What shall we call Nov. 11?

David L. Spivey

November 11, 1993|By David L. Spivey

MY grandfather, a veteran, never called it Veterans Day. It was always Armistice Day. The day the war to end all wars ended.

But looking back on it 75 years later, Nov. 11, 1918, was the day the world as we know it began. It marked the end of our first venture as a world power. And once we entered the world stage, America was never quite the same.

My grandfather and his three brothers had no real grasp of the global implications. They were just Kansas farmers doing what their country asked them to do. Like many of their fellow soldiers, this was their first real trip away from their farms and small towns.

Most were sent to Long Island for their training, where they also got their first glimpse of a city the size of New York. Then, of course, they made their first trip abroad.

They were shipped across the North Atlantic -- still infested by German submarines -- to England. As they approached the English coast, Grandpa's convoy was met by an escort of British destroyers. One of the men on his ship remarked that it reminded him of the farm dogs coming out to greet the men at the gate when they came home. It was a reference nearly everyone on the ship would have understood instantly.

The Allies were anxiously awaiting the Kansas and Missouri National Guardsmen aboard that transport. Months earlier, the Germans had smuggled an exiled revolutionary named Vladimir Lenin into Russia to incite unrest. His success forced the shaky Russian government to drop out of the war -- and allowed Germany and Austria-Hungary to deploy all their resources against the Allies in France.

So on arriving in France, my grandfather and two of his brothers were quickly put to work as mule drivers in a transport company, hauling supplies and ammunition to the front. It was scary, dangerous work, and the contrary mules refused to make it any easier.

But the supplies got through. And the Americans' arrival sparked a new Allied surge. American troops soon distinguished themselves at now half-forgotten places like Chateau-Thierry, St. Lo, Belleau Wood and the Argonne Forest.

They braved gas attacks and fought alongside (and against) a clumsy new invention called a "tank." Some even joined in the first aerial combat the world had seen.

Late in 1918, my grandfather's unit was preparing for an assault on Metz when the word came: It was over. The Kaiser had quit and fled his throne. The shooting would stop at 11 a.m. Nov. 11. They were all going home.

Going home was all many of them had thought of since shipping out. Until his death in 1990, one of Grandpa's prized possessions was a wrinkled sepia photograph of a transport jammed with soldiers. Underneath, in his shaky handwriting, he had penned a single sentence: "The ship that brought us home."

But for America, there was really no going home. A generation before Rosie the Riveter, many women had their first taste of working outside their homes. Black veterans wondered whether they had really gone overseas to defend second-class schools and segregated bathrooms.

And on the now-quiet Western Front, a German corporal named Hitler, temporarily blinded by a gas attack, vowed that he would avenge his country's humiliation.

So by the time my grandfather, his brothers and their comrades returned to their farms, the seeds had been sown. The women's movement, the civil rights movement, the blitzkrieg, the Holocaust and the Cold War -- the landmarks of our century -- all had their roots in that Nov. 11.

Back then, they called it Armistice Day. Now we call it Veterans Day to honor all Americans who served. But my great-grandmother gave it another name, the only name appropriate for the day a mother knew all four of her sons would come home alive.

For the rest of her life, Nov. 11 was Thanksgiving Day.

David L. Spivey writes from Bel Air.

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