Here comes someone. Wonder who it is? Probably wants something. No one ever comes by unless they want something.
I don’t know that car. Who is that? Oh, okay. That’s Steven, my sister’s grandson. Who’s that with him? Don’t know that guy.
Hello, Steven. What brings you way up here? Who’s your friend?
Hello, Barry. Nice to meet you too. What’s that? You’re a journalist? You mean a reporter, right? That’s what I thought.
Have a seat right here on the porch. This is the kind of day porches were made for. Can I get you fellas something to drink? No? Let me know if you want something.
So let me see. I’m about to turn one hundred years old, Steven, and you show up with a reporter. An interview? Want to know how it feels to be a hundred?
That, and you want to interview me as I am one of the very few World War One veterans still alive. How many did you say? That sounds about right. Five of us American doughboys left. And then there were five.
I met Frank Buckles and Harry Patch at a Legion convention a couple years ago. And a Canadian too, John Babcock was his name. A couple from England are still with us, including a lady vet, and two in France, I think. And a couple guys from the other side, from Germany and Austria. That sure isn’t very many, now is it?
No, I don’t really know any of our guys. They weren’t in my outfit. One guy is in bad shape, last I heard, won’t make it much longer. I think the American Legion is keeping track of us, how many are left. We started the Legion. Veterans of the Great War. That’s what they called it, the Great War. Nothing great about it that I remember, except when it was all over. The Armistice. November 11, 1918.
I heard that we’re losing over a thousand World War Two vets each day. Dying off quick, aren’t they? And us, just a few left. We’re all bumping a hundred years old too. How much longer can we last?
So you want to know what World War One was like. Lord sakes, son, how do I even start? It was terrible, I can tell you that. The most God-awful thing I ever saw in my life. People who didn’t know each other, from different parts of the world, all trying to kill each other.
All I knew was that men were needed to go over to France and stop who they called the Kaiser and his Evil Huns. Inhuman monsters from Germany. That’s what they told us. The recruitment posters all showed them to look like gorillas, like monsters. Big and hairy and terrible. They said they ate children. That they tortured women. The devil’s own army, so they told us.
Well sir, they had to be stopped. So we joined up. July of 1917 it was, me and my older brother Charlie and a bunch of other fellas from town joined the Army. American Expedition Forces was the fancy name, but it was the Army.
They sent us off to Camp Something-or-other to learn how to march and shoot and dressed us all up in uniforms. Then they marched us off to the train that took us to a ship in New York. I never saw New York before. I saw a little of it as we sailed away, to France. The ship was full of us doughboys, and we all wondered if we’d ever see those tall New York City buildings again. Charlie said we would. He was always like that, looking at the bright side.
Guys got seasick. The trip over wasn’t so great. Bad weather and rough seas.
But they got us there. To France. We all wanted to see the sights. Gay Paree, those pretty girls we all heard about, try some of that fancy champagne, the Eiffel Tower.
No dice. They sent us right out to fight at the front. The Hun was out there and needed to be stopped no matter what.
They hauled us in trains, and then trucks. Then they marched us in. March-march-march. I thought we’d never get there. But we did. And what I saw sent shivers right up my spine.
Bare land. No trees, no grass, no nothing. Barb wire on poles. Trenches. Our guys, all in trenches and holes. Peeking over the top at more trenches, way on the other side. That’s where the Germans were, in those trenches over there. That’s who we had to stop.
Some captain was there, and told us we had to make a run for it to get to our trenches. When he blew his whistle, we were to run as fast as we could to get there, and jump right in, because the Germans would be shooting at us.
I thought this guy must be out of his mind. Run out into the open and let them shoot at us?
Like some crazy game of hide and seek. Tag, you’re it, with a bullet in you.
So he blew that whistle and we ran and jumped into the closest trench, not knowing how deep it was or anything.
I didn’t jump in. I stopped at the edge and looked first, then slid down the side. Good thing, as there were three guys there I would’ve landed on if I just jumped right in. And I slid right into a foot of mud. It must’ve rained and the water had no place to go. It was a mess.
Other guys did jump right in. One poor guy already there wound up with a broken arm from someone jumping in and landing on him.
There were twenty-one of us who ran first for the trench. Reinforcements, they called us.
Nineteen made it, two were shot. One died right away, the other one was dragged off somewhere. I don’t know how he made out.
We were there but a few minutes and already one guy was killed. Lucky shot, right in the chest. Maybe lucky isn’t the right word.
Another whistle sounded and the guys there climbed up on blocks and shelves and shot back at the Germans. They kept shooting until the whistle sounded again. Then they all stepped down and found a place to sit, safely out of sight from the other side.
My God, is this what we had to do? Wait till the enemy is in sight and then shoot them?
Yes sir, that was it. Wait for one to stick his head up and pick him off. And that’s what they were doing on their side too, waiting for one of us to stick his head up.
Then it became a game of hurry up and wait. Long boring hours went by, and then all hell broke loose and we’d all start shooting at the same time. I don’t know if we hit anybody. The officers had binoculars. We just had rifles.
Later that day it started to rain. Before we knew it, another foot of water was in the trench.
What a mess. And then the officers told us that we were going to charge the Germans. Over the top and across no man’s land and ambush them while they were hunkering down from the storm.
Did you know the term “over the top” came from that? Over the top of the trench. And then on to glory and victory. Or some such damn fool nonsense.
We got ready to charge, and when the whistle blew, over the top we went. If it was up to me, with the storm and all, I’d have gone across there nice and quiet and surprise them. But no, the whole company was whooping and hollering like some wild Indian attack. Right away the Germans returned fire. And the second man I saw shot and killed in France that day was my brother Charlie. Right next to me, he went down with a bullet in his neck.
I was scared out of my mind and screaming mad at the same time. I wanted to kill the man who killed my brother. With bullets flying all around me, I jumped the barb wire and ran right up to their trench and jumped in. I didn’t care who I landed on. I shot two men right away and used my bayonet on another. The other guys were right behind me and we cleaned out that trench, and good. Except for a few who ran away, we killed them all. We killed them all.
Our guys were all laughing and singing and slapping each other on the back.
Me, I looked at the dead bodies of those Germans. Not one of them looked like a gorilla. They were men, and boys, just like we were.
I know Mother would be devastated when she heard about Charlie getting killed. Would the mothers of these Germans feel the same way when they found out about their sons dying? I’m sure they would.
I started to cry. What have I done? I killed a man. Several men. The Bible says Thou Shalt Not Kill. I broke a Commandment. What will happen to me now? Will God strike me dead next because of what I had done?
The guys were celebrating. We won that battle! They congratulated me on my first kill. They told me there would be plenty more, if we planned on winning this thing.
I walked away from them and when I got far enough away, I threw up.
Then I heard a different whistle signal, the one they made sure we knew when they taught us about poison gas. I quickly put on my gas mask and watched as a yellow cloud of poison fog swept over us. We didn’t win completely, the Germans were still fighting back.
One of our men didn’t get his gas mask on fast enough. He was lying in the mud gasping for air and spitting out some awful things from his mouth. He choked to death, right there in front of us.
I never got to know his name.
The wet muddy trench we were standing in also served as a latrine. There was nowhere else to do your business except right there. That muddy water was a sewer. That was the final insult to those Germans, lying dead in that filthy water.
So that was my first day fighting in France. Do you want to hear more?
I figured you fellas would need a drink after that. I always keep a good supply of fire water for just such a time.
So, Steven, that was what happened to your Uncle Charles. We called him Charlie.
Everybody did. He was two years older than me, born in 1898. Seems that Father left Mother with something to remember him by before he went off to fight in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. I was born not quite two years later, something that Father gave Mother as a welcome home gift. They would never describe it in that way, people were such prudes back then, but that’s how it happened. My sisters Helen and Lillian, your grandmother, came along later, in 1905 and 1909.
Our family was a scrappy bunch. We fought every time, from the Civil War on. My grandfather lost his brother, Philip, at Second Bull Run. My father lost his brother, my Uncle Albert, somewhere in the Philippines. His body was never brought home. I lost my brother in France.
Your Aunt Belle and I had two sons. They both fought in World War Two, just a generation after my war. Your Uncle Claude made it home, minus his right arm. His brother, your Uncle Jimmy, also made it home, but died a few years later from the malaria he caught somewhere in the Pacific. My nephew Freddie, from my wife’s side, was all of a month away from graduating high school. He quit school to enlist in the Navy. He was killed when his ammunition ship blew up somewhere near New Guinea. So many boys right from town were lost.
Your Aunt Helen, my sister, lost her son, your Uncle Raymond, at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. His brother, your Uncle Douglas, was a prisoner of war for three years in Korea. He came home, but has never been right since.
And it hit your generation too, Steven. You served in Vietnam. You came home, but your cousins Tommy and Bruce didn’t.
And it goes on, doesn’t it? Your nephew Allen was almost blown to bits in Desert Storm.
He’ll never walk again, will he? Stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Your cousin Eddie, who was killed in Lebanon. You’re what, forty-nine? Fifty now? What about your kids? Your grandkids? Your son is old enough to join the Army. Will he be next?
Even that terrible Spanish flu epidemic in 1919 was caused by the war. Men returning from France brought the bug home with them and it spread everywhere. I guess we won the war, but not by much.
So who is next, Steven? Haven’t we had enough of this? When does it end? Barry, do you have an answer for that? When does it end?
Okay, I’m sorry. I went on a tear there. Let me have a drink.
There. Much better. Those folks in Scotland sure do know how to make some fine whisky.
Okay, Barry. More questions for me?
Do I believe in God? Interesting question. Do I? After what I’ve seen, and what has happened to our family over the years, I don’t think so. Would a loving God allow all of this? No, I’d say that God means nothing to me.
They took my uncles, my brother, my son, my nephews away from me. My loving wife, Belle, incredible woman that she was, was taken away from me too. Cancer. She was only fifty years old. That was half a century ago that I buried her! I’ve been alone for fifty years without her. We were married for thirty years, and she’s been gone for fifty.
And you want to know if I believe in God.
All I know is that, right now, I’m still healthy and still have my wits about me, but how long will that last? I won’t pray for a longer life. I haven’t prayed since that first terrible day in France in 1917.
I think I’m done talking for now, fellas. I have to lie down. My head is pounding from this.
Steven, don’t be a stranger, you hear? Come on up and make sure I’m still kicking. Always great to see you. Bring Barry along and we can do some more damage to my stash of fire water.
Say hi to everyone, tell them I’m still here.
There they go. Nice to have a little company. It gets lonely up here sometimes. Oh, they call me an old hermit. I’m not, I go to town once a week or more for groceries and supplies, have a drink at the Legion. I like it here. Not much traffic, no noise. They’d like it too if they came by once in a while.
Maybe it’s too late for that. I think my time is over. I still have these terrible memories after eighty years. I can’t shake them. Shell shock, battle fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder, whatever the hell they call it these days.
Well, I told my story about what it was like over there. I never much talked about it. None of us did. War stories? Not from us. Too many bad memories.
I saw the fields of poppies and crosses in the cemeteries over there. Nothing grows on that poisoned land except poppies.
No man’s land.
So many buried there. So many poppies.
Okay, George, you old coot, let’s pour yourself this last bit of Scotch. There we go. Let’s make a toast. To those who went before us, and to us five American doughboys who are still left. We won’t be around for much longer. Let’s just hope that someone remembers us.
This Scotch is so good. Only the best fire water, right? But now it’s gone, just like everything else.
My trusty old .45 caliber Colt, model 1911A. Military issue. Great old weapon, still works well. Shot a few critters over the years with this. They sure knew how to build them back then.
Just like the guys I served with over in France. My guys.
One last check. Everything is paid off. Taxes, insurance, everything. Only things due are the electric and telephone bills. They can chase somebody else for them. Haven’t they got enough out of me over the years?
One last swallow. Here’s to you, the five Americans who are still left, including me. May they remember us for our service to our country. In the Great War. The war to end all wars. Yeah. Right.
Hand salute. Two.
Bang. And then there were four.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
This story was back-dated to 1999, when there were five American veterans remaining. At the time of this writing, the very last of the veterans of World War One, of every country, both friend and foe, have passed. There are none left.
The last five surviving Allied veterans of WW1 were: Harry Richard Landis, US Army, died 10Feb2008, age 108; John Babcock, Canadian Army, died 18Feb2010, age 109; Frank W. Buckles, US Army, died 27Feb2011, age 110; Claude Stanley Choules, British Royal Navy, died 14May2011, age 109; Mrs. Florence Patterson Green, British Royal Air Force officers’ mess steward, died 7Feb2012, age 110.
The last American veteran, Frank W. Buckles, was honored in several ceremonies before he died, including being feted at the White House by President George W. Bush in March 2008.
As they had lost the war, there were no certified records of surviving German veterans. It is presumed all had passed by 2012.
Jersey Shore native Gary S. Crawford is a local historian, editor, and award-winning author. He has published many articles on historical subjects, including the “Historical Vignettes” column in the Asbury Park Press and other local newspapers as well as several national magazines. Considered an authority on the Morro Castle ship disaster, he has published a companion book to his lecture series on the disaster. He co-authored the Arcadia Images of America book on Bradley Beach NJ. He has also published many short stories in several anthologies, four of them winning awards in the East Meets West series. Crawford has published the horror novel Voices Over the Moon and war veteran fantasy Voice of a Hero, both available on Amazon and Barnes&Noble. Crawford has a degree in business administration, minoring in creative writing. He lives at the Jersey Shore with his wife Dawn, their grown daughter Amy, and four grandchildren.