ended the war.
Hamilton was honorably discharged a few weeks later. His discharge papers were signed on Dec. 11, 1918, by a lieutenant colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Hamilton later voted for that lieutenant colonel when he ran for president in 1952 and again in 1956.
Two years after returning to Rockford, Hamilton helped form the American Legion post.
Money was tight, he said, so he and a friend cut trees from the foothills of Mica Peak to build what is now known among Washington legionnaires as the “Log Cabin Post.”
Hamilton said they dragged logs on horse-drawn bobsleds to the site of the post, on Emma Street along the west side of Rockford Creek.
The log building, with its shake roof and crumbling chimney, is still there, identified by a red, white and blue sign. Legion members met there last week to discuss plans for today’s ceremony.
Those who served in World War II, which include Hamilton’s 61-year-old son, Jerry, will talk about their memories from that war, which ended 50 years ago.
There also will be a 21-gun salute for all veterans who died in battle, said Lloyd Seehorn, a WWII Navy Seabee.
Hamilton, the lone surviving charter member of the post, won’t attend the commemoration. He doesn’t get out of the house much anymore.
But he will remember, he said. He’ll remember his friend Edward Leehan and all the other Americans who died in World War I.
“Thousands of men looking forward to their lives who never got the chance,” Hamilton said. “We all should remember. It was a big sacrifice.”