It was Nov. 11, 1918, and World War I had been raging across Europe, the Middle East and Africa for four and a half years. “My watch said nine o’clock,” wrote Col. Thomas R. Gowenlock in his book “Soldiers of Darkness” (1936).
“With only two hours to go, I drove over to the bank of the Meuse River to see the finish. The shelling was heavy and, as I walked down the road, it grew steadily worse. It seemed to me that every battery in the world was trying to burn up its guns.”
Only hours earlier on Nov. 11, French commander-in-chief Marshall Ferdinand Foch called a halt to all fighting to begin at precisely 11 o’clock.
“At last eleven o’clock came — but the firing continued. The men on both sides had decided to give each other all they had — their farewell to arms. It was a very natural impulse after their years of war, but unfortunately many fell after eleven o’clock that day.
“All over the world on November 11, 1918, people were celebrating — dancing in the streets, drinking champagne… but at the front there was no celebration. Many soldiers believed the Armistice only a temporary measure and that the war would soon go on.
“As night came, the quietness, unearthly in its penetration, began to eat into their souls.”
The war had indeed ended, and the doughboys began packing up their troubles in their old kit bags and, with a “smile, smile, smile,” board the ships heading home.
But not all of them.
America sent 4,355,000 into the war. When it was over, 116,516 American soldiers and sailors didn’t make it back — most buried forever on foreign soil, or in the depths of the cold Atlantic.
“The War to End All Wars” did not end all wars. A generation later the world was at it again. Historians argue about whether or not World War II was simply a continuation of World War I — with a timeout in-between to change leaderships.
In 1934, Winston Churchill told Parliament, “Germany is arming fast, and no one is going to stop her. I dread the day when the means of threatening the heart of the British Empire should pass into the hands of the present rulers of Germany… I dread that day, but it is not, perhaps, far distant.”
War heroes are not always saints. That included Idaho’s Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, and even Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated soldier. Both were Medal of Honor recipients.
Audie’s multiple combat experiences left him facing civilian life after the war with “battle fatigue,” — usually called PTSD today — and he battled alcoholism, depression and occasional violence. But he worked hard to overcome them all — going on to a successful movie career in Hollywood, including playing himself in “To Hell and Back.”
Pappy — who was born in 1912 in Coeur d’Alene and raised in St. Maries — was a U.S. Marine who started his military career by doing everything wrong. He drank too much, lost his wife and kids in a divorce, smacked a superior officer over a girl that wasn’t his wife, had creditors chasing him and hardly seemed destined for glory.
What saved Pappy from being cashiered from the Marines and corralled by his creditors was that he was an exceptional pilot, and his superior officers saw a way to get rid of him just days after Pearl Harbor: They let him join the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) — better known as the Flying Tigers — and shipped him off to Burma and later China.
Supposedly, Pappy bagged six Japanese planes while at Flying Tigers and 22 more after the unit was absorbed by the U.S. 14th Air Force. In 1944, he was shot down in the Pacific, captured by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war as a POW — but survived.
World War II ended, but the world couldn’t stay calm for more than five years.
On June 25, 1950, communist hordes from the north swooped down into South Korea, launching what would later be called “The Forgotten War.”
President Harry Truman would call it “a police action.”
Three years later, the shooting stopped at the cost of 140,000 American casualties — including nearly 37,000 deaths. Technically, the war is still on, with both sides peering at each other through binoculars at the 38th parallel demilitarized zone (DMZ), while North Korea’s bellicose leader threatens America and its allies with nuclear intercontinental weapons.
Aging veterans remember the Pusan Perimeter, Inchon, Heartbreak Ridge, Hill 282, Pork Chop Hill, Panmunjom, the Yalu, Truman firing MacArthur and “Old soldiers never die — they just fade away,” and the smell of kimchee.
Vietnam was a different kind of war. The enemy didn’t always wear identifying uniforms, and peasant women and kids could be just as deadly as soldiers.
Bucolic tropical scenery often masked an underground network of enemy bunkers — targets of fearless American “Tunnel Rats” who entered on search-and-destroy missions, never knowing what enemy or poisonous snake was lurking in the darkness ahead, or if they’d trigger a deadly booby trap on their way in.
Then there was the ongoing chaos of war — complicated by drugs, Agent Orange, Lieutenant Calley, Hanoi Jane, and politicians in Washington, D.C., telling field commanders half a world away what to do.
The boys in Nam also remember mama-sans, Puff the Magic Dragon, “Good Morning Vietnam,” and “Where have all the flowers gone?” Air America, the Golden triangle, Laos, Cambodia, Mekong River patrol, B-52 contrails at 35K, and the treetop thump-thump-thump of Huey and Chinook choppers coming to the rescue — flown by brave pilots like one now living in Hayden Lake, and the bomber guy on the Spokane River.
They also faced the body counts and body bags, the stench of death in the tropical heat, and what to do with enemy dead, while fallen Americans took the sad journey to mortuary at Tan Son Nhut or Da Nang.
Army mortician Gary Redlinski of Buffalo, N.Y. would talk to them — making it up close and personal: “I would say, ‘Sorry I have to do this. I have to get you back to your family.’”
As casualties mounted in Vietnam, anti-war protesters on campuses and streets back home were burning flags and draft cards — while an eager press fanned the flames of discontent, and politicians cursed the darkness.
When the warriors finally came home, there were no ticker-tape parades or “thanks from a grateful nation” — only epithets, spit and turned backs.
A U.S. Marine combat commander from Hayden remembers how much it hurt to carry the body of a dead buddy out of a rice paddy, and
back home they were calling you a “murderer.”
Now, a half century later, America is finally turning around and ordinary folks are telling veterans they see in the street or supermarket wearing identifying military caps or jackets, “Thank you for your service,” and shake their hand.
Another former marine in Coeur d’Alene who received a Purple Heart after being hit during the 1968 Tet Offensive can be proud of the fading Vietnam Service Ribbon tattoo on his arm.
Many veterans won’t talk about the horrors that they witnessed, but others do — lest we forget.
Fast-forward to 1990: Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Revolutionary Guard invades Kuwait and claims they own it. For seven months, they control the tiny oil-rich kingdom as the world wrings its hands and demands that the Iraqis get out.
Seven months later, American and coalition troops finally thunder in under Operation Desert Storm.
Who can forget the towering black plumes of smoke from the burning oil fields, the smashed trucks, burned out Iraqi tanks and Mercedes cars littering the roads north?
On Baghdad hotel rooftops, CNN’s TV cameras captured the drama of American jets raining “Shock and Awe” destruction on the city below — as the rest of the world watched.
Since those days, American military boots have been mired in a seemingly endless conflict in the desert sands of the Middle East and mountains of Afghanistan — a dark world of ancient rivalries, clashing cultures and unrelenting danger.
They still have a job to do.
The Veterans Day national holiday every Nov. 11 gives thanks to all those who honorably served in any branch of the U.S. military — in wartime or peace.
The original 1918 “Armistice Day” national holiday name and purpose ending the fighting in World War I “on November 11th on the 11th hour of the 11th month” was changed in 1971 to Veterans Day, honoring America’s veterans for their “patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”
Memorial Day or Decoration Day is another federal holiday, held the last Monday of May to remember those who died while serving in America’s armed forces; with the pre-Civil War tradition of decorating the graves of the fallen.
Also in May on the third Saturday is Armed Forces Day, a part of Armed Forces Week, showcasing America’s military might and honoring all who served.
Schools today little note in history classes the sacrifices that American men and women in uniform made to protect our country, democracy and freedom — but the kids should know it.
It may be up to parents and grandparents to teach them that there is more to life than Big Macs and iPhones.
Veterans Day on Nov. 11 is a good time to tell them.
“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died,” Gen. George S. Patton Jr. said. “Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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World War I song…
“Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag, and Smile, Smile, Smile” is a World War I marching song, published in 1915 in London, written by Welsh songwriter George Henry Powell, with music by his brother Felix.
Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,
And smile, smile, smile,
While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag,
Smile, boys, that’s the style.
What’s the use of worrying?
It never was worth while, so…
Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,
And smile, smile, smile.
(“Lucifer” is a match; “Fag” a cigarette.)
Thousands of Vietnam vets that survived and made it home would tell Dan Larson of Twin Falls “Yep, got the same problem — been there, done that.” He tells of losing 15 or 20 of his buddies in Vietnam, while he survived Agent Orange and being blown up three times in vehicles attacked by the enemy, followed by a civilian life plagued with mini-strokes, diabetes and nerve damage to his legs.
Advice from the General…
“A man must know his destiny,” said General George S. Patton Jr., “…if he does not recognize it, then he is lost. By this I mean, once, twice, or at the very most, three times, fate will reach out and tap a man on the shoulder… if he has the imagination, he will turn around and fate will point out to him what fork in the road he should take, if he has the guts, he will take it.”
It’s about Attitude…
“All of my high school male teachers were WWII and/or Korean War veterans.” said retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Oliver North. “They taught my brothers and me the value of service to our country and reinforced what our dad had shown us about the meaning of service.”
Gold Star Mom…
“You were just a little child but even then you knew
That giving of yourself was all that you were meant to do,
And day by day you walked the path that led you toward the day
You’d place your country and its worth ahead of “Self” and say,
“I’ll go and serve and do my part to keep my homeland free,
When others tread a different path it matters not to me,
For this I know and will profess to all who choose to hear,
Our country needs us all to serve and that is why I’m here.”
— Debb Hirsch Clay, Gold Star Mom