Monday, November 12, 2007

The Last of His Kind

It is ironic that my post on Veterans Day happened to focus on World War I; today's New York Times has an Op-Ed piece by Richard Rubin, about the man who is the last living American veteran of World War I who actually served in France. We sent two million men over there, and he is the only one left.

The surviving man's name is Frank Buckles, and he is 106 years old. A native of Missouri, he is still living on the farm in West Virginia that he has had since the 1940's; he drove a tractor until he was 104.

Mr. Rubin points out what I had remarked upon yesterday: that World War I gets short shrift compared to later wars.

"Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Almost from the moment the armistice took effect, the United States has worked hard, it seems, to forget World War I; maybe that’s because more than 100,000 Americans never returned from it, lost for a cause that few can explain even now. The first few who did come home were given ticker-tape parades, but most returned only to silence and a good bit of indifference.

There was no G.I. Bill of Rights to see that they got a college education or vocational training, a mortgage or small-business loan. There was nothing but what remained of the lives they had left behind a year or two earlier, and the hope that they might eventually be able to return to what President Warren Harding, Wilson’s successor, would call “normalcy.” Prohibition, isolationism, the stock market bubble and the crisis in farming made that hard; the Great Depression, harder still."

He goes on to say that, four years ago, he witnessed a 106-year-old World War I veteran in a Veterans Day parade in Orleans, Massachusetts, and realized he had probably seen the last small-town Veterans Day parade featuring a World War I veteran.

A few years ago, when DH and I were at Cape Cod for Memorial Day weekend, we went to the Brewster Memorial Day parade. We were astonished to see a black car driving along in the parade with a sign proclaiming the occupant to be a World War I veteran. Brewster is only a few miles from Orleans; it's likely it was the same veteran Mr. Rubin is remembering, named J. Laurence Moffit. How many World War I veterans can there be on Cape Cod? I'm glad I had the opportunity to see Mr. Moffit in the parade.

Mr. Rubin concludes the article:

"It’s hard for anyone, I imagine, to say for certain what it is that we will lose when Frank Buckles dies. It’s not that World War I will then become history; it’s been history for a long time now. But it will become a different kind of history, the kind we can’t quite touch anymore, the kind that will, from that point on, always be just beyond our grasp somehow. We can’t stop that from happening. But we should, at least, take notice of it."

Now the veterans of World War II are rapidly passing on as well. According to Ken Burns, at the end of his documentary, The War, 1,000 are dying each day. While there is still time, we should talk to them, get them to tell their stories; ask them questions, write down the answers; have them talk to our children about the war. Try to understand the wisdom they gained from their experiences. Learn what they felt, and why. Try to understand what the world was like then.

Because someday we'll be down to the last one, the last World War II veteran, the last of his kind, and we'll never be able to ask those questions again of a living person who remembers what happened. And we need to understand, so we can prevent it from ever happening again, so there won't need to be veterans of endless wars, marching in endless parades.

Today's quote is from "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda," an anti-war song by Eric Bogle, which commemorates the battle of Gallipoli during World War I, where 50,000 Australians died. Go to this link to hear it sung on YouTube. This is just a piece of the lyrics:

They collected the wounded, the crippled, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind and the insane
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And when the ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thank Christ there was no one there waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity

And the Band played Waltzing Matilda
When they carried us down the gangway
Oh nobody cheered, they just stood there and stared
Then they turned all their faces away

Now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Renewing their dreams of past glories
I see the old men all tired, stiff and worn
Those weary old heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
And I ask myself the same question

And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men still answer the call
But year after year, their numbers get fewer
Someday, no one will march there at all...


Mary Ellen said...

A WWII veteran and very good friend and neighbor of mine passed away last year. Like other veterans from that war, he carried those memories with him until the day they die. He marched in every Memorial Day parade in our our town from the time he moved in until just one year be died. He couldn't march or go in the last one, he was too ill.

My father was the same way, he fought in Okinawa during WWII. He would never talk about the war, we never heard stories about battles, but I know he had nightmares about it. Even while he was in his last days, you could hear him scream out in his sleep.

Now we have a President and VP who have no respect for our military and could care less about sending them to war. I'm sure they, too, will have those nightmares the rest of their lives. Rumsfeld said he's sleeping just fine, though. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

My father is the same as Mary Ellen - he very rarely talks about his war experiences. The few snippets I know I have gleaned over the years - for example he HATES walking on the sand in his bare feet as he once said he had a horrible case of trench foot and he cannot abide the feeling of sand on his feet.

And he had a bad case of Malaria that he still talks about to this day (he is 81) about how awful it was. I know he would be extremely upset if his 19 yr old grandson were to go into the service - not that he is not proud of him, but that he is so disillusioned about how the US is handling these conflicts.

And as Mary Ellen said, go figure - how can Bush and Cheney and all those others sleep well at night - it boggles my mind.

dguzman said...

Back during all the 50-yr WWII celebrations, I got to see and hear lots of vets of the war and even a survivor of The Final Solution. Every single one of their stories was heartbreaking, funny, fascinating, scary. They were amazing people.

People like Bush and Cheney and Rummy have no souls, so how could they be troubled by anything so human as a war, or hunger, or prejudice, or any of the other things they don't give a shit about?

Great post, MG.

TomCat said...

I know I shall not live to see it, but I pray that someday there will come a time when no human being alive has ever fought in a war.

kuanyin333 said...

I'm finally feeling good enough to visit some of my favorite bloggers. I recently had a discussion with my chiropractor who had a theory about the influenza epidemic of 1918. He said it was because the soldiers came home from World War 1 with bacteria that those in America had never been exposed to and thus immunized, and that's why the death rate was so high.

Anonymous said...

I have come to the conclusion that until we do away with an all-volunteer military, those yellow-magnet cowards who cheer this abomination on from their La-Z-Boys will never flinch, no matter how many American kids die.

It's time to give Chip and Buffy's mom the same worries that the mothers of the not so well off have.

Mauigirl said...

Thanks for all the comments. I agree, it seems as if the WWII veterans tend to be very stoic and not talk about their experiences that much, and yet are scarred from them nevertheless. My father-in-law seldom talks about the war. He was in Italy in 1944-45 and would have had to go to Japan if they hadn't dropped the bomb. He does sometimes tell some of the more positive stories from the war (like coming into an Italian town and the residents pulling down the Nazi (or maybe Italian fascist?) flags and putting up American flags as they came into town) but he never talks about any of the bad experiences that I'm sure he must have had. I also agree, I don't see how Rumsfeld, Bush and Cheney sleep at night but they must not be human.

Tomcat, I agree, I wish that someday no one remembers a war.

Kuanyin, glad you're feeling better! Interesting theory about the 1918 flu. A lot of soldiers died of that rather than in battle. It was a real plague.

JR, you have a point. I think there'd be a lot more active protests against the war if there were a draft. It sure worked in the 60's to galvanize people to a much greater degree than we see today.

Liz Hinds said...

I have The Pogues singing that song and it sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it.

They were interviewing one of the remaining soldiers from WW1 on the television on Sunday. He was remarkably alert for 109 years old and very moving to listen to. I regret never talking to my grandfather about his experiences. I know he was shot and returned home but nothing more than that.