During World War I, one main problem for the Allies was the Germans’ ability to listen in on their telephone lines and to break their codes, which were generally based on either European languages or mathematical progressions. An apocryphal story spread around that a German once interrupted a U.S. Signal Corps member sending a message to taunt his use of code words. Sending out human runners proved equally ineffective since about one in four were captured or killed. And other methods of communications, such as color-coded rockets, electronic buzzers, and carrier pigeons, were too limiting, too slow, too unreliable or a combination thereof.
German intelligence monitoring Allied radios and telephone messages resulted in many lost battles and very heavy casualties. Concerned they war may be lost to the Germans, Allied commanding generals were constantly pushing their signal people to find a solution. Some progress was made but not enough to stop everyday losses.
But it wasn’t until early 1918 that a solution was stumbled upon by chance.
When Col. A. W. Bloor, U.S. Army, noticed a number of American Indians serving with him in the 142nd Infantry in France. Overhearing two Choctaw Native Americans speaking with each another in their native language, he realized he could not understand them. He also realized that if he could not understand them, the same would be true for Germans, no matter how good their English skills. Besides, many Native American languages have never been written down. With the active cooperation of his Choctaw soldiers, he tested and deployed a code, using the Choctaw language in place of regular military code.
The first combat test took place on October 26, 1918, when Col. Bloor ordered a “delicate” withdrawal of two companies of the 2nd Battalion, from Chufilly to Chardeny. Using a field telephone, the code talkers delivered a message in their native tongue which their colleagues on the other end quickly translated back into English. “The enemy’s complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages,” Bloor observed. A captured German officer confirmed they were “completely confused by the Native America language and gained no benefit whatsoever” from their wiretaps. Thus began the Choctaw “code talkers.”
The Choctaw soldiers were incredibly gracious and willing to share their own language. They didn’t have to but they did. They had something unique and were incredibly proud of that.
Two American Native officers were selected to supervise a communications system staffed by 19 Choctaw code talkers.
The team transmitted messages relating to troop movements and their own tactical plans in their native tongue. Lacking the words for certain modern-day military terms, they used “big gun” for artillery, “little gun shoot fast” for machine gun, “stone” for grenade and “scalps” for casualties, among other substitutions, thereby becoming true code talkers rather than simply communications operators speaking a little-known language.
Soldiers from other tribes, including the Cheyenne, Comanche, Cherokee, Osage and Yankton Sioux also were enlisted to communicate as code talkers. Previous to their arrival in France, the Germans had broken every American code used but the Germans never broke the Native America’s “code.”
Ironically, the Choctaw language was under pressure back in America. It was a time of cultural assimilation. Government attempts to ‘civilize’ American Indians involved putting their children in state-run boarding schools, where they were often severely punished for speaking in their native tongue. On the battlefields of France, the Native American language was the much-needed answer to a very big problem.
Like other tribes, the Choctaw’s whole way of life was under threat. Little more than a generation before, they had been forcibly removed from their ancestral land. Under the 1830 Indian Removal Act, they were marched from areas around Mississippi to what is now Oklahoma. It is known as the ‘Trail of Tears.’ It is estimated 12,000 Choctaw moved where 2,500 died of hunger, disease, and exhaustion.
In the autumn of 1918, U.S. troops were involved in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front. Within hours, eight Choctaw speakers had been dispatched to strategic positions. They were instrumental in helping U.S. troops win several key battles. Even if the Germans were listening, they couldn’t understand. It was also the quickest way of coding and decoding information, faster than any machine, giving U.S. troops a crucial edge over the enemy.
Among the soldiers of the Choctaw nation was Pvt. Joseph Oklahombi, the most-decorated from Oklahoma. He served in Company D, First World War I soldier Battalion, 141st Regiment, Seventy-first Brigade of the Thirty-sixth Infantry Division during World War I, where he was one of the Choctaw “code talkers.”
On October 8, 1918, Oklahombi was at St. Etienne, France. According to some reports, he and 23 other soldiers attacked an enemy position and captured 171 Germans while killing some 79 more. They held their position for four days while under attack. Oklahombi was awarded the Silver Star with Victory Ribbon, and the Croix de Guerre from France’s Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain. At the time the members of the Choctaw nation were not formally U.S. citizens.
Oklahombi was married and had a son. He was killed on April 13, 1960, when hit by a truck while walking along a road. He was buried with military honors at Yashau Cemetery in Broken Bow, Oklahoma.
All of the telephone squad returned home to their families. For decades, their role in code talking was barely known outside the tribe and their efforts went unrecognized. In some cases, their own wives and families knew very little.
Native Americans did not receive nationwide citizenship until 1924, yet the Choctaws were both patriotic and valiant, with a desire to serve in the war effort. Many Choctaw code talkers were instrumental in ending the war. Choctaw and other Tribal Nation served with distinction using Native languages in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
In 1989 the French Government bestowed the Chevalier de L’Ordre National du Merite (Knight of the Order of National Merit) posthumously to the Choctaw code talkers of WWI and the Comanche and Navajo code talkers of WWII.
But it was only in 2008 that the Code Talkers Recognition Act was passed in the U.S. Senate recognizing the hundreds of overlooked code talkers from different tribes, including the Choctaw. Each tribal government received Congressional Gold Medals, America’s highest civilian honor. They were inscribed with a unique design to represent their tribe. The families of each code talker received a silver version of the gold medal.
At the ceremony, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said: “In this nation’s hour of greatest need, Native American languages proved to have great value indeed. The United States Government turned to a people and a language they had tried to eradicate.”
Among these brave warriors were the famed Wind Talkers of the Navajo Tribe in World War II, who were deserving of the Gold Medal they received from Congress in the year 2000.
The legislation was passed in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to award the Choctaw, Comanche and other Indian soldiers who were Code Talkers a Gold Medal. Support and co-sponsorship were requested of all of the Congress. The law was signed in 2008 by the President. “Honoring Native American code talkers is long overdue,” the bill admitted.
Pursuant to the legislation, a medal ceremony took place in November 2013 in Washington, D.C., with 33 tribes known to have had code-talking members in attendance.
It was a bittersweet moment. None of the original code talkers alive from the Choctaw nation to see this moment and none of their children were alive. But it was also an incredible moment. Those men deserved to be honored.
On December 6-8, 1915, the Allies met in France for the Second Chantilly Conference, which would lay the groundwork for World War I’s Battle of the Somme, a four and a half month-long battle in France that would prove to be one of the war’s bloodiest.
At the Second Chantilly Conference, held in early December 1915, the Allies agreed to coordinate simultaneous offensives to exhaust German resources and manpower. As part of this, the British and French agreed to a joint French-led offensive on the Somme River for the summer of 1916. But the Germans attacked the French at Verdun in February, forcing the British to shoulder the bulk of the planned Somme offensive, which developed the subsidiary purpose of relieving pressure on the French at Verdun.
The Somme offensive, stretching along a front 25 miles long, began with artillery barrages on June 24h that lasted a week. The plan was to so overwhelm the Germans with the bombardment that the infantry would have a relatively easy time. However, the bombardment was largely ineffective, which meant that when the infantry climbed out of the trenches on July 1 and crossed into No Man’s Land, they were cut down by German machine guns and artillery. It was the single bloodiest day in British army history, with nearly 60,000 British casualties, a third of them killed.
While there was some success in breaking through the German front line along the southern part of the front on that first day of the battle, there was no real progress along the majority of the line. The Battle of the Somme would last for 4 1/2 months, with periods of renewed fighting. One of the most notable of these was the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, the first time tanks were used in battle.
By the time the Battle of the Somme finally ended in November with inconclusive results, both sides had sustained high casualties, with more than a million total killed, wounded, captured, or missing, making it one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
By LtCol Mike Christy, TogetherWeServed Dispatches
The American Ace of Aces, Eddie Rickenbacker, was a successful race car driver, fighter pilot, an airline executive, wartime advisor, and elder statesman. Few aces achieved so much in so many different lifetime roles.
His twenty-six aerial victories came after only two months of combat flying, a spectacular achievement.
His family name was originally spelled “Reichenbacher,” anglicized to its more familiar form when the U.S. entered World War One. His father died when Eddie was twelve, and the youngster quit school to help support his mother. He found a job with the Frayer Miller Air-cooled Car Company, one of the thousands of automobile companies that emerged in the early 1900’s.
From his job road-testing cars for Frayer-Miller, he made his way into automobile racing, racing for Fred Duesenberg, among others. He raced three times in the Indianapolis 500 and set a speed record of 134 MPH in a Blitzen Benz.
He became one of the most successful race car drivers of the era, earning $40,000 per year (a great sum at that time).
When the United States entered the war, Rickenbacker proposed a flying squadron staffed by race car drivers. The Army didn’t accept his suggestion, but did accept his personal services; he became a driver for the Army General Staff (but not chauffeur to General John “Black Jack” Pershing as frequently claimed). Once in France, he hoped to transfer into aviation.
Rickenbacker got a break one day when he had a chance to fix a motorcar carrying Colonel Billy Mitchell, then chief of the Army’s Air Service. He made his interests known to Mitchell, and Rickenbacker, then at the advanced age of twenty-seven, entered pilot training. Because of his mechanical skills, he was first made engineering officer at the Issoudun aerodrome, but he flew whenever he could.
In March 1918, he was assigned to the newly formed 94th Pursuit Squadron, which included: James Norman Hall (of the Lafayette Escadrille), Hamilton Coolidge, James Meissner, Reed Chambers, and Harvey Cook. But no airplanes! Once they secured some cast-off Nieuports, they moved up to the front.
Before April 3, 1918, only the 94th, commanded by Major John Huffer, (one of the old Lafayette flyers), and Captain James Miller’s squadron, the 95th, were at the front. Both squadrons had been at Villeneuve and together had moved to Epiez. None of the pilots of either squadron had been able to do any fighting, owing to the lack of airplane guns. In fact, the pilots of Squadron 95 had not yet been instructed in the use of airplane guns. The 94 Squadron pilots, however, had been diverted to the Aerial Gunnery School at Cazeau for a month early in the year and were ready to try their luck in actual combat fighting over the lines. But they had no guns on their machines before April 3. Then suddenly guns arrived! All sorts of wonderful new equipment began pouring in. Instruments for the airplanes, suits of warm clothing for the pilots, extra spares for the machines. Shortly, they moved up to an aerodrome at Toul. Here, they unpacked, organized the squadron, and selected the famous “Hat-in-the-Ring” insignia.
On the 6th, Maj. Raoul Lufbery selected “Rick” and Douglas Campbell for the squadron’s first flight over German lines. As he eyed the trenches and desolation of war from 15,000 feet up, suddenly “Archy,” German anti-aircraft fire opened up. Carefully shepherded by Lufbery, it was an uneventful flight, but back on the ground, the experienced Lufbery chided the two novices for failing to notice other planes that he had seen. And for a good measure, he casually poked his fingers into several shrapnel holes in Rickenbacker’s Nieuport.
On the 14th, a patrol of Rickenbacker, Capt. Peterson and Lieutenant Reed Chambers was ordered to fly from Pont-a-Mousson to St. Mihiel at 16,000 feet. Lieutenants Douglas Campbell and Alan Winslow were directed to stand by on the alert at the hangar from six o’clock until ten the same morning. Rickenbacker’s patrol got separated in fog and didn’t accomplish too much, but as they returned, the “alert” pilots, Campbell and Winslow, intercepted two Boche airplanes and sent them both down. The newspapers made a huge fuss over the first “American” victories of the war.
For ten weeks Rickenbacker flew strafing missions and fruitless sorties before shooting down his first enemy plane. One day he encountered a Spad with French markings that almost shot him down, a lesson well-learned. He made several mistakes in this early period: getting lost, mistaking friends for foes, falling into German aerial ambushes, etc. He later reflected that these early disappointments and lessons gave him enormous benefits in his subsequent flying.
April 29th was a wet day; he and Capt. James Norman Hall had the afternoon alert. At five o’clock Capt. Hall received a telephone call from the French headquarters at Beaumont stating that an enemy two-seater machine had just crossed the lines, flying south.
Hall and Rickenbacker had been on the field with their flying clothes on and their machines ready. They jumped into their seats and the mechanics twirled the propellers. Just then the telephone sergeant told Capt. Hall to wait for the Major, who would be on the field in two minutes. “Rick” scanned the northern heavens and spotted a tiny speck against the clouds above the ForÃªt de la Reine; it was the enemy plane. The Major was not yet in sight. Their motors were smoothly turning over and everything was ready.
Deciding not to wait for the Major, Capt. Hall ordered the blocks pulled away from the wheels. His motor roared as he opened up his throttle and in a twinkling, both machines ran rapidly over the field. Side by side they arose and climbing swiftly soared after the distant Boche. In five minutes they were above the observation balloon line which stretched along two miles behind the front. Rickenbacker could still distinguish their unsuspecting quarry off toward Pont-a-Mousson. He briefly left Hall to pursue a French three-seater, but recognized the ally before firing, and rejoined Capt. Hall.
Hall led them up the sun, gaining an advantageous position over the new Pfalz fighter that he had spotted. Coordinating skillfully, Rickenbacker cut off the German’s retreat while Hall dived at him, from out of the sun. As the German tried to escape eastward, Rickenbacker opened his throttle and was on him. At 150 yards he pressed the triggers. The tracer bullets cut a streak of living fire into the Pfalz’s tail. Raising the nose of his airplane slightly the fiery streak gradually settled into the pilot’s seat. The Pfalz swerved, out of control. At 2000 feet, Rickenbacker pulled up and watched the enemy machine continuing on its course. Curving slightly to the left the Pfalz circled and crashed at the edge of the woods a mile inside the German lines.
Lt. Eddie Rickenbacker had brought down his first enemy airplane without taking a single shot! He and Hall did aerobatics all the way back to their field, where they received the hearty congratulations of their mates, on the squadron’s third victory.
While April’s rainy weather inhibited flying, the 94th saw more action in May 1918. On the 2nd, James Meissner outmaneuvered an Albatross, sent it into a spin, and dived after it. Firing until the German plane spouted flames, Meissner didn’t immediately notice the fabric peeling off his left upper wing. With careful flying, he made it back the 94th, with the squadron’s fourth victory confirmed by a French observation post. That same day, the 94th suffered its first casualty when Charley Chapman’s Nieuport was flamed by a two-seater. On the 7th, while dogfighting four Germans with Rickenbacker and Green, the wing of Hall’s Nieuport stripped; he crash-landed and was captured. Rickenbacker replaced Hall as commander of the squadron’s Number 1 Flight.
Rickenbacker scored his second victory while flying with Reed Chambers. On the morning of the 17th, he and Chambers took off before dawn in an effort to catch some German planes unawares. After fruitless circling at 18,000 feet, Rickenbacker headed for the German stronghold of Metz, losing Chambers in the process. Finding no Hun air activity over Metz, he then flew over an airdrome at Thiaucourt, where he noticed three Albatrosses taking off. He eased down lower, unnoticed by the enemy airplanes until “Archy” gave him away. Diving at 200 MPH, he fired a long ten-second burst, until, at 50 yards, the Albatros pilot was hit. When Rickenbacker pulled out of his dive, the Nieuport cracked and the upper wing covering came off. He spun down, apparently a certain casualty, but managed to re-start his engine and pull out at about 2,000 feet. He landed safely and even had his victory confirmed. On May 30, 1918, Rickenbacker claimed two German airplanes, to become an ace. Once again, Jimmy Meissner lost the upper wing of his Nieuport. By then, the American pilots were anxious to discard the Nieuports, for the heavier, stronger Spads, as the French had already done.
Rickenbacker continued to prowl the skies, looking for victories and learning more. On the 4th of June, he cornered a Rumpler, two-seater observation plane with the number ’16’ painted on its fuselage. His gun promptly jammed, and number ’16’ escaped. The next day, flying Lt. Smyth’s plane while the guns in his plane were being repaired, he chanced upon Rumpler number ’16’ again! This time the Rumpler pilot evaded by zooming upward and giving Rickenbacker a taste of its floor-mounted machine gun. Its skillful pilot kept him at bay for over half an hour, working his way back over German lines. “Rick” regretfully turned home, and his engine froze up; he had exhausted its oil supply in his two-and-a-half hours of combat flying. Once again, he squeaked through to a safe landing. For the next two days, he stalked the predictable number ’16’ which easily evaded him by seeking higher altitudes, even when he used the Nieuport in the squadron reputed to have the highest ceiling. Some wags suggested that he could gain some extra altitude by leaving his guns behind, or perhaps even more by omitting that heavy fuel!
After this useless exercise, he took a leave in Paris. He didn’t fly much in June, due to a persistent ear infection. But late in the month, he did participate in an early American effort to emulate the largely organized formations of fighters that the Germans used so effectively. The three U.S. squadrons got hopelessly mixed up. Early one morning he, Reed Chambers, Jimmy Meissner, Thorn Taylor, and Lt. Loomis organized an early morning attack on German observation balloons, Drachen, which was depressingly unsuccessful. On June 27, all four of the U.S. Pursuit Squadrons in France (the 94th, 95th, 27th, and 147th) moved from the Toul to Chateau-Thierry sector, to “an old French aerodrome at Touquin, a small and miserable village some twenty-five miles south of Chateau-Thierry and the Marne River.”
July was not much better; little flying a no victories. He was briefly hospitalized with pneumonia and then visited Paris on the 4th of July. He dropped in at the U.S. supply depot at Orly, found some new Spads there, and flew a “borrowed” one back to the 94th.
By August 8, the 94th received newer, faster Spads to replace their Nieuports, promising even greater results. But Rickenbacker’s ear infection grounded him for much of August, as well.
On that day, He went up with 11 Spads of the 94th, escorting a pair of French two-seater photo planes over Vailly. When two small groups of Fokkers attacked, the 94th pilots successfully protected the photo planes. Rickenbacker and Chambers both believed they had downed Fokker, but their claims were unconfirmed, as the combat took place well over German lines. On a similar mission on the 10th, when escorting some Salmson photo machines over the Vesle and Aisne rivers, they met some Fokker D.VII’s, but all Rickenbacker got was three bullet holes in the fuselage of his Spad. He spent late August in the hospital, returning on Sept. 3rd, when the 94th Squadron moved back to the Verdun sector, to a little town named Erize-la-Petite.
During the month of September, he scored four more victories and rose to command the 94th Squadron.
He assumed command on Sept 24; the first thing he did was check the operations records and he found that the 27th Squadron was leading the 94th in victories, largely due to Frank Luke’s balloon-busting spree. By the end of the month, the 94th had recaptured the lead.
While flying over Etain on the 25th, Rickenbacker picked up a pair of L.V.G. two-seater machines, escorted by four Fokkers. He climbed into the sun unnoticed, got well in their rear, and made a beeline for the nearest Fokker. With one long burst, he sent it down. The other Fokkers scattered, and he took the opportunity to make a pass at the LVG’s. After several maneuvers, he flamed one of those, too.
Sept. 26, 1918, was a big day. Forty thousand American doughboys were going over the top, in an offensive from the Meuse River to the Argonne forest. In support of this, the 94th Pursuit Squadron was charged with destroying German observation balloons. He and five of the 94th’s best pilots, Lieutenants Cook, Chambers, Taylor, Coolidge, and Palmer; gathered for an early breakfast, and went over their plans. Two balloons assigned to the 94th, and three pilots were delegated to each balloon. Both lay along the Meuse between Brabant and Dun. They eluded the Archy fire to bring down both balloons, and “Rick” downed a Fokker
As commander of the 94th, nicknamed the “Hat in the Ring” Squadron, he displayed the managerial skills that served him so well in later endeavors. He drove his men hard and demanded results. They rose early for calisthenics; inspections were frequent and detailed; waste was not permitted. Rickenbacker insisted:
“Every plane must be ready to take-off any moment, day or night, guns loaded, gassed, engine tuned. If all was not correct, the war could be lost”.
He also spent as much time as possible leading patrols in the air, delegating operational issues to different officers. Billy Mitchell was delighted at his protege’s success. His reports glowed with both Rickenbacker’s aerial and organizational successes.
He and Reed Chambers shared a victory over a Hanover recon plane on October 2nd, this on a day when they were flying low-level ground-support patrols. Within a few minutes of this action, a flight of Fokkers appeared, chasing Rickenbacker down toward the ground. Reed Chambers and other Spads arrived in the nick of time, and the whole circus was soon climbing to gain the shelter of some low-hanging clouds. Recovering from his dive, Rickenbacker and Chambers sought a place between the Fokkers and their lines where they might be expected to issue out and make for home. They caught them and promptly sent two of them crashing inside the American lines. All three of their victories were promptly confirmed.
Twelve years after the war ended, he was belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor for his accomplishments.
In the early 1920’s, he secured backing for a new automobile company under his name. It was a well-designed, even advanced, car featuring four wheel brakes, but offered at the wrong time. Soon, his new company was bankrupt.
Starting in the early 1930’s, he owned or managed various commercial airlines, notably Eastern Airlines, which had its roots as a division of General Motors. He became General Manager of Eastern in 1933, and in 1938, with a group of investors, he bought it and became its President. Starting with an aggressively low bid ($0!) for a government airmail contract, he managed the company profitably for twenty years.
During WWII, he carried out special assignments for Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War. In October 1942, flying in a B-17 over the Pacific, on such a mission for Douglas MacArthur, the plane went down in the Pacific. In a horrifying ordeal, Rickenbacker and seven other men, rode a raft for twenty-two days before they were rescued. One man died; Rickenbacker, the oldest man in the raft, lost 54 pounds.
He became a spokesman and advocate for conservative causes, convinced that government “socialist” programs were ruining the country. He died on July 23, 1973 (aged 82) in Zurich, Switzerland.
By LtCol Mike Christy-Together We Served Dispatches
Alvin Cullum York was one of the most decorated United States Army soldiers of World War I. He received the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine gun nests, killing at least 25 enemy soldiers, and capturing 132 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He was also a conscientious objector.
York was born on December 13, 1887 to William and Mary York of Pall Mall, Tennessee and raised in a two-room log cabin in a rural backwater in the northern section of Fentress County. He was the third oldest of a family of eleven children. Like many families in the county, the York family eked out a hardscrabble existence of subsistence farming supplemented by hunting. York’s father, also acted as a part time blacksmith to provide some extra income for the family.
In the wake of his father’s death in 1911, York, as the eldest still living in the area, was forced to aid his mother in raising his younger siblings. To support the family, he began working in railroad constructions and as a logger in Harriman, Tennessee.
As York came of age he earned a reputation as a deadly accurate marksman and a hell raiser. Drinking and gambling in borderline bars, York was generally considered a nuisance and someone who “would never amount to anything.” That reputation underwent a serious overhaul when York experienced a religious conversion in 1914. In that year two significant events occurred: his best friend, Everett Delk, was beaten to death in a bar fight in Static, Kentucky; and he attended a revival conducted by H.H. Russell of the Church of Christ in Christian Union. Delk’s senseless death convinced York that he needed to change his ways or suffer a fate similar to his fallen comrade, which prompted him to attend prayer meetings.
A strict fundamentalist sect with a following limited to three states – Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee – the Church of Christ in Christian Union embraced a strict moral code which forbade drinking, dancing, movies, swimming, swearing, popular literature, and moral injunctions against violence and war. Though raised Methodist, York joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union and in the process convinced one of his best friends, Rosier Pile, to join as well. Blessed with a melodious singing voice, York became the song leader and a Sunday school teacher at the local church. Rosier Pile went on to become the church’s pastor. The church also brought York in contact with the girl who would become his wife, Gracie Williams.
By most accounts, York’s conversion was sincere and complete. He quit drinking, gambling, and fighting. When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, York’s new found faith would be tested. He received his draft notice from his friend, the postmaster and pastor, Rosier Pile, on June 5, 1917, just six months prior to his thirtieth birthday. Because of the Church of Christ in Christian Union’s proscriptions against war, Pile encouraged York to seek conscientious objector status. York wrote on his draft card: “Don’t want to fight.” When his case came up for review it was denied at both the local and the state level because the Church of Christ in Christian Union was not recognized as a legitimate Christian sect.
York was assigned to Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment 82nd Infantry Division known as “The All American Division” and posted to Camp Gordon in Georgia. The 82nd lives today as the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division.
York proved his skill as a crack shot but was seen as an oddity because he did not wish to fight. This led him to have extensive conversations with his company commander, Capt. Edward C.B. Danforth, and his battalion commander, Maj. G. Edward Buxton, relating to the Biblical justification for war. A devout Christian, Buxton cited a variety of Biblical sources to counter his subordinate’s concerns.
Challenging York’s pacifist stance, the two officers were able to convince the reluctant soldier that war could be justified. Following a ten-day leave to visit home, York returned with a firm belief that God meant for him to fight.
Traveling to Boston, York’s unit sailed for Le Havre, France in May 1918 and arrived later that month after a stop in Britain. Reaching the Continent, York’s division spent time along the Somme as well as at Toul, Lagney, and Marbache where it underwent a variety of training to prepare it for combat operations along the Western Front. Promoted to corporal, York took part in the St. Mihiel offensive that September as the 82nd sought to protect the U.S First Army’s right flank. With the successful conclusion of fighting in that sector, the 82nd was shifted north to take part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a battle that cost 28,000 German lives and 26,277 American lives, making it the largest and bloodiest operation of World War I for the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).
Entering the fighting on October 7 as it relieved units of the 28th Infantry Division, York’s unit received orders that night to advance the next morning to take Hill 223 and press on to sever the Decauville Railroad north of Chatel-Chehery. Advancing around 6 am the next morning, the Americans succeeded in taking the hill.
Moving forward from the hill, York’s unit was forced to attack through a triangular valley and quickly came under German machine gun fire on several sides from the adjacent hills. This stalled the attack as the Americans began taking heavy casualties. In an effort to eliminate the machine guns, 17 men led by Sgt. Bernard Early, including York, were ordered to work around into the German rear. Taking advantage of the brush and hilly nature of the terrain, these troops succeeded in slipping behind the German lines and advanced up one of the hills opposite the American advance.
In doing so, they overran and captured a German headquarters area and secured a large number of prisoners including a major. While Early’s men began securing the prisoners, the German machine gunners up the slope turned several of their guns and opened fire on the Americans. This killed six and wounded three, including Sgt. Early, leaving York in command of the remaining seven men. With his men behind cover guarding the prisoners, York moved to deal with the machine guns. Beginning in a prone position, he utilized the shooting skills he had honed as a boy.
Picking off the German gunners, York was able to move to a standing position as he evaded enemy fire. During the course of the fight, six German soldiers emerged from their trenches and charged at York with bayonets. Running low on rifle ammunition, he drew his pistol and dropped all six before they reached him. Switching back to his rifle, he returned to sniping at the German machine guns. Believing he had killed around 20 Germans, and not wishing to kill more than necessary, he began calling for them to them to surrender.
This resulted in German First Lieutenant Paul Jurgen Vollmer – a highly decorated officer who had recently assumed command of the 120th Wurttemberg Landwehr Regiment’s 1st Battalion – emptying his pistol trying to kill York while he was contending with the machine guns. Failing to injure York, and seeing his mounting losses, he offered in English to surrender the unit to York, who accepted. Rounding up the prisoners in the immediate area, York and his men had captured around 100 Germans. With Vollmer’s assistance, York began moving the men back towards the American lines. In the process, another thirty Germans were captured. Advancing through artillery fire, York succeeded in delivering 132 prisoners to his battalion headquarters. This done, he and his men rejoined their unit and fought through to the Decauville Railroad. In the course of the fight, 28 Germans were killed and 35 machine guns captured. York’s actions clearing the machine guns reinvigorated the 328th’s assault and the regiment advanced to secure a position on the Decauville Railroad.
Upon returning to his unit, York reported to his Brigade Commander, Gen. Julian R. Lindsey, who remarked “Well York, I hear you have captured the whole damn German army.” York replied “No sir. I got only 132.”
For his achievements, York was promoted to sergeant and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Remaining with his unit for the final weeks of the war, his decoration was upgraded to the Medal of Honor which he received on April 18, 1919. The award was presented to York by American Expeditionary Forces commander. In addition to the Medal of Honor, York received the French Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor, as well as the Italian Croce al Merito di Guerra. When given his French decorations by Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the supreme allied commander commented, “What you did was the greatest thing ever accomplished by any soldier by any of the armies of Europe.” Arriving back in the United States in late May, York was hailed as a hero and received a ticker tape parade in New York City.
That York deserves credit for his heroism is without question. Unfortunately, however, his exploit has been blown out of proportion with some accounts claiming that he silenced thirty-five machine guns and captured 132 prisoners single-handedly. York never claimed that he acted alone, nor was he proud of what he did. Twenty-five Germans lay dead, and by his accounting, York was responsible for at least nine of the deaths. Only two of the seven survivors were acknowledged for their participation in the event; Sgt. Early and Cpl. Cutting were finally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1927.
York’s life caught fire in the American imagination not because of who he was, but what he symbolized: a humble, self-reliant, God-fearing, taciturn patriot who slowly moved to action only when sufficiently provoked and then adamantly refused to capitalize on his fame. George Pattullo, the Saturday Evening Post reporter who broke the story, focused on the religion-patriotic nature of York’s feat. He titled his piece “The Second Elder Gives Battle,” referring to York’s status in his home congregation in Pall Mall, Tennessee.
York turned his back on quick and certain fortune in 1919, and went home to Tennessee to resume peacetime life and married the love of his life, Gracie Williams. Over the next several years, the couple had seven children.
Largely unknown to most Americans was the fact that Alvin York returned to America with a single vision: he wanted to provide a practical educational opportunity for the mountain boys and girls of Tennessee. Understanding that to prosper in the modern world an education was necessary, York sought to bring Fentress County into the twentieth century. Thousands of like-minded veterans returned from France with similar sentiments and as a result college enrollments shot up immediately after the war.
A celebrity, York took part in several speaking tours and eagerly sought to improve educational opportunities for area children. This culminated with the opening of the Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute in 1926. Though he possessed some political ambitions, these largely proved fruitless. Throughout the 1920s York went on speaking tours to endorse his hopes for education and raise money for York Institute. He also became interested in state and national politics. A Democrat in a staunchly Republican county, York’s endorsement carried a degree of clout for pols. York also used his celebrity to improve roads, employment, and education in his home county.
York withdrew from the national spotlight during the 1930s, and focused his waning political aspirations on the state rather than the local level. He considered running for the U.S. Senate against the freshman senator, Albert Gore (father of Vice President Al Gore). In the 1932 election, he changed his party affiliation and supported Herbert Hoover over Franklin D. Roosevelt because FDR promised to repeal Prohibition. Once the New Deal got underway, however, York returned to the Democratic Party and endorsed the president’s public work relief programs, especially the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
In 1939, York was appointed superintendent of the Cumberland Homesteads near Crossville. The community was envisioned by federal planners as a model of cooperative living for the region’s distressed farmers, coal miners, and factory workers. While the cooperative experiment failed and the federal government withdrew from the project in the 1940s, the Homesteads community nevertheless survived.
In 1935 York delivered a sermon entitled, Christian Cure for Strife, which argued that the vigilant Christian should ignore current world events, because Europe stood poised on the brink of another war and Americans should avoid it at all costs. Recalling his career as a soldier, York renounced America’s involvement in World War I. He said, “In order to achieve world peace, Americans must first secure it at home beginning with their own families. The church and the home, therefore, represented the cornerstones of world peace.”
At the same time, the threat of war had rekindled the interest of some filmmakers, most notably Jesse L. Lasky, into reviving the story of York’s exploits during World War I. Lasky, having witnessed the famous New York reception of the hero from his eighth floor office window in May of 1919 had wanted then to tell York’s story.
Because the Church of Christ in Christian Union condemned movies as sinful, Lasky had a tough time convincing York that a film based on his life was justified. York finally agreed when he decided that the money made from the film could be used to create an interdenominational Bible school.
Through York’s association with Lasky and Warner Brothers, he became convinced that Hitler represented the personification of evil in the world and turned belligerent. York’s conversion to interventionism was so complete that he wholeheartedly agreed with Gen. George C. Marshall that the U.S. should institute its first peacetime draft. Governor Prentice Cooper approved York’s endorsement by naming him chief executive of the Fentress County Draft Board, and appointed him to the Tennessee Preparedness Committee to help prepare for wartime.
In 1937, York not only condemned war but also questioned America’s involvement in the First World War. In that same year, York joined the Emergency Peace Campaign which lobbied against any U.S. involvement in the growing tensions in Europe. A pious peaceful man, York had fought his country’s enemy only after great deliberation and had to be convinced that war was sometimes necessary. His personal struggle in World War I found new resonance in an America at odds over the recent European war, for York personified isolationist Christian America wrestling with its conscience over whether or not to engage in the current war abroad.
In 1940-41, York joined the Fight for Freedom Committee which combated the isolationist stance of America First, and York became one of its most vocal members. Up until Pearl Harbor, York battled another legendary American hero, the man who symbolized America First to the general public, Charles Lindbergh. Meantime, the film “Sergeant York” starring Gary Cooper, became one of the top grossing Warner Brothers films of the entire war era and earned Cooper the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1942.
During the war, York attempted to reenlist in the infantry but could not do so due to age and obesity. Instead, through an affiliation with the Signal Corps, York traveled the country on bond tours, recruitment drives, and camp inspections. Ironically, the Bible school that was built with the proceeds from the movie opened in 1942, but the very people the school was intended for had either enlisted in the armed services or moved north to work in defense related industries. The school closed in 1943 never to reopen.
York’s health began to deteriorate after the war and in 1954 he suffered from a stroke that would leave him bedridden for the remainder of his life. In 1951, the Internal Revenue Service accused York of tax evasion regarding profits earned from the movie. Unfortunately, York was practically destitute in 1951. He spent the next ten years wrangling with the IRS, which led Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Congressman Joe L. Evins to establish the York Relief Fund to help cancel the debt.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy ordered that the matter be resolved and considered the IRS’s actions in the case to be a national disgrace. The relief fund paid the IRS $100,000 and placed $30,000 in trust to be used in the family’s best interest.
York died on September 2, 1964 and was buried with full military honors in the Pall Mall cemetery. His funeral was attended by Governor Frank G. Clement and Gen. Matthew Ridgway as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s official representative. He was survived by seven children and his widow.
When asked how he wanted to be remembered, the old sergeant said he wanted people to remember how he tried to improve basic education in Tennessee because he considered a solid education the true key to success. It saddened him somewhat that only one of his children went on to college, but he was proud of the fact that they all had received high school diplomas from York Institute. Most people, of course, do not remember him as a proponent for public education. York’s memory is forever tied to Gary Cooper’s laconic screen portrayal of the mountain hero and the myth surrounding his military exploits in the Argonne in 1918.
Battle scene from Sergeant York starring Gary Cooper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtk488k1-yM
A largely unsung and non-known hero of the World War I was the fascinating Eugene James “Jacques” Bullard of the Lafayette flying Corps.
Bullard was born in a three-room house in Columbus, Georgia, the seventh of ten children born to William (Octave) Bullard, a black man who was from Martinique, and Josephine (“Yokalee”) Thomas, a Creek Indian. His father’s ancestors had been slaves in Haiti to French refugees who fled during the Haitian Revolution. They reached the United States and took refuge with the Creek Indians.
An adventurer by nature, he left the small town of Columbus and moved to Atlanta by himself while still in his teenage years. He had been told that the way to escape racial prejudice was to head to Europe, particularly France (he once said he witnessed a near lynching of his dad). A long time back his father had pointed out to him that Bullard was a French name and that at least one ancestor had hailed from there. Stirred by all the possibilities, he stowed away on a ship bound for Scotland, arriving at Aberdeen and made his way south to Glasgow. On a visit to Paris, he liked what he saw and how he was treated and decided to settle in France. He became a relatively good boxer in Paris and also worked in a music hall.
France had been good to Bullard, and he quickly fell in love with the country. So when World War I broke out in August 1914, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion at a time when volunteers from overseas were only allowed to serve in the French colonial troops. Assigned to the 3rd Marching Regiment of the 1st Foreign Regiment as a machine gunner, he saw combat near the Somme River. It was during this time when he learned Americans and other volunteers were now allowed to transfer to Metropolitan French Army units, including the 170th French Infantry Regiment – nicknamed “Les Hirondelles de la Mort,” or “The Swallows of Death.”
Liking the idea of being part of a unit with crack troops appealed to Bullard, so he put in his request to join the regiment. In February 1916, his requested was granted just as the 170th Infantry was sent to Verdun, one of the largest and longest battles of the First World War on the Western Front between the German and French armies. The battle took place on the hills north of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France. It was during this battle that Bullard was severely wounded on March 5, 1916 and sent to a Parisian hospital where he spent the next six months recuperating. During convalescence, he was cited for acts of valor at the orders of the regiment on July 3, 1917 and was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
While convalescing in Paris, his friend and fellow Southerner Jeff Davis Dixon bet Bullard $2,000 that he could not get into the French Air Force. Bullard contended that he could, accepted the bet and on October 5, 1916 arrived at the French aerial gunnery school at Cazaux on the Atlantic. It was here that he met Edmond Genet (the first American flier to die in the First World War in April 1917). He told Bullard about the Lafayette Escadrille which inspired him to be a pilot and not a back seat gunner. In mid-October with Genet’s help he transferred to the flight school at Tours for pilot training. The training took a few more months, but it was inevitably given Bullard’s persistence that it would pay off. Bullard earned his pilot’s license and then Dickerson faithfully paid the $2,000. It was a considerable sum at the time, especially for a gentleman’s bet. Dixon admitted that he hated to lose the money, but was delighted that at least Bullard was from Dixie. The result of the bet was to launch Eugene Bullard into history as a first ever African-American aviator.
Like many other American aviators, Bullard hoped to join the famous Lafayette Escadrille, but after enrolling 38 American pilots in spring and summer of 1916, it stopped accepting applicants. After further training he joined 269 American aviators at the Lafayette Flying Corps on November 15, 1916. American volunteers flew with French pilots in different pursuit and bomber/reconnaissance aero squadrons on the Western Front.
On August 27, he was assigned to the Escadrille N.93 based at Beauzee-sur-Aire south of Verdun. The squadron was equipped with Nieuport and Spad VII aircraft that displayed a flying duck as the squadron insignia. He took part in over twenty air combat missions, and he is sometimes credited with shooting down one or two German aircraft. However, the French authorities could not confirm Bullard’s victories. His Spad had an insignia lettered “All blood runs red” and his nickname became the “Black Swallow of Death.”
When the United States entered the war, the United States Army Air Service convened a medical board to recruit Americans serving in the Lafayette Flying Corps for the Air Service of the American Expeditionary Forces. Bullard went through the medical examination, but he was not accepted, as only white pilots were allowed to serve. Sometime later, on a short break from duty in Paris, Bullard allegedly got into an argument with a French commissioned officer and was punished by being transferred to the service battalion of to the 170th infantry Regiment of the French army. He was discharged in October 1919 and returned to Paris.
After the war, Bullard settle down, and in 1923 married a French Countess from a wealthy family named Marcelle Straumann. They settle down and had two daughters Jacqueline and Lolita.
Post war Bullard bought a bar named “Le Grand Duc” on the north side of Paris. In the late 1930s, prior to the outbreak of World War II, he was recruited by French intelligence to spy on the Germans who come by his bar. He remained very devoted to France and tried to join the French army but was considered too old. In 1940, he managed to find a way out of German occupied France, biked all the way down to Portugal and returned to the United States on a Red Cross ship. He settled in New York City. He was able to extradite his daughters, but Marcelle remained in France and eventually they divorced.
In 1954, along with two other French veterans, he was invited by French Pres. Charles de Gaulle to light the flame of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Eugene Bullard received fifteen decorations from the government of France. He was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor, France’s most coveted award. He also was awarded the Medaille militaire, another high military distinction.
He died in New York City of stomach cancer on October 12, 1961 at the age of 66 with his achievements all but forgotten.
While Eugene Bullard is not as famous as a Tuskegee Airmen or Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Junior, as an African-American aviator, he came before all of them. The Chicago Tribune herald him as “as probably the most unsung hero in the history of the U.S. wartime aviation.”
World War I will be remembered as one of the bloodiest wars in human history. Millions of soldiers died on both sides, and whole generations of young men were wiped out. Armies were bogged down in impenetrable trenches, resulting in thousands dying in futile assaults against fortified enemies. The war also introduced new and terrible weapons, such as the machine gun, which made the war even more horrific and bloody. There were many terrible battles, but the worst one for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) was the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
On August 30, 1918, the supreme commander of Allied forces, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, arrived at the headquarters of General John J. Pershing’s 1st US Army. Foch ordered Pershing to effectively shelve a planned offensive against the St.Mihiel salient as he wished to use the American troops piecemeal to support a British offensive to the north.
Outraged, Pershing refused to let his command be broken apart and argued in favor of moving forward with the assault on St. Mihiel. Ultimately, the two came to a compromise: Pershing would be permitted to attack St. Mihiel but was required to be in position for an offensive in the Argonne Valley by mid-September. Foch also placed Pershing as the overall commander of the offensive since the American Expeditionary Force was to play the main attacking role in what would be the largest American-run offensive of World War I.
This required Pershing to fight a major battle, and then shift approximately 400,000 men sixty miles all within the span of ten days. Stepping off on September 12, Pershing won a swift victory at St. Mihiel and began moving his troops to the Argonne. Coordinated by Colonel George C. Marshall, this movement was completed in time to commence the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on September 26.
Unlike the flat terrain of St.Mihiel, the Argonne was a valley flanked by thick forest to one side and the Meuse River on the other. This terrain provided an excellent defensive position for five divisions from General Georg von der Marwitz’s Fifth Army.
While the goal of the offensive was to destroy the Germans, the strategy to do this was to cut off their main supply route. The Germans controlled the land between the Argonne Forest and the River Meuse in France, just inside its border with Belgium. The Sedan-Mezieres railroad, Germany’s main supply link, was in this area. Taking control of this railroad was the Allied Force’s main objective.
Both the Allied Forces and the Germans understood how critical this area was to Germany’s ability to continue its offensive into France. For this reason, both sides invested all available troops to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and surrounding battles.
The Meuse-Argonne presented a number of challenges to the U.S. forces, which made up the largest part of the Allied Forces fighting. First, the overgrown, bushy, terrain of the area was difficult. The forest had no roads over which tanks and troops could easily move. Furthermore, the Germans had been in control of the area for the past four years and had well-fortified it.
The other key challenge was logistical. Most of the Americans were some miles away where they had just fought a battle at St. Mihiel Salient. Moving that many troops and their armory in such a short time period was an unprecedented logistical operation. Without the successful troop movement, the Germans would have likely held their supply lines.
However, one American division had difficulty capturing its assigned land and the entire Allied advance was slowed down.During this day-long stoppage, the Germans were able to retreat back to the Giselher line, where they prepared to make stand.
German General Max von Gallwitz directed six reserve divisions to shore up the line. The arrival of additional German troops ended American hopes for a quick victory in the Argonne. While Montfaucon was taken the next day, the advance proved slow and American forces were plagued by leadership and logistical issues. By October 1, the offensive had come to a halt. Traveling among his forces, Pershing replaced several of his green divisions with more experienced troops, though this movement only added to the logistical and traffic difficulties.
On October 4, Pershing ordered an assault all along the American line. This was met with ferocious resistance from the Germans with the advance measured in yards. It was during this phase of the fighting that the 77th Division’s famed “Lost Battalion” made its stand. Elsewhere, Corporal Alvin York earned the Medal of Honor for capturing 132 Germans.
On October 8, Pershing made a push on the east side of the Meuse with the goal of silencing German artillery in the area. This made little headway. Two days later he turned command of the 1st Army over to Lieutenant General Hunter Liggett.
As Liggett pressed on, Pershing formed the 2nd U.S. Army on the east side of the Meuse and placed Lieutenant General Robert L. Bullard in command. From October 13-16, American forces began to break through the German lines with the capture of Malbrouck, Consenvoye, Cote Dame Marie, and Chatillon. With these victories in hand, American forces pierced the Kreimhilde line, achieving Pershing’s goal for the first day. With this done, Liggett called a halt to reorganize. While collecting stragglers and re-supplying, Liggett ordered an attack towards Grandpre by the 78th Division. The town fell after a ten-day battle.
On November 1, following a massive bombardment, Liggett resumed a general advance all along the line. Slamming into the tired Germans, the 1st Army made large gains with the V Corps gaining five miles in the center. Forced into a headlong retreat, the Germans were prevented from forming new lines by the rapid American advance.
On November 5, the 5th Division crossed the Meuse, frustrating German plans to use the river as defensive line. Three days later, the Germans contacted Foch about an armistice. Feeling that the war should continue until the German’s unconditionally surrendered, Pershing pushed his two armies to attack without mercy. Driving the Germans, American forces allowed the French to take Sedan as the war came to a close on November 11, 1918.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive cost Pershing 26,277 killed and 95,786 wounded, making it the largest and bloodiest operation of the war for the American Expeditionary Force. American losses were exacerbated by the inexperience of many of the troops and tactics used during the early phases of the operation. Germans losses numbered 28,000 killed and 92,250 wounded.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the largest American military campaign and one of the world’s greatest battles.
View the Military Service of Comic, Writer, Actor, Producer, Director:
Cpl Mel Brooks
Shadow Box: http://army.togetherweserved.com/profile/336110
Short Bio: Singlehandedly won World War II! Okay, that not true, but lots of our boys in uniform might not have made it home without Brooks’s help. At 17, young Melvin Kaminsky joined the Army Corps of Engineers and was assigned to the 1104th Engineer Combat Group — just in time to be shipped over for the Battle of the Bulge. His unit fought through Europe, building bridges, destroying pillboxes, and occasionally fought as infantry. Brooks, née Kominsky, had the duty of defusing landmines in front of the advancing army.
During World War I, in the bitter winter of 1914, on the battlefields of Flanders, one of the most unusual events in all of human history took place. The Germans had been in a fierce battle with the British and French. Both sides were dug in, safe in muddy, man-made trenches six to eight feet deep that seemed to stretch forever.
All of a sudden, German troops began to put small Christmas trees, lit with candles, outside of their trenches. Then, they began to sing songs. Across the way, in the “no man’s land” between them, came songs from the British and French troops. Incredibly, many of the Germans, who had worked in England before the war, were able to speak good enough English to propose a “Christmas” truce.
A spontaneous truce resulted. Soldiers left their trenches, meeting in the middle in fortified trenches to shake hands. The first order of business was to bury the dead who had been previously unreachable because of the conflict. Then, they exchanged gifts. Chocolate cake, cognac, postcards, newspapers, tobacco. In a few places, along the trenches, soldiers exchanged rifles for soccer balls and began to play soccer in the snow.
According to Stanley Weintraub, who wrote about this event in his book, “Silent Night”, “Signboards arose up and down the trenches in a variety of shapes. They were usually in English, or – from the Germans – in fractured English. Rightly, the Germans assumed that the other side could not read traditional gothic lettering, and that few English understood spoken German. ‘YOU NO FIGHT, WE NO FIGHT’ was the most frequently employed German message. Some British units improvised ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’ banners and waited for a response. More placards on both sides popped up.”
Rare photo shows German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment and British soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment meeting in “no man’s land” on December 26, 1914.
It truce didn’t last forever. In fact, some of the generals didn’t like it at all and commanded their troops to resume shooting at each other. After all, they were in a war. Soldiers eventually did resume shooting at each other. But for a few precious moments there was peace on earth good will toward men. There’s something about Christmas that changes people. It happened over 2000 years ago in a little town called Bethlehem. It’s been happening over and over again down through the years of time.
Although the Christmas Truce of 1914 may seem like a distant myth to those now at arms in parts of the world where vast cultural differences between combatants make such an occurrence impossible, it remains a symbol of hope to those who believe that a recognition of our common humanity may someday reverse the maxim that “Peace is harder to make than war.”
From The Illustrated London News of January 9, 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches”
A cross, left in Saint-Yves (Saint-Yvon – Ploegsteert; Comines-Warneton in Belgium) in 1999, to commemorate the site of the Christmas Truce. The text reads: “1914 – The Khaki Chum’s Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years “Lest We Forget”
German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment and British soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment meet in no man’s land, December 26th.
As reported by Reuters
On Feb. 24, 1968, Don Skinner was in charge of maintaining bombing radars in Vietnam when his unit came under attack. The Air Force sergeant was critically wounded, spending three months in a Saigon hospital, before being air-lifted to the States where he says he spent nine more months at a hospital “being put back together.”
Three of his comrades were killed during that assault, and overall, 19 members from Skinner’s unit lost their lives during the war.
But the memories of those 19 men – and hundreds of others spanning different wars – live on, thanks to Skinner’s efforts. Today, the 83-year-old sits in front of a computer at his Aiken, S.C. home working on remembrance profiles for fallen soldiers. The retired veteran is one of more than 200 volunteers who work around the clock building the Roll of Honor on TogetherWeServed.com, an online war memorial that claims 1.5 million members and has more than 100,000 pages honoring fallen service members.
For Skinner, who has personally completed more than 850 profiles, it’s about putting stories to names, bringing those killed in action from “obscurity back to reality.”
“They are now honored and remembered,” Skinner said. “These people are no longer forgotten or lost in the mist of history.”
Erasing that mist is not always an easy task. For example, there’s a dearth of information on many Korean War and World War II veterans, whose numbers are dwindling. Volunteers rely heavily on battle history archives, gravesite information and public records to glean information, but they often must track down surviving family members to fill in the holes.
One of those working to fill the gaps is Carl “Krusty” Elliott. During the Vietnam War, the Army staff sergeant worked at Walter Reed hospital, where he says the wounded soldiers “left a lasting impression” on him.
The 67-year-old Elliott, who has built more than 2,000 online memorials from his Rochester, New Hampshire home, says it was especially gratifying to complete the profile of 1st Lt. Verne Kelley, a 10-year Army veteran who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1969. Kelley grew up not far from Elliott’s hometown and was friends with his older brothers.
Diane Short, a Navy veteran who oversees operations and management of the website’s memorial teams, says the site hopes to complete unfinished profiles by year’s end but the task is daunting. The online memorial includes almost 48,000 fallen soldiers in the Army alone and TWS has completed about 65 percent of those remembrance profiles.
The veterans who add photos, medals and remembrances to the online memorials are giving an emotional lift to families of the fallen. Just ask Debra Booth, whose 23-year-old son Marine Lt. Joshua Booth was killed in Iraq in 2006 — just five weeks after deployment. She hadn’t seen any photos of her son in Iraq until she stumbled upon three images of Josh posted on Together We Served. “What an amazing surprise that day,” said Booth, who added that she has since corresponded with Josh’s captain, hopes to connect with more men who served with her son.
Josh left behind a daughter Grace, who is now 8 years old. Debra Booth says Grace recently asked Santa Claus to bring her pictures of her daddy. Thanks to the images posted to Together We Served that wish was granted. “It’s an amazing gift,” Booth said of the online memorial.
Building the remembrance profiles is a healing process for the volunteer veterans, according to Short.
“A lot of these guys are dealing with PTSD,” Short said. “It is their way of getting into their head and dealing with their memories and putting pen to paper honoring those who they lost.”
Denny Eister, a 69-year old Vietnam War veteran who lives in Destin, Florida, says he suffers from PTSD and repressed his war memories for nearly four decades. One day, his kids uncovered some medals in his desk drawer and he says it triggered a renewed interest to track down his fellow soldiers. Eister, who works part time as an insurance agent, has since built nearly 1,000 remembrance profiles.
“You develop a bond that’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced combat in military,” Eister said. “It’s an honor to do it for the guys who didn’t come home.” Eister said through his work he was able to track down his company commander at the time, Walter Dillard, who retired as a colonel and now lives in Virginia. “We still communicate to this day,” he said.
Indeed, Together We Served has become a coveted social network for veterans. Barbara (Bobbe) Stuvengen served in the Navy in World War II as a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). A few years ago, when the 89-year-old Wisconsin resident lost her husband (also a sailor) to Alzheimer’s disease, she credits the website for “preserving my sanity during some very stressful times.”
“It’s just kind of a way to keep in touch with the outside world,” said Stuvengen, who communicates regularly with other members. “It means a lot to me to have TWS to go into. … I begin to feel like they’re my family.”
As for Skinner, 65 years after enlisting in the Air Force, he is still devoting his time to serving his country. The author of several military books, he continues digging into databases, scouring archives and phoning families to piece together the lives of fallen service members. More than four decades after making it through that deadly assault in Vietnam, Skinner is battling cancer – but his doctors have declared him healthy and he remains focused on his work.
“I guess I’m a survivor in more ways than one,” he says.
V, or Victory mail, was a valuable tool for the military during World War II. The process, which originated in England, was the microfilming of specially designed letter sheets. Instead of using valuable cargo space to ship whole letters overseas, microfilmed copies were sent in their stead and then “blown up” at an overseas destination before being delivered to military personnel.
V-mail ensured that thousands of tons of shipping space could be reserved for war materials. The 37 mail bags required to carry 150,000 one-page letters could be replaced by a single mail sack. The weight of that same amount of mail was reduced dramatically from 2,575 pounds to a mere 45. The blue-striped cardboard containers held V-mail letter forms.
The system of microfilming letters was based on the use of special V-mail letter-sheets, which were a combination of letter and envelope. The letter-sheets were constructed and gummed so as to fold into a uniform and distinctively marked envelope. The user wrote the message in the limited space provided, added the name and address of the recipient, folded the form, affixed postage, if necessary, and mailed the letter. V-mail correspondence was then reduced to thumb-nail size on microfilm. The rolls of film were sent to prescribed destinations for developing at a receiving station near the addressee. Finally, individual facsimiles of the letter-sheets were reproduced about one-quarter the original size and the miniature mail was then delivered to the addressee.
The first large Army operated V-mail station overseas was opened on April 15, 1943 at Casablanca, North Africa. Hastily set up in a field following the Allied invasion of North Africa, this makeshift station continued to operate until September 15, 1943. Between June 15, 1942 and April 1, 1945, 556,513,795 pieces of V-mail were sent from the U.S. to military post offices and over 510 million pieces were received from military personnel abroad. In spite of the patriotic draw of V-mail, most people still sent regular first class mail. In 1944, for instance, Navy personnel received 38 million pieces of V-mail, but over 272 million pieces of regular first class mail.