Born in Crockett, Texas, of southern heritage, George Lawson Keene loved stories of history and heroes, especially as told by his grandfather, a veteran of the Confederate Army. His great-grandfather, Edward Keene, was a participant in the Texas Revolution. His early ancestors settled in Kentucky, founding the renowned horse farm, “Keeneville”, where the original home was built in 1800. His mother, a great-niece of General Stonewall Jackson, died when he was three years old.
Lawson Keene, as he was known around Crockett, was proud of the coat-of-arms of his French Huguenot ancestors, and kept it at the home he and his wife, Dewey Kennedy Keene, built in Baytown, Texas. The couple was married on Nov. 11, 1921.
A high school graduate at the age of 16, Lawson Keene planned to enter Texas A&M College, his father’s alma mater; but he decided his duty was to his country when the U.S. entered WW I. Realizing the courage and love of country that his boy had, the elder Keene gave his consent and Lawson went to San Antonio to enlist as a private. After much persuasion, he was transferred to the 28th Infantry, American Expeditionary Force and sent overseas. He was reputedly the first and youngest American combat soldier to set foot on French soil and one of the last to leave, serving in the Army of Occupation at the end of the war.
Keene was stationed in the front lines for 26 months, three weeks and two days, taking part in five major engagements. He was wounded several times and was gassed in the battle of the Argonne Forest. After beginning the campaign on the western front with the 28th Infantry at Soissons and Cantigny, Keene was with the regiment when it routed the German infantry on the edge of Belleau Wood near Vaux, and also took part in the St. Mihiel Campaign of the First Division..
Receiving the order to attack, many Americans fell before the devastating fire of the Germans, as they answered the call of “over the top”. When the officers were killed, non-commissioned officers assumed command. One of these was Sgt. George L. Keene. Keene led the group across a creek, through barbed wire on the opposite bank. After identifying his troops to American planes flying overhead, 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 his prisoner many maps and diagrams which would be useful to the advancing American and French troops. As the battle continued, Keene noticed a wrecked tank nearby. He dashed through a hail of bullets to the tank and salvaged the machine gun and ammunition, which he used to cover the advance of another platoon. When ammunition ran low, Lawson remembered that more was on the other side of the creek, so he returned for it, and continued to cover the American advance. The tide of the battle turned and the Germans were in retreat.
The following day, Sergeant Keene took command of the company after the lieutenant was wounded. The company held its objective until relieved by the kilted Scottish Highlanders, the so-called “Ladies from Hell”. This was the farthest advance made by American troops at that time. The next day saw the Allies in command of Soissons, an important railroad center. The Soissons engagements were part of the Second Battle of the Marne, considered the turning point of World War I.
For his bravery and outstanding military service during the time he was in France, Keene received the Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster; the Purple Heart and many other American awards; on July 18, 1918, he received the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry in action near Soissons. He also received the Cross of Honor, the French Croix de Guerre with Palm, Knights of Verdun, Tadac St. Mihiel, and the French Commemorative Medal. Two of the French decorations were awarded to him by Marshal Ferdinand Foch personally. In 1940, the 76th Congress authorized President Roosevelt to present America’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, to Colonel George Lawson Keene.
Commendations came from General Charles P. Summerall, General John J. Pershing and Senator Tom Connally, Other letters in his files are from Generals MacArthur and Buck; Presidents Wilson, Truman and Roosevelt, who awarded Keene a Certificate of Service; Governors Sterling, Allred, Jester and Shivers, and Congressman Albert Thomas. The most prized letters were those from his army buddies.
Although he was considered the most-decorated American soldier of World War I, Keene was modest about his accomplishments. He was a member of the Legion of Valor, a service organization founded by Civil War veterans in 1890. Membership requirements are the possession of the Medal of Honor or the Distinguished Service Cross. Copies of the original citations for Keene’s medals were placed in the Hall of Fame.
The oil painting which you are viewing is the work of San Antonio artist Warren Hunter. The work, a gift to Houston County, was commissioned by C.H. Lankford, personal friend and admirer of Keene, so that Keene’s personal courage and valor would be remembered.