Aftermath - when the boys came home

Saturday 11 June 2011

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from the Times Union (Albany NY) 9 November 2003

Firsthand stories of the Great War
Old soldiers tell of the confusion, mud and horror of their own private struggles
by Paul Grondahl

More than 2 million Americans fought in France during World War I, which the United States entered in April 1917.

Today, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says there are only 44 doughboys still alive with first-hand memories of Nov. 11, 1918, according to Scripps Howard News Service.

There is no central clearinghouse for the numbers. A World War I vets' group begun in 1948 faded away a few years ago because of dwindling membership.

The Library of Congress Veterans History Project, working with local veterans organizations, libraries and historical societies, has gathered about 50 oral histories of World War I veterans -- most of them now dead.

Here are first-hand accounts from three men who served in that war.

Frank Buckles , of Charles Town, W. Va., will turn 103 on Feb. 1. He still runs a 330-acre cattle farm, mows his hay fields with a pair of John Deere tractors and had plenty to say about the Great War.

The Missouri farm boy enlisted in the Army at age 16 in July 1917. "I asked an old sergeant the quickest way to get to France, and he said go into the Ambulance Corps. So I did," Buckles recalled by phone Wednesday from Gap View Farm, about 90 miles from Washington, D.C.

"We were unassigned, so my unit replaced a unit of the Sixth Marines operating the No. 35 camp hospital in Winchester, England. After some time, I talked my way into a company that was going to France.

"I never fought in the trenches or got to the front, but I saw a lot and dealt with a lot of casualties. The French people were in mourning, and there was a lot of sadness and death. Everywhere I went, I met someone who had a son or brother killed in the fighting," Buckles said.

Private Buckles came out a corporal at 18, having earned four service stripes. His last assignment was escorting German prisoners of war back to Germany.

"We truly believed this was the war to end all wars and that this would solve the world's problems," he said. "I got back to the States in February 1920 and there were no more parades or celebrations. I don't blame anyone. It's human nature to forget bad things right away."

In 1921, Buckles moved to Toronto for a job with White Star Lines, and a few years later to New York City to work in the bond department of Bankers Trust Co. He was invited to be an honorary member in a group of World War I veterans from the New York 7th Regiment -- known as a "silk-stocking" unit because it included wealthy Park Avenue residents.

Buckles' shipping experience was called upon in World War II. "My job was to expedite the movement of cargo, and I was stationed in the Philippines in Manila. We were evacuating people in cargo ships from there, and I was captured," he said. He was a prisoner of war for three years and two months, until the 11th Airborne rescued him on Feb. 23, 1945.

Buckles' recollections, which have been recorded by the Library of Congress, were confirmed by his daughter, Susannah Flanagan, 48, of Burke, Va. Her mother, Audrey Buckles, died in 1999.

Harold F. Boice , 106, of Poughkeepsie, has lived in three centuries. Born on Sept. 8, 1897, in Upper Red Hook, Dutchess County, he was working as an auto mechanic when he joined the Army at age 20 as a private with a telegraph battalion. By the time he reached France, the war was nearly over.

"I never had a chance to telegraph messages from the front," said Boice, who was discharged April 4, 1919. "We were just there for a few days and heading to the front when the armistice was signed. ... Our biggest scare was crossing the English Channel. We were in a 16-fleet convoy and I was on duty the night something exploded on the right side of our ship. We didn't know if it was a bomb or what. We kept going and everything had calmed down by the time we landed in Le Havre."

Some of his most vivid memories of wartime are of the cold, wet and muddy conditions, but the sweetest remembrance was of the kindly French farmer who welcomed Boice's unit by throwing open the doors to a barn and inviting them to drink his store of wine.

Boice spoke by phone from the home he shares with daughter Frances Lombardino, 48, an only child. Her husband and mother died six months apart in 1987, and she moved in with her dad. Boice's hearing is limited and he uses a walker, but his health is otherwise pretty good, his daughter said.

The New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center in Saratoga Springs has a collection of World War I cannons, rifles, machine guns, uniforms, photographs, letters and other artifacts from the conflict.

The museum has three videotaped conversations with World War I veterans, including Eugene Lee , who served in the Marine Corps and was injured in combat in Belleau Woods, France. Now 104, he lives in the Syracuse area. Lee is no longer able to give interviews. His recollections were recorded last summer at a Veterans Affairs facility near his home.

"There wasn't much to the trenches. ... All we done is just stuck in there and tried to stay on the boards we put down because it was real muddy in the bottom of the trenches. Once in awhile, the Germans threw over a few shells. ... We eventually moved out and were fighting along the edge of some woods. We fired and laid down and the next wave leaped over us, shooting all the while. Then we got up and fired. The Germans had machine guns on us. We finally made it into the woods and then it was just man for man in there fighting. We drove them out of the woods."

Lee received a Purple Heart and Silver Star after a bullet grazed his wrist. "I was lucky. Some of the fellas were hit real bad. I helped the medics carry some of them out and they gave me an award. I don't know why they gave me the Silver Star. They had to give it to somebody, I guess."


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