Veteran, 100, recalls War to End All Wars

November 11, 1994|By Michael E. Young | Michael E. Young,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

LAUDERDALE LAKES, Fla. -- He looks back 77 years through hTC the comfortable shade of long memory and recalls the faded image of 58 brave young soldiers marching off to win the War to End All Wars.

And as the rest of the country celebrates Veterans Day today, 100-year-old Ralph Foster will remember its other name, Armistice Day, and the battles he fought during the first World War.

Mr. Foster was little more than a kid in 1917 when the United States joined the fight, just a few years out of high school and more comfortable as captain of the baseball and football teams in Bowling Green, Ohio, than as a soldier in the U.S. Army. But he couldn't wait to enlist.

"There were 58 of us in the recruiting office in Toledo -- my brothers and I had rushed up from Bowling Green -- and we were all afraid there wouldn't be room for us," Mr. Foster said. "They ended up taking 56. And now I'm the only one left."

The brutal, bloody war had dragged on for three years when the men left Ohio for Europe, joining France, Britain and other allies in the fight against the Central Powers -- Germany, Turkey and Austria-Hungary.

Mr. Foster's younger brother, Cy, was sent to the artillery and eventually came home on crutches.

Mr. Foster and his twin, Ray, were part of a field hospital unit and fought side by side, unhurt, through the end of the war.

"We all came home living and breathing and we thank the Lord for our safety," Mr. Foster said. "There were times you were sleeping in a shell hole half-filled with water, and times you didn't take your clothes off for days."

His words slowed then with the memories.

"You're lucky you're that age when you fight," he said. "It helps you conquer your fears."

Like most people who peer back on events from a lifetime ago, Mr. Foster remembers the good things: the green and golden glory of the Scottish countryside, where he was stationed before being sent to France, and the bravery of the young American troops, the camaraderie of friends he'll never see again.

His stories tumble out, carried along by a voice dry as smoke that creaks with laughter as he sets up each punch line.

"We fought in France, we fought in Belgium, we fought through the Argonne Forest and that one was a dandy. We were in what they called a field hospital, but we were armed and we were on the front lines firing away just like the infantry," he said.

Mostly, though, Mr. Foster lived in the trenches, in the cold and the mud as men died around him, and armies struggled to win a few yards while the war dragged across western Europe.

Each night, when they could, the men would light candles and pull off their shirts, holding the collars up to the flame until the bugs that plagued them popped from the heat. And each day, they'd fight again.

Sometimes, the troops would climb aboard a big Packard truck and ride for a while, from one battle ground to another, hungry and tired but thankful for the lift.

Mr. Foster's war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, after more than a year of fighting, and he came back to the United States and settled down. But he never forgot his time in the service and he never regretted it.

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