Grandpa Emil and the Rough Riders

I never met my great-grandpa Emil and didn’t hear much about him. My dad’s dad died in a car accident when Dad was 10, so Dad was raised in Grandpa Emil’s house. Since they were Swedes, though, no one volunteered a lot of extraneous information.

Here’s what I know about Grandpa Emil:

He came to Chicago from Smoland.

He changed his last name from Anderson to Sellstrom because there were too many Andersons in America.

He worked his whole life for “the Jews.”

He had to smoke in the garage because Grandma Ella wouldn’t let him smoke in the house.

He went to church every Sunday.

The only other thing Dad told me about his grandpa was that he claimed to have marched up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. And that no one believed him.

One Christmas, my dad gave me Grandpa Emil’s pocket watch, which is a thing of beauty and my most prized possession. When my dad died in 2000, I found two other things that I thought might’ve come from Emil: a pin with two crossed rifles, and a ribbon that said “First Illinois.”

A few months ago, I got to thinking about Grandpa Emil, San Juan Hill and the Spanish-American War. I searched his name on the Internet but came up empty. Then I remembered the ribbon. I searched “First Illinois” and found that they had indeed participated in the Spanish American War.

On a website called, I found a roster of the First Illinois, from Company A through Company M. I paged through A, B and C, and didn’t find him, then D, E and F, figuring he’d made the whole thing up. I read through G and H, then came to Company I, and there he was, Emil Sellstrom, Chicago, Illinois.

Along with the roster was a detailed history of the First Illinois’ involvement in the war. Before they got to Cuba, they were issued outdated rifles and wool uniforms — the exact wrong gear for the tropical climate of Cuba. They experienced deplorable conditions at Camp Thomas in Georgia, then headed to Tampa, arriving five days after the Rough Riders, including Teddy Roosevelt, who was second in command, and their leader, Colonel Leonard Wood (namesake of Fort Leonard Wood, an Army base in Missouri).

On July 1, Roosevelt went up Kettle Hill and the side of San Juan Hill, while Jacob Kent’s forces made a frontal assault on San Juan Hill.

Eight days later, on July 9, the First Illinois arrived and began marching toward Santiago in the rain and the mud. Between July 11 and July 16, they took part in some skirmishes, and on the 17th, the Spanish surrendered. The First Illinois were ordered to occupy and hold Kettle Hill, where Teddy and company had been a week or so earlier.

Grandpa Emil didn’t march up the hill with Teddy, but he sure as heck marched up Kettle Hill. A hundred and ten years later, Grandpa Emil’s story turned out to be … well … not exactly true, but not far from the truth.

On Sept. 13, they made it back to Chicago after being quarantined in New York. Many got sick with tropical diseases. A couple years later, Emil married Ella, and a few years after that, in 1904, my grandma was born.

I never had any military experience (or inclination to get some), but Grandpa Emil’s story is a source of pride. That a young man from Sweden would so love his adopted country that he’d volunteer to fight in a foreign land — it says something about our country and about my great-grandfather.

His grandson — my Dad — was also inspired by the story. Dad enlisted in the Navy in 1944 with a doctor’s letter in his pocket, saying his asthma made him eligible for a deferment. He was in Hawaii, waiting to be shipped to Japan, when the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

This Memorial Day, I’ll be thinking about those close to me who sacrificed on behalf of their country. I encourage you to do the same.

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