STOCKTON — Before the first American troops landed in France to fight in World War I, a team of engineers was dispatched to Bassens, France, to build a dock structure, railroad system and warehouse.
Among those engineers was Earle Christian, assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces 18th Engineers Regiment.
More than 100 years later, images taken of that construction and war effort will be on display at the Cesar Chavez Central Library from 1:30-3 p.m. today.
Christian’s son, Don Christian, a Stockton native and U.S. Air Force veteran, will share the photos and his father’s story for the first time ever.
“My dad was born in 1897 and I was born in 1957. He was 60 years old and I never knew him emotionally,” Don Christian said. “He died in his sleep at 91 and two weeks later my mom handed me a photo album, a manila envelope of papers and the flag from his casket.”
Don Christian, who said he father kicked him out of the house at age 17 because he thought his hair was too long, never looked at the materials. They sat in a closet.
In 2011, Don Christian was sitting at the VA Hospital, picked up a magazine and began reading about Frank Buckles, the last surviving American soldier from World War I, who died in 2011.
Christian got home, pulled out his dad’s photos and papers and realized the album was a chronicle of his father’s time in the Army, from basic training to the train ride across the country to the ship that took him to France.
It began a four-year search for the story of his father’s unit and the role it played in the war.
“They built massive dock structures, pounding pilings into the mud, and a massive railroad system and a massive warehouse before the expeditionary forces got there,” Christian said.
The photographs told him something about his father, a man he never knew, a “tough old man I hated.”
“I see my father at 20 answering the call to service,” Christian said. “One of the first pictures in France is of him in front of a woodpile with a buddy. If you wanted to wash clothes or cook food, you had to go to the wood pile and start a fire to heat it. He’s got huge, bulging arms with an ax and he’s cutting wood. ‘I’m earning mine.’ That’s who my dad was. He was born in an era when life was tough, hard, but he got to it. He helped build these structures for the war effort.”
The images also show typical soldiers: “camaraderie, hijinks, doing stuff 100 years ago that’s no different from today,” Christian said. “People are thrown together for a united cause in a moment of history. They helped me discover my father. I’ve completely forgiven him.”
So much so that a year ago, when his house burned down, Christian went back in to rescue his father’s photos. He lost everything else and now lives in his van, but he preserved his father’s photographs.
He’ll share them with the public for the first time and his broader hope is that they’ll be viewed and can be shared with relatives of the other men who served with his father.
Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or lgilbert@recordnetcom. Follow her on Twitter @lorigrecord.