By Fr. George Welzbacher
November 18, 2007
"Closing the door gently on World War I. " That could have been the caption for a fascinating human interest story that appeared on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times for Monday, November 12th, this year's designated Veterans Day. The subject of the essay? The last surviving veteran from among the two million Americans who served in France in that cataclysmic conflict. As I read the story my thoughts went back to a veteran of World War I whom I myself knew a few years ago, back in the late 1990's, when I was serving as pastor of St. Nicholas Parish in New Market. His name was Peter- everyone called him "Pete"- Eischens. I used to visit him and bring him Communion at the Veterans Home on the bluffs above the Ford Dam. He had a favorite "perch" in one of the quieter corridors by a window that offered a generous view of an extensive lawn and some beautiful old trees. He would usually be sitting there in his wheelchair with a rosary in his hand. Mentally clear as a bell right up to his last days, he was 102 years old when God at last called him home.
Pete was a man who detested the brutality of war. I remember the look on his face when on one occasion he spoke about the training in the use of the bayonette that he and the other troops received on board ship as they were crossing the Atlantic. He thanked God that he never had to make use of said techniques for disembowelment. But Pete was no pacifist. He was quietly firm in his conviction that, once war came, it was a citizen's duty to do whatever he could to make sure that his country would prevail, assuming of course that the cause to which his country was committed was not intrinsically evil. Fortunately-and I know that when I say this I will upset some of those on the ultra-right and most of those on the middling left-apart from some of our highly questionable intrusions into Latin American countries our major wars have been and in my judgment still are morally justified; some were even morally mandated to oppose the advance of what was indisputably evil.
I was moved by The New York Times Op-Ed story, and I thought you might be, too. The report was written by Richard Rubin, who is currently writing a book on America's involvement in World War I.
* * * * *Over There-And Gone Forever
By Richard Rubin
By any conceivable measure, Frank Buckles has led an extraordinary life. Born on a farm in Missouri in February 1901, he saw his first automobile in his hometown in 1905, and his first airplane at the Illinois State Fair in 1907. At 15 he moved on his own to Oklahoma and went to work in a bank; in the 1940s, he spent more than three years as a Japanese prisoner of war. When he returned to the United States, he married, had a daughter and bought a farm near Charles Town, West Virginia, where he lives to this day. He drove a tractor until he was 104.
But even more significant than the remarkable details of Mr. Buckle's life is what he represents: Of the two million soldiers the United States sent to France in World War I, he is the only one left.
This Veterans Day marked the 89th anniversary of the armistice that ended that war. The holiday, first proclaimed as Armistice Day by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 and renamed in 1954 to honor veterans of all wars, has become, in the minds of many Americans, little more than a point between Halloween and Thanksgiving when banks are closed and mail isn't delivered. But there's a good chance that this Veterans Day will prove to be the last with a living American World War I veteran. (Mr. Buckles is one of only three left; the other two were still in basic training in the United States when the war ended.) Ten died in the last year. The youngest of them was 105.
At the end of his documentary "The War," Ken Burns notes that 1,000 World War II veterans are dying every day. Their passing is being observed at all levels of American society; no doubt you have heard a lot about them in recent days. Fortunately, World WarII veterans will be with us for some years yet. There is still time to honor them. But the passing of the last few veterans of the First World War is all but complete, and has gone largely unnoticed here.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Almost from the moment the armistice took effect, the United States has worked hard, it seems, to forget World War I; maybe that's because more than 100,000 Americans never returned from it....
The first few who did come home were given ticker-tape parades, but most returned only to silence and a good bit of indifference.
There was no G.I. Bill of Rights to see that they got a college education or vocational training, a mortgage or small-business loan. There was nothing but what remained of the lives they had left behind a year or two earlier, and the hope that they might eventually be able to return to what President Warren Harding, Wilson's successor, would call "normalcy." Prohibition, isolationism, the stock market bubble and the crisis in farming made that hard; the Great Depression, harder still.
A few years ago, I set out to see if I could find any living American World War I veterans. No one-not the Department of Veterans Affairs, or the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or the American Legion-knew how many there were or where they might be. As far as I could tell, no one much seemed to care, either.
Eventually, I did find some, including Frank Buckles, who was 102 when we first met. Eighty-six years earlier, he'd lied about his age to enlist. TheArmy sent him to England but, itching to be near the action, he managed to get himself sent on to France, though never to the trenches.
After the armistice, he was assigned to guard German prisoners waiting to be repatriated Seeing that he was still just a boy, the prisoners adopted him, taught him their language, gave him food from their Red Cross packages, bits of their uniforms to take home as souvenirs.
In the 1930s, while working for a steamship company, Mr. Buckles visited Germany; it was diffic ult for him to reconcile his fond memories of those old P.0.W.'s with what he saw of life under the Third Reich. The steamship company later sent him to run its office in Manila; he was there in January 1942 when the Japanese occupied the city and took him prisoner. At some point during his 39 months in captivity, he contracted beriberi, which affects his sense of balance even now, almost 63 years after he was liberated by the 11th Airborne Division.
Nevertheless, he carried with aplomb the burden of being the last of his kind. "For a long time, I've felt that there should be more recognition of the surviving veterans of World War I," he tells me; now that group is, more or less, him. How does he feel about that? "Someone has to do it," he says blithely, but adds: "It kind of startles you."
Four years ago, I attended a Veterans Day observance in Orleans, Mass. Near the head of the parade, a 106-year old named J. Laurence Moffitt rode in a Japanese sedan, waving to the small crowd of onlookers and sporting the same helmet he had been wearing in the Argonne Forest at the moment the armistice took effect, 85 years earlier.
I didn't know it then, but that was, in all likelihood, the last small-town American Veterans Day parade to feature a World War I veteran. The years since have seen the passing of one last after another-the last combat-wounded veteran, the last marine, the last African- American, the last Yemanette-until now, we are down to the last of the last.
It's hard for anyone, I imagine, to say for certain what it is that we will lose when Frank Buckles dies. It's not that World War I will then become history; it's been history for a long time now. But it will become a different kind of history, the kind we can't quite touch anymore, the kind that will, from that point on, always be just beyond our grasp somehow. We can't stop that from happening. But we should, at least, take notice of it.
* * * * *As Thanksgiving Day draws near it's an ideal time to offer public thanks where special gratitude is due. First of all may I say "Thank you!" in the name of our parish to those of our parishioners, including some of our altar boys, who "pitched in" on several recent Saturday mornings, to transform dingy walls and ceilings in our school's second floor classrooms and corridors into freshly painted surfaces that are bright and cheerful and welcoming! Some of you have asked why this work was not done sooner. The answer is that earlier this year Catholic Eldercare showed initial interest in converting the interior of our school building into residential apartments. Eldercare later decided not to pursue this proposal after estimating that fifty-five apartments would be needed to make the enterprise viable, a requirement that the 39,000 square feet of our building cannot meet. Had the project gone forward, the required massive internal restructuring would have rendered an extensive re-painting program pointless. Now that the Eldercare project is no longer on the table the repainting now nearing completion on the second floor has made the building much more attractive. So once again to those who contributed their time and effort to this important project: our heartfelt thanks and God Bless You!
* * * * *Thanks are also due to the Deluxe Carpet Company at 1195 East 7th Street, St. Paul, Minnesota, a regular advertiser in our parish bulletin. The Deluxe Carpet Company gave us, free of charge, new internal stuffing for our communion rail kneeling pads. (We have a soon to be remedied problem with one pad because of a jammed zipper). Our public thanks to Phil Unger and his Deluxe Carpet Company!
P.S. One of our parishioners has offered to pay for new external casings for those same kneeling pads. The project will be completed soon.
* * * * *My thanks as well to those of you who have found it possible to increase your weekly offering to help to defray the costs of some needed physical repairs in our church building, repairs centered principally on the church windows.
* * * * *And finally-with more than a little embarrassment on my part-my thanks to all of you who signed the birthday card that you presented to me on the occasion of my seventy-ninth birthday. I set the card aside in what I thought was a safe place so that it wouldn't get lost before I had a chance to write a thank-you note to each of the signatories. My aging mind is not, it would seem, what it used to be. I have looked high and low for the card, and for the life of me I can't remember-nor can I find-where the safe place in which I deposited it is. May I be forgiven for issuing only a generic "thank you" here and now? I'm compelled to confess it's the only solution to the problem I can think of. So to all of you who signed the card, my very humble thanks on this Thanksgiving Day!