Looking Back: My father Walter Deebach and WWI

Walter Deebach, 1964
Walter Deebach, 1964

While attending the very impressive Veterans Day ceremony held by Lynnwood Post 1040, Veterans of Foreign Wars, on Nov. 11, I could not help but remember my father and how much his service in the military during WWI had impacted his life.

Within a few months of our move to Alderwood Manor in 1933, my father, Walter A. Deebach Sr., became the commander of Alderwood Manor Post 90 of the American Legion, and then in 1937 he was elected commander of the Legion’s district office. In 1939, he was the main force behind the founding of VFW Post 1040 at Seattle Heights.

For the young and the newcomers to the area, Seattle Heights is no more; it is now part of Lynnwood, just as is Alderwood Manor. The home of the VFW Post in the early days was located on 66th Avenue West just north of 212th Street Southwest. The post owned and occupied a building that was the former one-room Seattle Heights School house. This was home to the post for many years until the building and land were sold to a church. You have to look very closely now to see any trace of the original building.

While sitting in the front row at Lynnwood’s Veterans Park on that very cold Tuesday, listening to the speakers, the young bagpipers and the entire well-orchestrated ceremony, right down to the final taps, memories of my father and all the years he worked on behalf of the veterans of this country flooded my mind and my heart. Tears were held in abeyance, but they were very close to the surface. Then a few tears did actually escape with the playing of the Armed Forces Medley of Hymns; especially the playing of the Army’s “The Caissons Go Rolling Along”—music which meant so much to Dad.

Pvt. Walter Deebach, WWI
Pvt. Walter Deebach, WWI

My father was born over 116 years ago in Mankato, Minnesota and was raised there. He was not yet 19 years old when he enlisted in the Army on June 6, 1917. He served in France and Germany as a private with Battery B, 151st Regiment of the Field Artillery, 42nd Rainbow Division, under Brigadier General Douglas McArthur. Dad took part in most of the major battles in France during WWI and at the end of the war was with the Army of Occupation in Germany. He came back home with damaged lungs caused by a dose of the dreaded mustard gas used by the enemy during that war. For the rest of his life, even though he seldom spoke of it, it was always a reminder of his youthful years during a terrible war.

WWI soldiers in the mud.
WWI soldiers in the mud.

I do wish that he had told us more about the unusual picture taken during a winter in France during the war. My father is one of the grunts—second from the left. I do remember he said the picture became famous, appearing in numerous newspapers.

As mentioned earlier, my father already had a history of being involved in veterans’ issues, and this interest would soon develop into his long-time career. After leaving the Snohomish County Sheriff’sOoffice, in 1943 Dad was appointed as the Director of the VFW’s Rehabilitation and Service Department for the State of Washington, with his office in Seattle. For the next 25 years, until his retirement in 1968 at the age of 70, assisting veterans and/or their survivors was his work. I was privileged to spend four years as an employee in that office (1945-1949). It was during this time I learned of the multitude of problems facing our veterans as they return home to civilian life. It is also why I often write about our veterans. I guess you can say that war and its aftermath impacted not only my father’s life, but also my own.

In November of 1958, just two days before the 40th anniversary of the ending of WWI, The Seattle Times published interviews with some veterans of that war. My father was one of those interviewed. The following is quoted from the Times’ article:

Walter A. Deebach of Edmonds, state service officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, served under Brigadier General Douglas McArthur with the 42 (Rainbow Division). He and his comrades had marched many nights along muddy roads and were in battle deep in the Argonne Forest.

 The news that the war was ended came by word of mouth up through the line, but Deebach remembers that there was little rejoicing at first. There had been a false armistice four days before, and the battle-weary men were skeptical.

A cease-fire order, received an hour or so later confirmed the good news, but the celebration still was restrained.

“We were too close to the war, Deebach said. We had been firing a few moments before, and we were muddy and wet and dead tired. It was hard to relax. What did we think about? I suppose that uppermost in all our minds were thoughts of how soon we could go home.

“The armistice was just the beginning of the end. We knew there was lots of clean-up work still to be done. Most of my outfit didn’t reach the States for another six months.”

WWI troopship 1919, returning to New York.
WWI troopship 1919, returning to New York.

As the article stated, the clean-up by the Army of Occupation did not end until well into 1919. However, when it was time for his unit to leave Europe for home, my father was confined to a hospital for treatment and his leave taking was later. He went home in the company of strangers—mostly Marines—on the USS Rijndam, an old rust-covered troopship.

During the war he had lost several school friends from home—young men serving in the same unit with him. Such is war!

Finally, my father arrived back in Minnesota, to temporarily live in the household of an older sister. He was the youngest in the family, and his mother had died when he was only a year old. His father, a newspaperman and alderman in Mankato died during 1918, while my father was on a battlefield in France. Word that he no longer had a home to go back to did not reach Dad until much later.

One of his brothers lived in Washington State and in order to be near a favorite brother who was 17 years his senior, Dad was prompted to leave Minnesota and to move to Seattle, where he enrolled in an art school.

After marriage, he and my mother went back to his hometown to again stay with his sister for a short time. He then attended art school in Chicago. They eventually returned to Washington, and remained until a short time before my father’s death at the age of 80. Dad’s war-damaged lungs finally failed him.

— By Betty Lou Gaeng

A long-time resident of Lynnwood, Betty Lou Gaeng is a genealogist, historian, researcher and writer who is active in volunteer work for Lynnwood’s Heritage Park Partners Advisory Committee and the Alderwood Manor Heritage Association at Heritage Park. She is also a member of the League of Snohomish County Heritage Organizations (LOSCHO) and the South County Historical Society and Museum.  Gaeng is the author of two books: “Etched in Stone,” which is the history of the Edmonds Museum memorial monument, and “Chirouse” about a Catholic missionary priest who came from France to Washington Territory in 1847 and became a father figure and friend to the Puget Sound area’s Native people.

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