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Imposing, life-size statues of American bison stand guard at Belgium’s Ohio Bridge spanning the Scheldt River.

September 7, 2022

Sgt. Paul Smithhisler
Pvt. Frank Burke

Sgt. Paul Smithhisler was heading back from a dangerous reconnaissance mission – swimming across the icy Scheldt River to sketch positions of German heavy weapons for bridge planning –  when poison gas shells began to fall. 

On the American side, Pvt. Frank Burke pulled his gasping comrade from the water and fitted him with a gas mask, even before donning one himself –  a choice that led to Burke’s illness and death just a few weeks later. 

Smithhisler’s diagrams made the strategic bridge possible, yet he never forgot the sacrifice made by 21-year-old Burke that night. “He saved my life. If he had put his gas mask on first, he’d have been okay and I’d be dead.”

Today, imposing, life-size statues of American bison stand guard at Belgium’s Ohio Bridge spanning the Scheldt River. They commemorate this historic event that helped bring WWI to a close: the U.S. 37th Infantry Division’s crossing and breaking through one of the German Army’s last lines of defense.

The bridge, constructed solely for that purpose, depended on engineers and builders –  but also on the heroism of those two men one fateful October night in 1918.

Smithhisler, who became a highly-decorated veteran and an architect, lived to age 93. Yet he never left the violence and loss of his wartime experience far behind since he endured a life-long battle with PTSD. Two generations of relatives have traveled to Belgium to visit the battlefields and sites that defined his life story.

Burke’s relatives treasure photos of a young, ever-smiling Frank, particularly one with a monkey –  a military camp mascot –  perched on his shoulder. They remember him not only as a hero, but as “fun-loving and carefree,” and they take comfort in Belgium’s dedication to honoring the history of the Ohio Bridge, even beyond its centennial. “What surprised us was that in another country, [more than] one hundred years after the day he died, strangers are still remembering him and his service to our country — and to theirs.”