ANNA - Warren V. Hileman said he had "that itching foot" as a young man. "I had the wanderlust." That wanderlust led him to enlist during World War I when he was just 17 and found himself sent to Siberia as part of the American Expeditionary Force.
Hileman, who died Sunday at age 103 at the Illinois Veterans Home in Anna, was the last remaining World War I veteran residing in any of the state's veterans homes, and he may have been the only one in the state.
"We're not paying benefits to any other World War I veterans," Januari Smith, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, said Wednesday, "but that doesn't mean there aren't some out there."
Services for Hileman will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Hileman Funeral Home in Jonesboro. His comrades from Carroll P. Foster VFW Post 3455 (he was a life member) will conduct full military honors at Anna Cemetery.
In January 2004 - 84 years after the Great War ended - Hileman received the World War I Victory Medal from Roy L. Dolgos, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. The medal was presented to any member of the American Expeditionary Force who served in Siberia between November 1918 and April 1920. Somehow, Hileman had been overlooked, even though his unit had remained in Siberia until 1921, long after the war ended in November 1918.
Hileman's unit, Company B, 27th Infantry, was involved in a hostile encounter in Posolskaya, which entitled him to the medal, the state veterans office said.
When The Southern Illinoisan visited Hileman at the veterans' home in Anna in 1995, other residents said whenever they complained about cold weather, Hileman had a quick rejoinder: "You should have been in Siberia."
"It was 30 below - and four foot of snow on the level," Hileman said of his service. He landed in Vladivostok on Sept. 6, 1919, a bit shy of his 18th birthday.
The bitter cold often froze the food on the soldiers' plates before they could eat it, Hileman said. "We didn't take baths. There was no running water. Everybody got smelly and lousy."
When his company was ordered to the little town of Berevoska, south of Irkutsk, the troops rode 1,800 miles on the Trans Siberian Railroad. "It took us eight days," Hileman said. "When we came back down to Vladivostok in March it took 18 days. They kept putting our cars on the siding," he said. "We couldn't get an engine." But, he recalled, when the American troops finally put "a man with a 30-30 rifle" in the engineer's cab, the train started moving.
The troops rode in "40-and-eight" boxcars that were designed to hold 40 men or eight horses. "I was in the 27th Infantry," Hileman said. "We were foot soldiers. We did use mules for transporting machine guns and pulling wagons, though," he said.
Because of the extreme cold in Siberia, cutting and hauling firewood was a never-ending chore, Hileman said.
Though he hated the cold, Hileman also admired the beauty and purity of the remote landscape, and in later years would describe it to his family.
Those who knew him said he didn't boast of his service, but when asked, he would freely share his memories of his experiences.
From Siberia, Hileman and his outfit were transferred to the Philippine Islands. "We went through China and saw the Great Wall," he said. He was briefly in Nagasaki, Japan, and later was transferred to Scofield Barracks in Hawaii.
He joked that he preferred the Philippines, where there were plenty of Filipino workers and a lifestyle that included "an afternoon siesta," to Hawaii, where the troops worked hard loading coal and loading oats for a cavalry unit's horses.
Hileman was discharged from service in 1922 at Fort McDowell on San Francisco Bay, where he turned in his uniform and equipment.
Though he'd worked upstate, Hileman moved back to his native Union County when he retired at age 70. His wife, Mae Elizabeth, died in 1989. He is survived by a daughter and son-in-law, Janet and Joseph Hardin of Anna, two grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other relatives.
Mr. Hileman moved into the Anna Veterans' Home in 1995. "It was the ideal place for him," his daughter said. "Having his own apartment gave him his freedom, but also gave him the companionship" of other veterans, she said.
Well into his 90s, he continued to drive to Jonesboro to visit his friends and family. He voluntarily gave up driving at 98. He often joked about his advanced age.
During the ceremony last January at which he was presented with the Victory Medal, Hileman saluted the VFW honor guard that came to the veterans' home for the occasion. And with a bit of help, he stood to accept the medal from Dolgos. Gov. Rod Blagojevich also declared Jan. 14, 2004, to be Warren V. Hileman Day in Illinois.
Not only did Hileman receive the Victory Medal belatedly; it was only about 13 years ago that Hileman received any pension for his service, his daughter said.
"It was just $8 a month," she said. "That's the most he ever got. When the check arrived, he called and joked that he was in the big money now," she said. "Later, they cut his payment to $5 a month, then they cut it out completely."
World War I was referred to as "the war to end all wars," but Hileman, who lived through subsequent conflicts from World War II to the Iraq war, knew better.
"There have always been wars, back to biblical times," he said, "and probably always will be."
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