Veteran's Day

Veteran's Day

I spend my summers in Maine. My father’s family was from the Portland area, and in nineteen hundred and five they built a little summer cottage on a nearby lake. From the time I started working at Taft in the Fall of 1969 I spent my summers at the cottage in Maine, and eventually I inherited the property. Occasionally, I would have company visit and frequently they would comment on the wonderful antiques that were in the cottage. I had no idea if there really were any antiques, but I thought that with the cottage being over one hundred years old that it was quite possible there were some. And so, two years ago I hired an antiques appraiser to come to the cottage to see if there really were some valuable items there.

In preparation for the appraiser’s visit I tried to find everything that I thought might be an antique. That included going up into the attic to see what might be there. In the attic there were three steamer trunks that I didn’t realize were there. For those of you who don’t know, steamer trunks were large (the ones in the attic were three feet long, two feet wide, and two feet high), leather or metal boxes, rather like big suitcases. Interestingly, the trunks had little wheels on the bottom so that one could lift one end and roll them along as you do with suitcases today.

The trunks belonged to my three uncles: Herbert and Sumner who were twins, and Bill, who was two years younger than the twins. All three brothers attended the University of Maine and they all served in the United States Army during World War I. In the first trunk there was an old quilt of no value. In the second was a small military medal indicating that Herb had fought in the major Meuse-Argonne battles and the American flag, with 48 stars since Alaska and Hawaii did not become states until 1959, that was presented to my grandmother after Herb died in combat less than a month before the end of the War in November 1918. In the third trunk, among many other things, there were stacks of letters that the three brothers had written to their mother while they were in Military Service. There were about fifty letters from each brother, and they made for fascinating reading.

Sumner, one of the twins, was drafted into the Army in late 1917 while he was teaching at Tabor Academy in Marion, Massachusetts. The Military Draft was the act of selecting men for compulsory military service. The Draft has been around in various forms since the Revolutionary War and in World War I almost 3 million men were drafted. Even today, when a young man turns eighteen in the United States, he must register for the Draft with the Selective Service Administration. Sumner did not go to Europe; he was assigned to an Artillery Company and was sent to Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky for his training. Many of his letters refer to his Company being quarantined for significant periods of time and being prohibited from leaving the confines of their Company area. These quarantines were because of the Spanish Flu, which killed over 500,000 Americans and 50 to100 million people throughout the world (3 to 6% of the world’s population). This high mortality rate might explain some of the fears about the Swine Flu last year.

Herb and Bill were in College at the University of Maine and, being musicians, were both in the band there. When the United States entered the War in 1917 they enlisted together in the Army for the 103rd Infantry Band and underwent their military training at Camp Devens in Massachusetts. Troop transport ships carried them across the Atlantic to England, where they stayed for a short period of time before being sent to France in September of 1917. Based on their letters, it appears that the YMCA and military bands were the primary sources of relaxation and entertainment for the troops. The two brothers separated when Herb went off to Officer Candidate School where he became a Second Lieutenant when he had completed the program.

Once commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, Herb was sent to a French Company at the front. He writes about being in a bombproof dugout 30 feet underground and how the French officers and he were served a five-course meal for their dinner. (The French do like their food!) He also writes about waking up in the middle of the night in the trenches with a good-sized rat on his chest, as well as finding four dead German soldiers sitting around a kitchen table, the victims of a poison gas attack. In his penultimate letter to his mother Herb wrote, “I do hope I get back to the front before the war ends.” Indeed, he was sent back to the front, and died in October 1918, less than a month before the Armistice ending the war was signed. It was not until two and one half months later, in January of 1919, that his parents learned of his death.

Band members were also sent to the front, and served as stretcher-bearers there. In an early August 1918 letter Bill writes, “I would like to tell you all that I have seen and been through during the last three weeks. I was either in the “(front)lines” or right near them all the time. I had my first experience of going “over the top” (of the trenches and onto the battlefield) as a stretcher-bearer. It sure gives a person a funny feeling, and it was an experience that I shall never forget.” If you saw the HBO mini-series “The Pacific” last year you know of the horrors – dead, dying, wounded – that a stretcher-bearer would encounter. One of Bill’s letters from September 1918 tells of one of the band members who, while acting as a stretcher-bearer at the front lines, was killed by shrapnel. The Band had to play for his funeral, which was very difficult for them since he was one of them and a well-liked colleague. In another letter, written two days after the War ended, Bill writes, “(The Band) played for a funeral of some boys who were killed the last day of the fighting. I think that scene made me feel worse than anything else that I have seen since we came across (the Atlantic).” Two months later he would learn that his brother Herb had died.

Once back in the States, Bill talked very little about his experiences in combat. I think that is quite typical of soldiers who have gone to war. What happens there is too horrible to relive on a regular basis. I was in the Army from January of 1967 to January of 1969, while the war in Vietnam was occurring. I did not go to Vietnam, but as a Company Clerk in a Basic Training Unit I worked with several Drill Sergeants and Officers who had been there. They did not talk about their time in combat, but it certainly had an impact on them. In particular, I remember Sgt. Stang, who had returned from a yearlong tour of duty in Vietnam. Near the end of Basic Training the troops go through the Infiltration Course. The trainees climb out of a trench, then under some barbed wire and over some logs, and repeat the barbed wire and logs routine several times while crawling for about 100 yards through sand while three machine guns fire live ammunition over their heads and six sand-bagged TNT pits are exploding around them. Drill SGT Stang was there with our Basic Combat Training Company, Echo Company. SGT Stang had served his year in Vietnam, had been given a month’s leave on his return to the States, and had been with Echo Company for more than two months. SGT Stang had no particular duties that afternoon since the Sergeants at the Infiltration Course were in charge of the Instruction, and so he was sitting at the top of the bleachers, not paying a lot of attention to what was going on. As an introduction to the Infiltration Course presentation, the Instructors set off the six TNT pits one after another, and when they did that SGT Stang dove 15 feet face first off the back of the bleachers to the ground. Back from Vietnam for more than 100 days, yet it was still so ingrained in him that when there was a loud noise he should immediately hit the ground, no matter how far it was to that ground.

Today, November 11th, is Veterans Day. When I was young it was called Armistice Day, celebrated the day in 1918 when World War I ended, and honored all veterans of World War I. In 1954 the name was changed to Veterans Day to honor all veterans of all United States wars. Today is a day to remember all who have served their country through Military Service, and I think that applies to citizens of all countries. Today is also celebrated as Remembrance Day in Canada, but the Clint Eastwood-directed movies “Flags of Our Fathers” in English and “Letters from Iwo Jima” in Japanese suggest that the war experience is very similar for soldiers of every nation. So, at some time today, think of the people who have given of their time and their energy and sometimes their lives for their country.

When I first came to Taft most of the older faculty were Veterans, having served in World War II or Korea. There are still a number of Veterans on the Taft Faculty and Staff, and I would like to name those I know of: Mr. Wandelt who served in the National Guard; Mr. Liu in the Taiwanese Army; Mr. Lehner in the Air Force for 4 years; Mr. Richards in the Army for 8 years; Mr. Farrar in the Navy for 10 years; Mr. Bodnar in the Navy for 4 years; Mr. Halton, the Athletic Equipment Manager in Cruikshank, in the Marines for 13 years, including two Tours of Duty in Vietnam; from the IT Department, Mr. Trosky in the Army with service in Iraq during the first Gulf War, and Mr. Prigioni in the National Guard; and Mr. Petrario, the Custodial Manager, in the Army. I’m sure there are several others I am not aware of.

I close with the final sentence from “The Western Front,” a book about World War I by Richard Holmes. The sentence is about those who gave their lives in that War, but I think it applies to all who served their country honorably at any time through Military Service. “As we now are, so once were they; as they now are, so must we be; let us remember them all … with the respect that their sacrifice demands.”

Richard Cobb
Connecticut, 2011

Arms Limitation

You might like to listen to the "Address at Washington at opening of International Conference for Limitation of Armament, November 12, 1921", from the Library of Congress National Jukebox

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