|5/29/2017 8:00:00 AM|
Remembering the hero of Soissons
A Catholic immigrant was the last Oregon soldier brought home after WW I
It was Memorial Day in 1922 when Sgt. Walter Schaffer’s body was carried by his comrades into Northwest Portland’s St. Mary Pro-Cathedral for his funeral Mass.
“Through all the city a hush of reverence has descended, for the observance of this Memorial Day is in the presence of the body of Sergeant Walter Schaffer, hero of Soissons, the last of Oregon’s men to come home,” reported the Oregon Daily Journal.
The Oregon soldier was killed in France in 1918, 17 days after leading his platoon through a forest, capturing 50 prisoners, ammunition, equipment and machine guns at Vaux in July. Not one of his men was lost that day, reported the Journal. The comrades from Vaux and Soissons were the men who carried Schaffer’s body to the solemn requiem Mass at the pro-cathedral, the predecessor to St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception that sits in Northwest Portland today.
Schaffer’s act of valor at Vaux won him the Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration awarded in World War I and again in World War II.
The young solider had joined the war effort early on, the Sentinel reported.
He served in the 3rd Oregon infantry. Before joining the Army, he spent two years working as a machinist for the Northern Pacific Railway.
The funeral for Schaffer was central to the Memorial Day celebrations in Portland in 1922. The young hero’s body was paraded through the city from the armory, where he lie in state, to what is now the Keller Auditorium for a memorial service. Both the mayor of the city, George Baker, and the governor, Ben Olcott, spoke at this service. Schaffer was finally laid to rest at Mount Calvary Cemetery.
Schaffer’s story is one that speaks to the era of his death. He had been an immigrant, coming to Oregon from Hungary as a child. He was born in Hungary in 1899. The young Schaffer was educated at St. Joseph School in Northwest Portland, a part of the German parish that was closed in 1963.
Oregon in the 1920s was awash with Ku Klux Klan members who embraced an anti-Catholic ideology. One estimate cited by the Oregon Historical Society said that some 35,000 Oregonians were members of the Klan by 1923. Catholics were persecuted. In fact, in the fall of 1922, Klansman helped to elect Walter Pierce as governor. Pierce went on to lead the passage of a compulsory school initiative, requiring all children ages 8 to 16 attend public schools. The initiative targeted children in Catholic schools. It was controversial at best and declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925.
“Sergeant Schaffer, who was killed in action in July, 1918, and whose body was returned for burial this week, was a triple offender against the standards of the Ku Kluxers and their associates. He was born in a foreign land; he was Catholic and he received his schooling in St. Joseph’s parochial school,” reported the Sentinel, giving an insight into politics at the time.
But on Memorial Day in 1922, this triple offender was honored as the hero he was.
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