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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Buck Simpson:
Cedar Chopping World War One Hero

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

One summer day in 1925, two men walked into the Capitol in Austin. While that's nothing unusual, anyone who knew either of them surely thought it odd they would be entering the building together.

An Austin American-Statesman reporter recognized one of the men as former state Sen. Temple Harris McGregor. As would be expected, the 55-year-old Austinite wore a dark suit and still looked senatorial even though his term had ended a decade earlier. Next to him strode a tall, lanky, sandy haired young man with a sun-cured face. Unlike McGregor, he had no coat and the collar of his blue hickory shirt was unbuttoned. This man was a cedar chopper, a term back then often as derogatory as it was descriptive. His name was Alfred R. Simpson, but folks just called him Buck.

That the two would be entering the state house with each other struck the reporter as unusual, so he made a mental note to find out why.

Born in Brazoria County in 1895, Simpson grew up in the Bee Cave area. He and his family and many of their kindred "mountaineers" lived west of Austin and made their living cutting and selling cedar posts. Simpson also was a veteran, having joined the Army when the U.S. entered the first world war in 1917.

The reporter learned the purpose of McGregor's visit was to use his influence to get Simpson a state job. And he got what he wanted. The Board of Control agreed to hire Simpson at $60 a month-twice what he had earned in the Army-as a Capitol security guard. McGregor had earlier tried to get Simpson hired as a Texas Ranger, but the Rangers didn't have an opening.

That an older man with political connections would try to help a struggling former constituent was not news. Except for the fact that the man was Buck Simpson.

"Texas' most heroic warrior, a man whose single-handed exploits rank equal to if not surpassing the famous Sergeant [Alvin] York, will guard the peaceful corridors and quiet walks of the Texas Capitol," the unnamed journalist wrote in his Aug. 23, 1925 article.

Simpson reported for work the following September 1, but his state career would not last long. The Board of Control fired him because he couldn't figure out how to use the time clock he had to carry on his nightly rounds in the Capitol. That's because he did not know how to tell time. Nor could he read or write.

What he had learned was how to fight. According to Army records, as a private in a machine gun company he exhibited "extraordinary heroism in action near Somme-Py, France, October 12, 1918. While his company was covering with machine-gun fire a temporary withdrawal of the infantry, before a hostile counterattack, Private Simpson secured an abandoned German machine gun and operated it until his own company, as well as the infantry, had returned safely. He remained at his post until his ammunition was exhausted and was the last one to leave the position. Through his bravery and skill the advance of the enemy was checked, and our own forces were able to organize a fresh counter dash attack."

To his credit, Simpson did not dwell on his heroism. He was a man of few words and used dang few of those. Despite his modesty, the perception arose in Austin that he was the second-most decorated American World War One veteran. That continues today, but recent research shows that Simpson didn't even rank in the top 19, much less being second only to Sgt. York. Nor, as it turns out, was York the most-decorated U.S. combatant in the war. (He was No. 16 out of the 19 who received the most awards.)

While Simpson did receive a Distinguished Service Cross, so did 135 other Texans. Three Texans also earned the nation's highest military recognition, the Medal of Honor, but not Simpson.

A photograph of Simpson in uniform shows a square-jawed, big-eared young man with pale eyes as absent of life as the numerous bullet-riddled German soldiers he left on the battlefield. It is hard to imagine that he did not come home suffering from what is known today as post traumatic stress disorder.

After the war, having no education and evidently not interested in getting one, Simpson had no real chance at any kind of a career other than cedar chopping and farming. He drifted into alcoholism, often had street fights and during the Depression, was indicted on three counts of forgery. He only got convicted of one, but that netted him a year in federal prison at El Reno.

Following his release, he returned to Austin. He died at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Temple on July 23, 1969 and is buried in the Roberts-Teague family cemetery in the Bee Cave area.

No matter the inflation of Simpson's medal count, in a letter his captain wrote to describe the private's actions on that bloody day in France, the officer revealed that he had ordered him to retreat. "Hell," Simpson yelled, "I'm from Texas and I'll be damned if I run..."

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" November 7, 2018

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