Veteran's memory of war still sharp Shrapnel wound reminds 98-year-old HOWARD COUNTY SENIORS

November 10, 1993|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Contributing Writer

Nearly a month before the armistice that ended World War I in 1918, Pfc. Ernest Baldwin was hit by shrapnel from a shell that exploded in the midst of his company, killing several of his buddies.

"I was wounded in the left leg," said Mr. Baldwin, now 98 years old and a resident of the Harmony Hall Retirement Community in Columbia. "Bullets were flying everywhere; it wasn't long after that, that the whole thing [the war] was over."

Today, County Executive Charles I. Ecker will present Mr. Baldwin with a certificate honoring his Army service, at a ceremony in advance of tomorrow's Veterans Day observances.

The event, to be held at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City, is the county's way of honoring Mr. Baldwin and at the same time marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War I.

During a recent interview at Harmony Hall, Mr. Baldwin and his granddaughter, Verna Lee "Rusty" Wills, 50, talked about his experiences on the front lines during World War I.

He spoke of the brutal shellings, the deadly clouds of mustard gas and the privation of battlefield life.

"I remember my grandfather telling me that he and his battalion were very hungry while they were in France near the front lines," said Mrs. Wills, a Columbia resident. "My grandfather said that they found potatoes in a garden, which sustained the soldiers for a few days."

In a letter to his mother, dated July 12, 1918, Mr. Baldwin wrote of the hardships of war and the spirit that helped his unit to persevere.

"Have been under a lot of shellfire. It isn't any fun to

war at all, but I hope we will soon whip the 'Hun' and come back," he wrote. "We have got them going our way and are continuing to keep them going . . . They can't do anything with us, because I believe the Lord is with us."

The eldest of seven children, Mr. Baldwin grew up on a farm near Gibsonville, N.C.

"We didn't make much money living in the country in those days," he said.

So, at the age of 14, he left home with a brand new suit and $60 he had earned from selling tobacco and corn crops.

After working as a weaver in a textile mill in North Carolina, Mr. Baldwin enlisted in the Army in 1917.

While in the Army, he saw action in France near the end of the war. He was discharged two years later, with a Purple Heart and other commendations.

After the war, he returned to North Carolina, looking for work.

"I had worked on a farm all of my life," Mr. Baldwin said. "Someone suggested I take the [civil service] examination." The results led him to become a carpenter with the government.

In 1919, Mr. Baldwin married Cleo White. The couple had two daughters, Cornelia and Regent, both of them now deceased. The family later moved to Alexandria, Va., and Mr. Baldwin worked as a carpenter for the General Service Administration in Washington.

But in 1950, Mr. Baldwin was forced to retire as a result of three heart attacks. He and his wife moved to St. Petersburg, Fla.

Gradually, his health returned, and he remained active with small woodworking projects. His favorite pastime was fishing. After 60 years of marriage, his wife died in 1979.

Until eight years ago, Mr. Baldwin was still living independently and driving a car, giving up his driver's license at the age of 90 because of cataracts.

But three years ago, Mr. Baldwin's health took a turn for the worse, and he was admitted to the Veterans Administration nursing home in Florida, where he recuperated for a year.

The day he was discharged in May 1991, he flew to Maryland with his granddaughter to take up residence at Harmony Hall, the first time he had ever been on an airplane.

And though his World War I experiences are long behind him, he still winces from the pain that occasionally flares in his left leg, where the shrapnel remains.

"I've done very well throughout my life," he said. "I worked hard; my wife stayed with me all the way . . . I guess I'm one of the only ones left."

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