May 26, 2008

Remember too the men of 1917...

Last surviving doughboy honored...

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last known living American-born veteran of World War I, was honored Sunday at the Liberty Memorial during Memorial Day weekend celebrations.

"I had a feeling of longevity and that I might be among those who survived, but I didn't know I'd be the No. 1," the 107-year-old veteran said at a ceremony to unveil his portrait...

....Born in Missouri in 1901 and raised in Oklahoma, Buckles visited a string of military recruiters after the United States entered the "war to end all wars" in April 1917.

He was rejected by the Marines and the Navy, but eventually persuaded an Army captain he was 18 and enlisted, convincing him Missouri didn't keep public records of birth.

Buckles sailed for England in 1917 on the Carpathia, which is known for its rescue of Titanic survivors, and spent his tour of duty working mainly as a driver and a warehouse clerk in Germany and France. He rose to the rank of corporal and after Armistice Day he helped return prisoners of war to Germany.

Buckles later traveled the world working for the shipping company White Star Line and was in the Philippines in 1940 when the Japanese invaded. He became a prisoner of war for nearly three years...
Frank Woodruff Buckles, last WWI vet.
Buckles gained notoriety when he attended a Veteran's Day ceremony at the Arlington grave of Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, who led U.S. forces in World War I, said his daughter, Susannah Flanagan.

He ended up on the podium and became a featured guest at the event, and the VIP invites and media interview requests came rolling in shortly afterward.

"This has been such a great surprise," Flanagan said. "You wouldn't think there would be this much interest in World War I. But the timing in history has been such and it's been unreal."

Buckles spent much of his museum tour Sunday looking at mementos of Pershing, whom he admired. He posed for pictures in front of a flag that used to be in Pershing's office and retold stories about meeting the famous general.

While Pershing claims most of the fame, Buckles now has a featured place at the museum.

"This is such an extraordinary occasion that we here at the museum decided that the photo of Mr. Buckles should be permanently installed in the main hallway here" said Brian Alexander, the museum's president and chief executive.
Posted by John Weidner at 5:15 PM

May 24, 2008

New terrain...

Good post by Victor Davis Hanson: Any more Grants and Shermans?...

Who becomes a general — and why — tells us a lot about whether our military is on the right or wrong track.

The annual spring list of Army colonels promoted to brigadier generals will be shortly released. Already, rumors suggest this year, unlike in the recent past, a number of maverick officers who have distinguished themselves fighting — and usually defeating — insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq will be chosen...

Let's hope so! All of America's significant wars have been new terrain for those who fought them—each a new type of war. All of them started with costly mistakes until the new way of warfare was learned. [The leftist claim that the Iraq Campaign is somehow illegitimate because mistakes have been made is stupid and dishonest.] And always many officers, steeped in the thinking of the last war, had to be removed or sidelined to make room for those who could adapt.

Hanson writes about the Civil War, and the many generals Lincoln went through before getting Grant and Sherman. And also how WWII was won by generals that George Marshall promoted from relative obscurity.

WWI was a similar case.

I wrote a small piece here about General Pershing's immense task in finding officers for our huge "instant army," when so many colonels and generals were sunk in mental lethargy from decades of garrison duty broken only by occasional indian wars. (Hunter Liggett, who was mentally ready, was given a Division in January, 1918, and by October was commanding an Army!)

And Pershing himself had been bumped in rank over many senior officers. Teddy Roosevelt thought highly of him, and wanted to make him a colonel. But the Army would not agree. There was, however, another possibility... From Wikipedia:

...In June 1903, Pershing was ordered to return to the United States. He was forty-three years old and still a captain in the U.S. Army. President Theodore Roosevelt petitioned the Army General Staff to promote Pershing to colonel. At the time, Army officer promotions were based primarily on seniority, rather than merit, and although there was widespread acknowledgment that Pershing should serve as a colonel, the Army General Staff declined to change their seniority based promotion tradition just to accommodate Pershing. They would not consider a promotion to lieutenant colonel or even major. This angered Roosevelt, but since the President could only promote army officers in the General ranks, his hands were tied...

...After serving as an observer in the Russo-Japanese War, Pershing returned to the United States in the fall of 1905. In a move that shocked the army establishment, President Roosevelt convinced Congress to authorize the appointment of Pershing as a brigadier general, skipping three ranks and more than 835 officers senior to him....


General Pershing and colonel Marshall, during WWI

Posted by John Weidner at 10:37 AM

March 11, 2008

The last WWI vet...

Bush thanks WWI veteran for 'love for America'

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush met the last known surviving veteran of the first world war on Thursday, thanking the 107-year-old for his service and his "love for America."

Bush called Frank Buckles "the last living doughboy from World War I" and said the centenarian still has a crisp memory.

"Mr. Buckles has a vivid recollection of historic times, and one way for me to honor the service of those who wear the uniform in the past and those who wear it today is to herald you, sir, and to thank you very much for your patriotism and your love for America," the president said, seated with Buckles in the Oval Office.

"We're glad you're here."

Buckles, who turned 107 last month, lied about his age to join the U.S. Army at the age of 16...

This seems so poignant and strange to me. When I was young, the gray-haired distinguished men who ran things were of the WWI Generation. Harry Truman, Ike, the presidents of big corporations. And the handsome young men who were just starting to get on in the world were the WWII generation. Now the men of the AEF are all gone. nd the men and women of WWII are pretty much out of public life. (Except one guy, named Josef Ratzinger!)

There was an old-timer who worked for my dad who fought in WWI. Well, actually, he told me that on his first day in France he got in a knife fight with another southern boy, and that was the end of his war! He chewed tobacco--that was a fascinating thing to a boy. And not snuff; he bit pieces off a chaw. And chewed, and then spit. A bit of history I'm glad to have seen, but don't miss....

Posted by John Weidner at 6:36 PM

January 15, 2004

One of the last of his cohort

When I was very young, I remember hearing of the death of the last Civil War veteran. He had supposedly been a drummer boy, though there was some doubt about him.

Now, the last American combat-wounded veteran of WWI has died at the age of 108! (Links here and here) There are only about 1,000 American WWI vets left alive.

....Born Jan. 17, 1895, in Everett, Mass., Mr. Pugh raised 16 foster children, played the organ into his 100s and was an avid football and baseball fan.

He is one of 10 veterans profiled in the book, The Price of their Blood, published last month and co-written by Jesse Brown, former U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs.

He spoke French and was used overseas as an interpreter until the battle in the Argonne forest, when he inhaled mustard gas that left him unconscious and with chronic laryngitis.

After the war he returned to Maine and worked as a railroad telegraph operator for 12 years before delivering mail for 26 years....(Thanks to Dave Trowbridge)

Sounds like quite a guy. Pugh's outfit was the 77th Division. I wrote about them in the Melting Pot Division, the New York City division with an astonishing ethnic variety......The Jews, the Wops, and the Dutch and Irish cops
They're all in the army now!

doughboys_argonne.jpg
Doughboys of the 77th divsion wait on the edge of the Argonne Forest, before the attack on September 26, 1918.

It looks like there are two French officers in the upper left corner. (By the way, my interest in WWI has had the result, that I don't find very funny the endless jokes about the fighting qualities of the French. They lost millions in battles whose sustained ferocity we can't even imagine. Likewise, don't sneer about Italians at war until you know something about the Battles of the Isonzo.)

Posted by John Weidner at 3:35 PM

September 4, 2003

The Melting Pot Division

Reader Ethan Hahn asked rather wistfully if I was going to write any more on the US in WWI. I feel bad for having left off the project. The problem is that much of what is happening (yes I know using the Present Tense is weird, but that's my mood) is too vast and terrifying for me to feel adequate to write about. Hundreds of thousands of my countrymen are attacking enemies who are dug into the intricate and many-layered defenses of the Western Front�that's too big for me to handle. We worry now about several hundred soldiers dying in Iraq, but in a First World War attack, a brigade could lose that many in a minute or two.

But I can work around the edges, and find interesting stories. I picked up a favorite book, The Doughboys, by Lawrence Stallings. He didn't fail to get me started on something...

Men of 77th Division filling canteens
Men of the 77th Division filling canteens near the River Vesle

THE UNITED STATES IN WORLD WAR ONE #10: The Melting Pot Division

If you doubt that America is and was "something new under the sun," take a look at the 77th Division in 1918. It was called the Liberty Division, and also the Melting Pot Division. They were from New York City, and chose the Statue of Liberty for their patch. 42 languages were spoken by its men. Its gamblers played Stuss, Fan Tan and Piquet, along with Craps and Poker. They said the division had every sort of person except country boys who could find their way around in the dark. "Gangs of New York?" Of course, and General Robert Alexander actually suggested to his officers that they encourage the gang spirit. The division song included the lines:

Thirty dollars every month, deducting twenty-nine
Oh, the army, the army, the democratic army.
The Jews, the Wops, and the Dutch and Irish cops
They're all in the army now!
Its first 3 Distinguished Service Crosses went to Captain Herman Stadie, born in Germany, Private Abraham Herschkovitz, born in a Jewish ghetto in Bessarabia, and Sergeant Sing Kee, born in San Francisco! In their recent attack on the River Vesle, Sergeant Kee was one of a 30-man message post in the village of Mont Notre Dame. The other 29 men were killed or wounded, a fact he didn't think worth reporting. He continued alone for 24 hours, and all messages got through. (In WWI, runners, messengers, were extremely important. Technology had expanded the size of the battlefield enormously, but had not yet provided portable radios.)


One interesting thing is that a lot of the doughboys spoke German. If we fought a war with Spain today, the situation would be similar. Germans were the largest of our many immigrant groups, and there were then over 100 newspapers published in German in the US. (Most of those papers shut down or switched to English because of the war.)

Like the United States itself, the Liberty Division was a conglomeration that tended to draw the contempt of "older and wiser" countries. It seemed to them like little more than an ad hoc collection of refugees. In fact, like its nation, it was a brutally effective new combination. In time of need it could instantly generate remarkable leaders from out of the ranks, an ability it will demonstrate to the fullest next month, when some of its companies form the fabled "Lost Battalion," during the grim Meuse-Argonne campaign.

Right now, in August and September 1918, American 1st and 3rd Corps are fighting under French General Ferdinand Foch in the cluster of battles and offensives called the Second Battle of the Marne. Nine doughboy divisions (equivalent in size to perhaps twenty French or British divisions) will suffer 50,00 casualties. The 77th, part of Ligget's 1st Corps, will help drive the Germans back to the Aisne, erasing the deep salient they had achieved in their Spring offensive. Belleau Wood was the farthest tip of that salient, and that fight, back in June, was the beginning of what the 77th Division is now helping to finish.

The ever-increasing numbers and experience of the Americans has now put General Pershing in a position to demand what he has long wanted�an independent American army with its own sector of the front to cover. However, since we have been strong supporters of a unified allied command, and since that effort has finally led to General Foch being named Supreme Allied Commander, Pershing is in no position to decline whatever task is assigned to the new First Army. What he gets is hair-raising. The Americans, as he has requested, will drive the Germans from the Saint-Mihiel Salient, attacking September 12. Then the entire 1st Army will drag itself and a million tons of ammunition and supplies 60 miles over wretched country roads for an all-out attack on the Meuse-Argonne sector...on September 26!

Posted by John Weidner at 7:33 PM