A Fading Band Of Brothers

Eighty-eight years ago, U.S. forces entered World War I. Today, as their surviving ranks diminish, the need to honor their service grows.

April 06, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

They're the last of the last, the dwindling band of living veterans of World War I, the Great War, as it was called, the war to end all wars.

It didn't, of course, and today, on the 88th anniversary of the day that the United States entered the war, its veterans are mostly forgotten even as newer veterans, from the current conflict in Iraq, come home. The best estimate is that perhaps 30 World War I veterans are alive in the United States, and that there are 150 survivors worldwide - a thin company left from the 65 million called up to fight the war.

They're all very old now, even those who were very young when they went off to fight.

"I just looked them in the eye and [told] them I was 21," says Frank Buckles, now 104, of Charles Town, W.Va.

"And you know," he adds, "after a while men in uniform all look alike."

He was only 16 when he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Europe. He would grow up quickly.

"My observation was that war is a very serious thing," he says during a telephone conversation. "In England, you'd see men with black bands around their arms in mourning. And in France, everybody was in mourning."

As they age, their stories from this horrific war threaten to fade with them. Those who survive get relatively little attention. In Washington, D.C., for example, where the new World War II monument on the Mall joined existing memorials for Vietnam and Korea, there is no similar commemoration of World War I.

"When they're gone, their history is gone," says Sandy Pruett, who teaches oral history at York College of Pennsylvania.

"That personal element of having experienced it is what ends up being missing. You can't regain that," says Louis Galambos, a history professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "It's the end of a few generations in this case. Those guys have lived a long time."

Indeed, the oldest veteran is also the oldest man in the world, as certified by Guinness World Records: Emiliano Mercado Del Toro of Puerto Rico, who is 113 years old. He was drafted in late 1918. Two months later the war ended and he was sent home, never having left Puerto Rico.

It was a terribly bloody war. The horrendous death toll gave rise to the term "cannon fodder," in English, or Kanonenfutter, in German. The number of casualties is mostly an educated guess, but historians believe about 8.5 million died and millions more were maimed and wounded.

"It was a horrific thing." Galambos says. War had become industrialized, he says, leading people to believe that the fighting would be less painful and difficult for society.

"World War I was horrible in that context because people didn't expect that it was going to be that dreadful," he says. "I think the machine gun, the tanks, poison gases, all of that, and the trench warfare, just was terrible. In a certain sense, it was the first modern war. It's sort of total social war - and something different."

Few of the countries that fought the war have considered how they will commemorate the last of their World War I combatants.

France, where 14 men survive of the 8.5 million mobilized, is an exception: The deputy who represents Verdun in the French parliament has proposed a law that would elevate the funeral of the last French veteran into a "solemn national homage" for all those who fought in La Guerre Grande. Verdun took a particularly heavy toll: In the long, grinding trench warfare there, the French and Germans suffered 700,000 casualties fighting for a space less than six miles square; nearly half died.

No other nation seems to have proposed a similar act.

Since 1919 on the Sunday nearest Nov. 11, Armistice Day, the day the war ended, the United Kingdom has celebrated World War I dead at the Cenotaph, a plain stone monument erected at Whitehall in the center of London. But it has been years since a World War I veteran marched in the ceremonies. Just 19 British vets are believed alive, of the nearly 9 million recruited for the British Empire armies. But no special commemoration is planned for when the last veteran dies.

Imperial Germany, according to many counts, lost the most men. Of the 11 million who went to war for the kaiser, 1,773,700 died. Just one soldier survives, an Alsatian named Charles Kuentz, who is 107 years old. In an odd irony, he's a French citizen. In the twisted history of 20th-century wars, Alsace ricocheted between Germany and France. It's now French and so is Kuentz.

As with the Iraq war, the U.S. entry to the conflict was much debated. The ostensible reason was Germany's threat of unrestricted submarine warfare, which President Woodrow Wilson called "warfare against mankind."

The United States enlisted 4,743,826 for the armed forces during the war; 116,608 died.

Lloyd Brown, who is 105 and lives in Charlotte Hall in St. Mary's County, was among those who answered Wilson's call. He served in a gun crew on the coal-powered battleship USS New Hampshire, based in Norfolk.

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