The Last of the Doughboys

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Dod photo / Robert D. Ward

The Last Doughboy: Frank Buckles attends a 2008 Pentagon ceremony in his honor.

For those of us of a certain age, there was a certain poignancy watching the last of the nation’s World War I vets – those who went to Europe in 1917-1918 to fight in the “war to end all wars” – slowly die off. Frank Buckles, the last veteran standing, passed away more than two years ago.

Richard Rubin spent the last decade tracking down and talking to these men and women before they left us, and has written their story in The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War. He has posted some of their recollections, and discussed the book in this email chat with Battleland this week.

Why did you write this book?

I’ve always been interested in World War I, and have always felt it’s been largely overlooked and underappreciated in this country. It frustrates me how few of the books that are published on the subject — even in this country — bother to address the subject of America’s role in World War I at all, much less examine it at length.

I wrote this book, in short, because I really wanted to read this book.

I kept waiting for someone else to write it; and when it became apparent that no one else was going to, I did it myself.

Last of the Doughboys

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

What’s the most important thing you learned by researching and writing The Last of the Doughboys?

Before I started this book, I believed, as do a great many Americans, that the United States played a relatively minor role in World War I. And it is true that the U.S. sat out the first two-and-a-half years of that war.

But the threat of four million fresh American doughboys showing up to fight against them in France drove the Germans to gamble on some massive offensives in the spring and summer of 1918, and the failure of those gambles – due in no small part to the American troops who had already arrived to fight in France – mortally wounded the German war machine.

Even so, its dying would have dragged on well into 1919 – possibly pulling England and France down with it – were it not for the massive offensive the American Expeditionary Force launched at Meuse-Argonne in the fall of 1918. I’m not saying America won that war by itself, but it’s indisputable that things would have turned out very differently had America not joined the fight.

The other big important thing that I learned in the course of researching and writing the book was that World War I created the America we recognize – and live in – today.

Before it, America was a regional power; that war made us a global power. But that’s just the most obvious manifestation. Every facet of life at home was changed by the war, too, most of it permanently.  Just about everything you think of, from civil rights and gender equality to agricultural policy and modern population trends, can be traced back to World War I.

I learned that, to a great extent, from talking to the people who lived through those transformations, and often helped drive them.

Why did it take a decade?

For one thing, I never learned how to type. More significant, though, I understood two things going into this project: that the subject was a very important one; and that I am not a military historian – nor even, really, any kind of historian.

So I wanted to make sure I got it all right, and that takes time. There was a tremendous amount of information to assimilate and organize; I probably read around 200 books, most of them very old and long out-of-print, and an innumerable number of documents, pamphlets, booklets, and leaflets.

And then there was the fact that, in this case, I had to work backwards: as a journalist, I usually do research on the subject first and then go do interviews; but since I started my search for living American veterans of the First World War some 85 years after the armistice, I didn’t have that luxury.

So the first few years were spent almost entirely searching for veterans, getting to them, and recording their stories. Only when that was done could I start the process of making sense and order of it all.

What was the biggest challenge in doing the book?

Each stage had its own challenges.

The biggest challenge of the first stage was just to find these men and women. Really, compared to that, interviewing them was easy, even though they ranged in age from 101 to 113.

The biggest challenge of the next stage – research – was to find independent verification of everything of significance that these very old men and women had to say; that was there those 200 or so old books came in, and often there were discrepancies that had to be reconciled.

The biggest challenge of the writing process was to take all those disparate memories, anecdotes and impressions, sort through them, and assemble them into a narrative about America and World War I that would be comprehensive, coherent and meaningful to people who might not know anything about the subject beforehand. It was a matter of literary engineering, an entirely new challenge for me.

How clear were their memories?

Surprisingly clear.

J. Laurence Moffitt, one of the first veterans I interviewed back in 2003 – and certainly one of the most remarkable people in a group of truly remarkable people – told me on one occasion, when I asked him what it was like to remember things that he had seen and done 85 years earlier, that his memories of 1918 were no different to him than my memories of 1993 were to me.

I assumed, going into this, that the older the memory, the fainter it would be; but as I learned in the process of doing this book, memory is often a matter of first-in, last-out.

So, many of these men could recall much more clearly the morning of November 11, 1918, than they could the morning before I’d met them.

Now, certainly, some of the men and women I interviewed had spotty memories; and there were a few whose memories were almost gone. But surprisingly few. It was more often the case that their very old memories were astonishingly sharp and detailed.

I was very fortunate in that regard – much moreso than I had a right to expect at the outset.

What don’t Americans know about the young men who fought World War I?

They probably don’t know how short they were; I think the average height of the men I interviewed, as listed on their discharge papers, was 5’5”.

They probably don’t how how modern they were in many ways: they cursed like we do, smoked and drank (though the latter was officially prohibited), availed themselves liberally of French bordellos despite warnings – often resigned or half-hearted – to stay away from them. (And just in case, they were issued prophylactics in an attempt to prevent the spread of what were then called “social diseases.”)

They probably don’t know how many of them were immigrants, and that the Army and the War Department went to great lengths to make such immigrants feel comfortable, and welcome, and valued in the American Expeditionary Forces – commissioning chaplains of many faiths, providing literature in many languages and lots of different ethnic foods, commissioning foreign-born officers. (Unfortunately, the Army and the War Department were much less accommodating – to say the least – of the 350,000 or so African American men who served in the AEF.)

Most important, they probably don’t know what a shocking and transformative experience the war was for so many men: born into homes without electricity or running water or automobiles, growing up under the expectation that they would never in their lives travel outside the county in which they’d been born. World War I really did introduce much of the world to America, and vice versa.

How, if at all, do you think they differ from the young men and women fighting our post-9/11 wars?

I wouldn’t presume to speculate on their comparative characters; I’ve never had the honor of serving in the military, but I imagine that to a great extent soldiers are soldiers, regardless of when and where they serve.

I do suspect, though, that the fact that today’s military is an all-volunteer institution does make a big difference.

A very large percentage of the soldiers in the American Expeditionary Forces – perhaps a majority – were draftees. There was a tremendous amount of diversity in the AEF – not racial (it was thoroughly segregated), but ethnic, and religious, and socio-economic. (To be fair, there was a great deal of diversity even among those who volunteered; the country really was swept up in patriotic fervor in 1917 and 1918.)

In the all-volunteer military we have today, people often enlist out of economic necessity, while those who have a head start in life often stay out of the military – also out of economic necessity, since they can earn much more in civilian life. This seems to have created a society in which one class is largely doing the fighting for the rest of us, and this in turn helps create a broad divide between “us” and “them.”

Where there’s universal service, there is no “them” – only us.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the modern civil rights movement arrived on the heels of President Truman’s desegregation of the Army in 1948.

Were you able to glean from the World War I vets you spoke to their consensus view of the nation’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? If so, what was it?

I didn’t ask everyone, but I did ask some of them – mostly about Iraq, which seemed to loom much larger in our national consciousness at the time (2003-2008) than Afghanistan. Their opinions were split about the same as the population at large – some for, some against. It was impossible to predict where their feelings on the matter might fall, too, which made it very interesting for me.

Theirs was the “war to end all wars.” Did they express any disappointment that didn’t turn out to be the case?

Some did, but most expressed a sort of resigned acceptance of the world and human nature. If you’ve seen as many wars as they did in their long lives, you must start to get the sense that no war could ever really end all wars.

How did they feel their government treated them post-war?

The men I interviewed never indicated that they harbored any sense of resentment or anger about the way the government treated them post-war; but then again, they wouldn’t have, really. As I mentioned earlier, these were men who grew up in homes without electricity or automobiles or, often, running water. Many of them lost siblings in childhood. An astonishing number lost their fathers – to illness or farm accidents, things like that – before their 10th birthdays.

I think they grew up expecting life would be hard, and when that expectation was met, well, that’s just the way things were. Everyone had it tough; it wasn’t in their nature to complain. What would be the point?

They would have had a fair amount to complain about, though, if they had been so inclined. There was no safety net in place for them, financial or otherwise. A great many came back to find their businesses shuttered or bankrupt, their farms gone to ruin, their savings consumed by family who had lost their chief provider for a year or two; but there was no GI Bill of Rights for them.

That wouldn’t exist until 1944, when they made it happen, so their children who were off fighting the Second World War wouldn’t have it so hard when they came home.

And of course, there was no understanding of what we now call PTSD; traumatized soldiers suffered alone, feeling ashamed and ostracized. I can’t tell you how many World War I narratives I’ve encountered that end with the suicide of the hero. Even Charles Whittlesey, the almost unthinkably courageous commander of the Lost Battalion – a winner of the congressional Medal of Honor – killed himself in 1921.

The newly-established Veterans Bureau, which was supposed to help these men, was run by a corrupt crony of President Warren Harding’s named Charles Forbes, who plundered its coffers mercilessly. Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, who had never served himself, refused to do anything to help the veterans, declaring “patriotism that is bought and paid for is not patriotism.” It got so bad during the Depression that veterans converged upon Washington in the summer of 1932 to demand some relief, in a famous episode now remembered as “The Bonus Army.” They were driven out with bayonets and gas by troops under the command of Douglas MacArthur.

One of the three women I interviewed for the book, 107-year-old Hildegarde Schan, worked for the War Department in Washington during the war, and afterward for the Veterans Bureau in Manhattan. She talked about the handsome young amputees coming in to the Bureau to collect their meager monthly benefit – from War Risk Insurance, which was optional – and being turned away because they’d already gotten it as an advance the previous month. She told me she cried and cried for them, and almost starting crying again as she recounted it nearly nine decades later.

Richard Rubin

S. E. Brown

Richard Rubin

How did they feel their fellow citizens treated them post-war ?

Again, it wasn’t in the nature of the men I interviewed to complain. Perhaps that’s a function of their generation, or perhaps it’s just a function of their personalities; it seems to me that someone who holds on to a lot of bitterness doesn’t stand a fair chance of making it to 107. So none of them had anything critical to say of the reception they received back home. They talked of the parades – those who got parades, that is; many, especially those who were not among the first troops to return, got nothing – and then they moved on with their lives, and didn’t dwell on it any further.

That said, if you read some of the literature that came out of that war – like Company K by William March, or I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang by Robert E. Burns, both veterans – you can certainly see some bitterness toward some of their fellow-citizens back home, in particular those who make a point of conspicuously, histrionically heaping praise upon the returning heroes while declining to give them a job, or approve them for a farm loan.

Burns refers to them as “fountain-pen soldiers.”

Is it really fair to suggest they were forgotten?

Unfortunately, it is.

Before the book came out, I would have simply directed you to the history section of any big-box bookstore, where you will find cases and cases of books about the Civil War, and cases and cases of books about World War II – and, sandwiched in between them, maybe a single shelf of books about World War I; and most of those are British.

But now, I’ll just tell you this: I give a lot of talks on the subject these days, and typically, afterward, someone will come up to me and tell me they had someone in their family – a grandfather or great-grandfather or great-uncle, so no one too distant – who fought in the First World War, yet they never realized as much until this book piqued their interest in the subject and they started looking into it.

And sometimes, someone will come up and tell me that they never realized, until just now, that America even fought in World War I. The war has been over for less than a century; its last American veteran has been gone for just two years. How much more forgotten can you get?

These men and women, who spent the last 60, 70 years of their lives in obscurity, lived long enough to see the veterans of the next war universally celebrated as “The Greatest Generation.” They could have stood up, cleared their throats, and said “Hey! We’re still here! Yes, the people you call the ‘Greatest Generation’ grew up during the Great Depression and then went off and won a world war – but who do you think raised them?  Who kept them fed, and clothed, and sheltered during that Depression?  And we won a world war, too!”

Yet they didn’t say that, or anything at all.

They were happy for their children, the so-called “Greatest Generation,” to get some recognition. And, as I’ve said, it wasn’t in their nature to complain, to attract attention to themselves.

But now that they’re all gone, I think we owe it to them to recognize them and give them their due, rather than allow them to remain, as I call them, “The Forgotten Generation.”