On July 22, 1917, a young soldier from East Texas was recovering from serious wounds, while coping with the effects of a mustard gas attack 72 hours after fighting his second twoday battle in seven weeks.
George Lawson Keene, who always went by his middle name, grew up in his birthplace of Crockett. His roots ran deep in the Piney Woods with both parents direct descendants of early settlers.
Lawson listened for hours on end to vivid accounts of the Civil War, as told by a grandfather who served in the Confederate army. Even more enthralling were second-hand stories about a great-grandfather, who took part in the Mier Expedition of 1842 and survived the infamous Black Bean Lottery that decided who lived and who died during their Mexican captivity.
To hear Keene’s relatives tell it, he served as a page for a spell in the Texas house of representatives before his high school graduation in 1914 at age 16. He intended to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend at Texas A&M, but the war in Europe and what looked like the inevitable involvement of the U.S. changed his plans.
Keene enlisted in the Army in San Antonio in March 1917. His basic training was cut short by the strengthening of the military presence along the Rio Grande after German “advisors” were spotted with Mexican government troops. That deployment did not last long either following the U.S. declaration of war April 4.
Two months later, Keene was on the first ship of “doughboys” that sailed to France. Like any wetbehind-the-ears soldier, he expected to jump into the fight right off the gangplank. But to their disappointment, the Texan and his comrades-in-arms in the 28th Infantry spent the next 11 months far from the front lines learning the “art of war” and impatiently waiting their turn.
The Americans finally got their chance May 28, 1918 at the strategic French village of Cantigny. The battle raged for two full days with both sides taking heavy casualties, including Keene’s unit. When it was over, the exhausted Yanks were able to take grim satisfaction in having passed their first test.
The clash at Cantigny was only the beginning of five months of intense combat that helped to gradually turn the tide in the bloody stalemate. After each and every battle, the Texan was commended for his cool-headed courage
under fire and exemplary leadership that inspired the growing number of men under his command.
Nothing, however, compared to his heroic actions that July in another two-day battle, this time near the Marne River. With so many officers killed or out of action, Keene was put in charge of a platoon under the command of 2nd Lt. Samuel I. Parker.
When the fateful whistle sounded, the newly promoted sergeant led his men out of the trenches and “over the top.” An on-line article in “Together We Served” presents a detailed account of what happened next:
“Keene yelled to his detail to rush the enemy emplacements on the bluff ahead. Keene lobbed a grenade into a German machine-gun nest, killing and wounding many of the gunners. When the weapon was silenced, the Americans charged the position. A German officer, who was still alive, raised his pistol and aimed it at Lawson, but the sergeant knocked the gun to the ground with his rifle butt. The German then surrendered to Keene, who found on the prisoner many maps and diagrams which would be useful to the advancing American and French troops.”
The fearless Texan was not finished. Climbing on top of a disabled and abandoned tank, he turned the machine gun on the Germans, providing cover for an advancing platoon. The enemy had had enough and beat a hasty retreat.
For his daring deeds on July 18, 1918, Keene was awarded the Army’s second highest medal—the Distinguished Service Cross. Lt. Parker strongly believed his actions also merited the Medal of Honor. In his recommendation, the admiring officer cited Keene’s “gallant conduct under fire” and hailed him as “a born leader of men.”
But the Army refused, citing a little used rule against giving two members of the same unit the MOH for the same engagement. As it so happened, Lt. Parker had already been approved for the nation’s most coveted military medal.
If Keene ever felt he had been wronged, the Texan of few words never let on. Even without the Medal of Honor, he wound up with more combat citations than any other American veteran of “The Great War.” More even than Sgt. Alvin York, the subject of the 1940 motion picture starring Gary Cooper.
Lawson Keene and his wife lived in Goose Creek, later Baytown, from 1926 until his death at 58 in 1956. Though no recluse—he was active in community affairs and veteran groups—he rarely mentioned his collection of WWI medals and then only when pressed. The war hero was so modest and publicity shy that he granted just one request for an interview from a Houston newspaper reporter, who wouldn’t take no for an answer.