KEENE, GEORGE LAWSON

James C. Burnett
George Lawson Keene (1898–1956).
George Lawson Keene of Crockett, Texas, during World War I. Keene has been heralded as the most decorated World War I soldier. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

KEENE, GEORGE LAWSON (1898–1956). George Lawson Keene, possibly the most decorated World War I soldier, was born on September 23, 1898, in Crockett, Houston County, Texas, to Abner Lawson Keene and Laura (Woodson) Keene. His parents were both descendants of pioneering Texas families, and his grandfather, Edward Y. Keene, was a member of the Mier expedition and had survived the Black Bean Episode in 1843. George Keene, who was known as Lawson, grew up in Crockett and enjoyed participating in sports and hearing about his family history. Family tradition has long held that Lawson served a term as a page in the Texas House of Representatives and graduated from high school at the age of sixteen. Although he had planned to attend Texas A&M, a year or so of odd jobs in and around Crockett and the growing war in Europe pushed him in a different direction. 

Just prior to the United States’s entry into World War I, Keene enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio on March 24, 1917. He was first assigned to Company G, Nineteenth Infantry, and received only minimal basic training before being moved with the Nineteenth to Mexican border duty. After the formal declaration of war with Germany by the United States, Lawson Keene was subsequently assigned to Company K, Twenty-eighth Infantry. In June 1917 Keene and the Twenty-eighth Infantry became a part of the Second Brigade, First Division, and entrained to Hoboken, New Jersey, where they departed for France on USAT Tenadores and landed at St. Nazaire, France. 

Shortly after arrival in France, the First Division began extensive training to compensate for the lack of basic back in America. Although various individuals and companies of the Twenty-eighth Infantry participated in trench actions during this training, until January 1918, Company K was generally held as a reserve force. Keene was made a platoon leader and promoted to corporal and was among those involved in early actions. His real introduction to combat, however, came on the morning of May 28, 1918, at Cantigny, France, just as an hour-long artillery barrage ended. The oft-attacked village was selected for America’s first major combat role. Two days of fighting left Americans in control of Cantigny and provided the First Division, especially Company K of the Twenty-eighth Infantry, with its first combat experience. This was the start of an intensive five months of action for Keene. He participated in actions at Montdidier-Noyon in June; in August at Aisne-Marne, where he was promoted to sergeant; in September at St. Mihiel; and in October in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. During this time, Keene’s action in combat resulted in citations that ultimately produced two Silver Stars and a Distinguished Service Cross in addition to several French, British, and Italian medals as well as multiple unit and division citations. One of the Silver Stars came for action during Aisne-Marne and included the citation: “…with great courage (Keene) assisted his officer (2 Lt. Samuel I. Parker) in organizing a group of men who had become demoralized and was a prime factor in the capture of enemy’s strongpoint.” His second Silver Star, in the form of an Oak Leaf Cluster, was awarded for distinguishing “…himself in action northeast of Exermont, France, 9 October 1918, while remaining in command of his platoon, although suffering from the effects of gas.”  In addition to the Silver Star, Keene received the Purple Heart for severe wounds as well as for the effects of the gas. The Distinguished Service Cross best signified Keene’s individual contributions to helping win World War I. 

By July 18, 1918, Company K and much of the Twenty-eighth Infantry had been depleted with casualties. With officers in short supply, experienced senior enlisted men were given field promotions and moved to other units. In July, Keene was named the enlisted leader of a platoon from Company K under then Second Lt. Samuel I. Parker. Action during July 18–19 resulted in a Medal of Honor for Parker, who later recommended Keene for the same award. Instead, Lawson Keene was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation praised Keene  

…for extraordinary heroism in action….Corporal Keene, then acting sergeant, rendered splendid assistance to his commanding officer in helping…organize and lead a group of American and French Colonial soldiers against an enemy strong point….During the attack, Corporal Keene was in command of the troops on the right flank, and in storming the position, he rushed forward at the head of his men, hurled a hand grenade in the trenches, subdued one of the most difficult posts of the enemy position and personally captured an officer on whom was found important maps of the enemy positions. 

On the second day, Corporal Keene served in the capacity of an officer by commanding a company in the first wave of the attack formation and when his battalion commander became wounded he rendered valuable aid in assisting in maintaining control of formations until the objective was reached.

Keene’s commanding officer Second Lt. Parker lauded Keene’s “gallant conduct under fire” and described him as a “born leader of men” with “sound judgment and cheerful nature” whose actions helped the platoon capture “6 machineguns and about 40 prisoners.”  Keene earned his second Silver Star for his actions at Exermont in October 1918, when he “displayed exceptional courage in directing his men when hostile counter-attack was imminent.” Keene explained to a Houston Chroniclereporter in 1933 about his wounds: “I was gassed and ordered to report to the rear, Keen said. “But I couldn’t. There wasn’t anyone to lead my men. I had to stay on.”

Following Germany’s surrender on November 11, 1918, Keene and his company, along with others in the Twenty-eighth Infantry, remained in Germany as an occupying force. He returned to the United States in September 1919 and was discharged at Camp Zachary Taylor, Kentucky, in March 1920. Disabled due to his wounds, Keene entered a program for extended training. He selected watchmaking and jewelry and relocated to Dallas, where he trained at the Southwestern Watchmaking School. After a year working at a Dallas jeweler, Keene returned to Crockett and married his childhood sweetheart, Dewey G. Kennedy, on November 11, 1921. They lived for a time in Dallas, returned briefly to Crockett, and then in 1926 relocated to the oil boom Goose Creek community south of Houston where he continued his jewelry business. He received his  Purple Heart for the six wounds and gassing in 1934. 

In Goose Creek, today a part of Baytown, Keene served as an elected official, took leadership roles in local veteran’s groups, including the local Veterans of Foreign Wars. He was a key member of the East Harris Draft Board during World War II and worked for the local General Tire and Rubber Company factory as a foreman and remained there until his death. He also returned to a childhood love of the theater by producing, acting in, and building scenery for local dramas. Selected as a citizen representative regarding various local transportation issues, he was among those disappointed in Harris County’s funding of local road projects and led a failed effort to create a new county in the eastern part of Harris County. He was instrumental in development of the Baytown-La Porte Tunnel project of the 1950s. 

Through his veteran and civic activities, Keene’s World War I history became locally known. Often reported in Crockett and Baytown newspapers as a local hero, not until the 1960s did Keene’s true war accomplishments become more broadly reported. This was due as much to the inconsistent method in which the War Department recognized and made awards for World War I as it was to Keene’s lack of self-promotion. Although the United States Army had started a review process as early as 1920, members of Congress, prompted by James Ambrose Gallivan, U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts in January 1920, pushed for more visible consideration. Gallivan took to the floor of the House and noted that only one enlisted man had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross during World War I. Others joined in asking for a review. Some fifteen years later, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then chief of staff of the U. S. Army, officially instituted a formal review. As a result, Samuel I. Parker, by then a colonel, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1936 for his actions on July 18–19, 1918. Parker then lobbied for his platoon leader, Sgt. George L. Keene, and provided testimony in support of awarding the Medal of Honor to Keene for the same action. Keene’s last commanding officer, Col. Conrad S. Babcock, also presented evidence in support of the award. The committee considering awards, citing legislative limitations, elected to present Keene with the Distinguished Service Cross instead, and he received that award in 1937, nearly twenty years after the war had ended. 

In 1940 Albert Thomas, then U.S. Congressman from Texas, took up the issue. He first corresponded with Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring on May 4, 1940, and forwarded a copy of Colonel Parker’s recommendation asking for reconsideration. Woodring responded twelve days later and advised Thomas that Parker’s testimony had been considered by the Decorations and Awards Board on January 11, 1937, at which time the board elected to award the Distinguished Service Cross and not the Medal of Honor to Keene

Although Keene was considered a “war hero” in the media and local circles, it was not until after his death that a medal count revealed Lawson to be the most decorated soldier from World War I. In the 1960s, as news features appeared, Keene was incorrectly credited with having been the recipient of the Medal of Honor in 1940, a misread of final action on Congressman Thomas’s legislation. Since the 1970s that error has been published in stories throughout the southeastern part of Texas. Family members say that Keene never claimed to have won the medal nor did he promote himself as a hero.

George Lawson Keene.
George Lawson Keene in later years. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

In recognition of his war contributions, Keene was named an honorary colonel in the Texas Military by Governor Ross Sterling in 1932 and again by Governor James V Allred in 1936.  Although his World War I accomplishments were continually publicized in the Baytown and Crockett areas, the length of time that it took the War Department to complete its review process relegated Keen to the local news. A fire in the National Service Record Center in 1973 destroyed most World War I service records, including Keene’s. As a result, only within the past few years, around the centennial of the war, has a renewed interest in World War I brought Keene’s accomplishments to light. 

George Lawson Keene died at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Houston on October 20, 1956; his wife Dewey Keene died in Baytown on August 27, 1979. Both are buried at Earthman Memory Gardens in Baytown, Texas. They had no children. 

In the 1980s an oil painting of Keene, based on a photographic portrait, was presented to the Houston County Historical Association in Crockett in the Houston County Courthouse, where it remains today. His medals and his surviving papers remain in the possession of family members. Keene’s medals and awards include the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart, World War I Victory Medal with Five Campaign Bars, Legion of Merit, the Cross of Military Service, two French Croix de Guerre with Palm (one presented personally by Marshal Ferdinand Foch in France during the war and the other some ten years later in the U.S.), French Fourragere, French Knights of Verdun, French Tadac St. Mihiel, French Médaille Militaire, French Chateau Thierry Medal, Italian Cross al Merito de Guerra (War Merit Cross), Mexican Border Service, World War I Occupation of Germany, First Division Medal, as well as several citations. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Leonard P. Ayres, The War With Germany: A Statistical Summary (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1919). Baytown Sun, March 5, 1956; October 24, 1977; June 17, 1987. Matthew J. Davenport, First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I (New York: Thomas Dunn Books, St Martin’s Press, 2015). Houston Chronicle, March 6, 1926; March 26, 1933; October 26, 1934; March 5, 1937; October 13, 1940. Houston County Courier (Crockett, Texas), November 8, 2015. Houston Post, October 12, 1918; January 14, 1920. “Keene, George L., Sgt,” TogetherWeServed, United States Army (https://army.togetherweserved.com/army/servlet/tws.webapp.WebApp?cmd=ShadowBoxProfile&type=Person&ID=300915), accessed July 3, 2018. George Lawson Keene Scrapbooks, Family Records, Private Collection. Rosters, General Orders, Citations and Application for Victory Medal, George L. Keene, Co. K, 28th Infantry, 1st Division 1917–1920, First Division Museum and Archives at Cantigny Park, Wheaton, Illinois. Service Record Card File Entries, George L. Keene, Fort Sam Houston Museum and Archives, San Antonio, Texas. Albert Thomas Papers, 1937–1965, Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University, Houston. United States Army, The Story of the Twenty-Eight Infantry in the Great War (privately published, 1919). Vertical Files, Houston County Historical Association and Museum, Crockett, Texas. Harry H. Woodring, 15 May 1940, letter to Albert Thomas regarding decision to award George L. Keene the Distinguished Service Cross instead of Medal of Honor, Records of the Office of the Secretary of War (Record Group 107) Entry 90, General Correspondence, Box 65, National Archives, College Park, College Park, Maryland.

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Handbook of Texas Online, James C. Burnett, "KEENE, GEORGE LAWSON ," accessed November 17, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fkeen.

Uploaded on July 10, 2018. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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