SOUTH JORDAN — For several good reasons, when they were growing up, brothers John and Todd Mabey knew next to nothing about their grandfather’s experiences as a soldier in World War I.
For one thing, John was just a year old and Todd hadn’t been born yet when Walter Amos Mabey died in 1957 at the relatively young age of 63 — his early demise brought on by head injuries sustained in the war.
For another thing, John and Todd’s father, also named John, never heard his dad say anything about the year he spent in France fighting the Germans, so he had no war stories to pass on.
The only family war lore, contributed by Ethel, the boys’ grandmother and Walter’s wife, was that Walter knew by heart “In Flanders Fields,” the haunting WWI-inspired poem that pleads for survivors to remember the dead. Sometimes, late at night, she’d hear him reciting the whole thing, ending with the last stanza:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
As fate had it, in 2012 John Jr.’s son Ben found himself on a business trip in the Flanders region of Belgium, near where the famous poem was penned in 1915. That sparked a phone call back home to Utah.
“Hey,” he asked his father, “Where did Grandpa serve?”
John had no idea.
But he resolved to find out.
Thus began a headfirst dive into history. Through tireless digging and research, John dug up Walter Mabey’s military service cards and various diary accounts, eventually cobbling together a nearly day-by-day account of his time in uniform.
He left the family farm in South Jordan and enlisted in the Army in Salt Lake City on Oct. 1, 1917. He was 23 years old. He didn’t have to go. His mother was a widow and Walt was her main means of support. But he went. “This is my country, too,” he wrote.
On his way to sign up, Walter stopped off at the patriarch’s house. A patriarch gives blessings to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which Walter was one. Walter figured he needed one. He put the blessing, promising him safety if he kept the faith, in his front shirt pocket and left it there.
The Army put him on a train. He arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, on Dec. 13 and set sail for France, landing on Dec. 29, 1917. For eight months he went through training and built armaments, far from any bullets. But that changed in August when he was sent with the 18th Infantry to where the Meuse River flows beneath the Argonne Forest in northeastern France.
There the farm boy from Utah became part of the Meuse-Argonne campaign, still the largest offensive in U.S. military history, involving 1.2 million American soldiers. Some 26,277 of them gave their lives, while tens of thousands more were wounded.
One of those being Pvt. Mabey.
He suffered a head wound, no doubt from shrapnel, and lay in a dugout “for who knows how long” before he was carried off to hospital. The day he was hit was Oct. 4, 1918. One month and one week later the war ended.
Walter returned to South Jordan with a Purple Heart the next summer. At the homecoming party his mother threw for him, he met an elementary schoolteacher named Ethel, who became his wife.
The rest, John Mabey knows more or less firsthand.
This past spring, John and his brother Todd traveled to where the Meuse River flows beneath the Argonne Forest in northeastern France. They walked through the fields and towns where their grandfather once trod. The knelt at a spot where they deduced he was wounded to pay tribute. If he hadn’t made it out of there alive, they wouldn't be around to talk about it.
The Mabey brothers were at the front of a wave of World War I remembrance that will climax on Nov. 11, 2018, the 100th anniversary of the ending of the Great War.
“My grandfather’s story is an all-American, Utah farm boy story representative of the millions who served,” says John. “The message our family wants to get out is for Utahns and Americans to remember the great sacrifices now forgotten; to ‘take up the torch’ as the poet says in ‘In Flanders Fields.’”