William E. McGrath, Pfc

At about the time of the San Francisco earthquake in April, 1906, William “Bill” McGrath, age 14, left a South San Francisco elementary school, never to return to schooling, and set on making his own way in life after his father’s sudden death. One of ten children of an Irish Catholic family, three generations removed from the “old country” via the penal community of Australia, young Bill became an iron worker. His unpredictable career was interrupted after being drafted at the age of 25 on November 6, 1917. His family waved goodbye from the Southern Pacific Terminal in Oakland as his train departed, east-bound, to parts unknown.

The family has no record of Bill’s military service, other than his multi-clasp Victory Medal, as his letters home are assumed lost, but he did leave behind a treasure trove of an album composed of over 600 photos he took from a camera his officers chose not to confiscate.

Pfc William McGrath’s assignment with the 148th FA is believed to have been as a member of one of the four gun crews responsible for laying the 155mm piece, sighting and firing the weapon. Because of the size of the gun with its highly visible powder flash when firing (see page 8), it was under heavy enemy bombardment when in action.

In October and November, replacements from the mobilization camp of the 148th FA at American Lake, Washington, started filling in the open assignments of the various batteries. Thus, these first drafts of individuals from California and other western states, originally designated as infantry, were placed in these artillery units, including Battery E. It is assumed that this is how Pfc McGrath found himself in this rather unique unit. It had to be the luck of the draw.

Who is to say what influence that one year had on his life, certainly he saw beyond the East Bay hills how foreign cultures can harm each other in such devastating ways. Maybe the rigidity of a specialized artillery unit disciplined him to concentrate on precision and details so necessary in building a successful company in one of the toughest businesses back home. Whatever the influence, those who have the opportunity to view his photos herein, can only visualize his unit’s actions and reflect on the efforts of his fellow artillerymen and how they contributed to the overall victories of the American Expeditionary Force in 1918.

When Bill passed away on March 14, 1965, he had built a major steel industry business in Oakland and a heritage of a quiet, humble, hard working family man who never talked about his year in constant combat on the Western Front in 4 major campaigns with the AEF.

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