Lowell Natives Retracing WWI Trenches of Their Namesake

October 4, 2018
Tom Sexton III of Hingham reads from the diary of his grandfather, Tom Sexton Sr., an Army private in World War I. He and his father plan to visit areas in France where he served. Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

TEWKSBURY -- For most of his life, Tom Sexton III has been fascinated by a century-old piece of blackened metal, roughly the size and shape of a marble.

His father, Tom Sexton Jr., would take it out and show it to his kids, letting them roll it around in their hands. Decades earlier, Sexton Jr. did the same under the watchful eye of his father, Tom Sexton Sr., who brought the object -- a piece of shrapnel embedded in his back by a German shell -- home from World War I, one of dozens of mementos the man otherwise reticent to talk about his service kept tucked away in a shoebox.

Sexton III always wondered about the shrapnel, about the grandfather he lost when he was only 3, about the Army private whose experiences in the trenches of a war-torn landscape were something of a family myth.

Now, father and son will undertake a journey into that past. They will fly to France this week and drive into the countryside, retracing the northward push of the 327th Infantry, Sexton Sr.’s unit, in the war’s final days. They will bring with them both an official military history of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and the text of the eldest Sexton’s diary, 100 years to the day after the events within it were recorded. They expect they will pause for reflection at the monuments and cemeteries and still-visible craters, aware that they are lucky to be there because their progenitor survived the deadliest battle in American history.

“The fact that we have this intimate knowledge of his movements and the history of his unit and the ability to be in exactly the same spot as he was exactly 100 years later -- that was the motivation for doing it,” Sexton III said.

The two men, now 87 and 58, are eager to discuss their plans, although this degree of focus on the family history only emerged in recent years. Six years ago, the youngest Sexton was in France on a business trip and decided to steer into his curiosity about the family history. He drove into the northeast, fairly close to the Belgian border, and began plotting out his grandfather’s steps.

The experience stuck with him, and he returned with the hope he could bring his father on a similar trip in the future as a way to connect with their mutual past.

Most of their plans are based on Sexton Sr.’s diary, a thin book no more than 4 inches tall, its black binding flaking off. Entries leave out some of the more harrowing details from battle Sexton III would later find in history books, but recount the journey to Europe, movements across France, nighttime bombing raids and the shrapnel injury to his grandfather’s back.

Sexton Sr. was born in Lowell, just as his children -- Sexton Jr. is a former employee of The Sun -- and grandchildren were. He worked in the mills and attended school at night, and at 22, he was drafted into the Army as the United States rapidly scaled up its military to enter the war that had raged in Europe for three years.

Trained at Fort Devens

After training at Fort Devens and in Georgia, Sexton Sr. was deployed to France, where his unit was a part of several key battles, such as the Saint-Mihiel Offensive, late in the war. In July 1918, he was walking to get a fresh set of clothes when a German shell exploded behind him, sending a piece of shrapnel into his lower back.

Sexton Sr. recovered quickly, though, and he was deployed in October 2018 to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. With 1.2 million American troops involved and 26,277 killed, it was the largest and deadliest battle in the country’s history. Even today, the Argonne forest in the northeast of France bears the scars of the war: trenches, pillboxes, trees burnt by the fighting.

In his diary, Sexton Sr. recorded being sent “over the top” -- out of the trench to attack the enemy directly -- four straight days during the battle. His record of it spares many of the gruesome details, but Sexton III, now a Hingham resident, said the official history of the Meuse-Argonne is harrowing, explaining in depth how American troops endured gas attacks, mortar shelling and the spread of disease to attack fortifications the Germans spent four years building.

“You get the sense from all of this they were all lucky to survive,” he said.

And survive Sexton Sr. did. His unit remained on the front until about a week before the war ended with Armistice Day and then in Champlitte for another six months. He returned home, bringing with him a wide collection of trinkets -- postcards from French towns and religious sites he visited, a ticket to a boxing match in Bordeaux, meal cards from the ship overseas, plus the shrapnel and his diary -- from his journey.

He remained quiet about his experiences back in the United States. Sexton Jr., who lives in Tewksbury now, recalled playing with the shrapnel and hearing the occasional memory, but most often, his father would simply tell a light-hearted story about going “footloose” in a French town before reconnecting with his unit by chance.

But even with so much left unsaid, those keepsakes stayed in a shoebox until Sexton Sr.’s death in 1963, leaving a link to the past his family would eventually come to explore.

“This person who was bigger than life that I didn’t know very well, we’ve got all these artifacts and these mementos,” Sexton III said. “You can connect that with the history and what he did. It’s a way to learn more about him and the people of that time.”

When the middle and youngest Sexton leave for France today, it will be the culmination of that digging after years of research. They will look across the regrowing landscape their grandfather saw devastated, aware of the ghosts that still linger. And the trip will also be an experience for father and son to share, a way for the two to grow closer by honoring their mutual history.

“It was something that, someday, we’d like to do together,” Sexton Sr. said. “Now, it’s going to happen.”

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski

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