Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, May 31, 2021

Remembering a Veteran on Memorial Day: Capt. Dean M. Gilfillan, Tank Corps

"Captain Dean M. Gilfillan (1890–1935), one of Ironton, Ohio,'s world war heroes.  died this morning at the Deaconess hospital. A graduate of Yale, he served as captain in the AEF's tank corps and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Croix de Guerre, and Purple Heart for his war service."  News report 19 October, 1935. 

Glfillan commanded Company A of the 354th Tank Battalion on the opening day of the Meuse-Argonne offensive in support of the 28th Pennsylvania Division. At first in reserve, Gilfillan was forced to commit his tanks when a strong crossfire from German machine gun nests held up the advance.  The Doughboys moving behind the tanks were unable to advance through the deadly fire which was becoming more intense and accurate as the morning fog lifted.  The tanks were forced to fall back and join them around the villages of Varennes and Cheppy.

An America Tank Like Capt. Gilfillan's Advancing
During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Gilfillan's tank was hit twice by artillery fire during the advance and began to burn. He was also wounded by machine gun fire. Nevertheless, he remained in his tank, destroying two of the machine gun positions and wreaking havoc on a column of enemy infantry trying to reach Cheppy. As the fire worsened and the threat of an explosion grew imminent, Gilfillan was force to abandon the tank, only to be wounded a second time by fragments from a nearby artillery explosion. Evacuated from the battlefield, Capt. Gilfillan soon found himself in a hospital bed alongside Lt. Col. George Patton, who had also been wounded in the fighting.

Inspired by Capt. Gilfillan

After six months recuperation he returned to Ironton and worked with the Ryan and Gilfillan Company. His early death from respiratory disease in 1935 was thought to be due to complications from being gassed in the war, possibly during the St. Mihiel Offensive.  Shortly after his return home, Ironton’s first professional football team was organized and took on the name “Tanks” in honor of Gilfillan and other World War I tank soldiers. His military career and act of heroism served as the inspiration for The Patent Leather Kid,  one of the last films of the silent era, released in 1927. Its star, Richard Barthelmess, was nominated for best actor at the first Academy Awards in 1929.

Thanks to Joe Unger for this account.

Sources: Ironton Tribune, Find a Grave, Treat 'em Rough by Dale Wilson, IMDB


  1. Thank you Mike for the Memorial Day Veteran’s tribute! As an aside, I would also like to mention that Ironton, Ohio, has the nation’s longest continuous Memorial Day Parade, as recognized by an Act of Congress. Every Memorial Day since 1868. Happy Memorial Day!! Thank you to all of our veterans!!

    1. First let me say that I'm a veteran-US Army 1967-70. I had never seen a Memorial Day Parade until I moved to the small southeastern Michigan city of Dexter in 2006. The next year on Memorial Day we all stood along the Ann Arbor Road as local Vets groups, Scouts, the High School Band and my granddaughter's dance team filed past, then all of a sudden, overhead two F-16's from the Ohio National Guard flashed past. Took my breath away.