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November 12, 2007

Armistice Day Musings

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Yes, yes. I know it's "Veterans' Day" officially and that it's November 11th and not today, the 12th (even though banks, schools and government agencies are closed today in many parts of the country). But it was Armistice Day when I was a kid and I claim The Right of Whimsy to keep calling it that. And to call "Beijing" Peking and so forth.


Yesterday in Church the pastor had veterans stand to be recognized by the congregation. There weren't all that many of us and a fellow behind me wondered that so few younger people stood. He should have known it is a matter of history and law, along with other things. So this afternoon I got to musing about military service while driving back from an emergency trip to the dentist (part of a crown cracked off).

I'll deal with my own family, because I know the details best. For some reason, my bunch skated through the wars of the past 150 years unscathed while some other families had entire generations of males wiped out.

My father's mother's father either (1) bailed out of Germany in perhaps the 1850s or 60s to avoid conscription or (2) was wounded and left for dead on a pile of corpses during a war. My grandmother, who had some credibility problems when storytelling, provided me the second version when I was ten or so: other kin were inclined to favor the first story. Even at the time her story didn't ring true because I knew that she was alive at the time of the Franco-Prussian War. Moreover, today I'm inclined to doubt that he was involved in the two Prussian wars in the 1860s because that didn't give him much time to get to Chicago and start a family by 1870, when my grandmother was born.

My father's other grandfather (born 1837) enlisted for the Civil War and served a year or two as a musician -- apparently musicians doubled as stretcher-bearers, so there was risk. He and his fellow Ohioans were first sent to central Missouri, a border state, where there was concern about Confederate sympathizers and raiders in 1861. Then his unit was transferred back across the Mississippi and was involved in early stages of the Tennessee River campaigns before he completed his enlistment. I have a copy of his diary, but it mostly notes what the weather was; army life can be pretty dull, even in wartime.

My father's older brother (born 1894) enlisted for the Great War. He was in the Signal Corps because he knew telegraphy and did his training at Camp Lewis, just south of Tacoma. I remember seeing wide-format photos of his training company at my grandparents' house and at his place. Signals could be a dangerous field, especially at the height of the trench warfare phase on the conflict. There was nothing like World War 2 walkie-talkies; the speediest means of communication was via telegraphy. And telegraph wires were often cut during artillery barrages so signals troops had to risk shelling while trying to re-establish communications.

Fortunately for my uncle, there was Armistice Day and his unit never left for France. My grandmother claimed (probably truthfully, this time) that there was a chance that he might have been sent to Russia, where Allied troops were sent after the revolution. She thought this would have been very dangerous. I doubt that. Trench warfare was the killer, but Allied troops in Russia mostly occupied strategic port cities. In any event, he was discharged in 1919 without ever leaving the country.

My uncle's oldest son (born 1920) enlisted for World War 2 and was sent to Alaska, where the most important thing he did was meet his future wife. He went to officer's school and was commissioned, but wasn't sent to a combat theater. He remained in the Army after the war and retired as a Colonel after 30 years service and no combat duty. His younger brother enlisted in the Navy but the war ended before he could be deployed.

My father (born 1908) was in his thirties and married with two children when Pearl Harbor was attacked and never saw service. But he did work as a civilian contracts inspector for the Corps of Engineers.

I (born 1939) enlisted in 1961 not long after the Berlin borders were closed and the wall was begun. (My wife was in Berlin the day it happened, but that's another story.) I had to sweat out the tension related to Berlin, the Cuba Missile Crisis and the early rumblings of Vietnam, part of the time in Korea, a potential war zone.

What is the meaning of all this?

The main thing is that luck or fate or whatever you choose to call it plays a large role. Note that each member of my family who had a significant military involvement happened to be between 20 and 25 years old when a war or major crisis arose. That's timing, pure and simple. And out of our control.

Some factors were under our control. Note also that each of us (so far as I know) volunteered, so we controlled the detailed timing even though we were ignorant of the future. Had I waited to be drafted or got a deferment I might have ended up in Vietnam and been killed or wounded, so my unwitting choice was important. There also might have been some choice in military specialty, which could have affected the outcome of service. For instance, I opted for public relations / journalism when I signed up and this allowed some immunity from the garbage soldiers had to put up with in those quasi-peacetime days. (For some reason, sergeants and officers liked getting their names in the post newspaper.)

Timing can be critical for those who, unlike me, were fitted for soldiering. Think of the West Point class of 1915, the one "the stars fell on." Eisenhower and a significant number of his classmates were exactly the right age to become generals during World War 2. George Patton (class of 1909) was on the borderline of being too old to attain the glory he craved. Also think of the officers who by temperament and training might have equaled the fame of Napoleon, Wellington, Grant and Rommel had there only been a war to fight when they were at the optimal age.

Veteranship is a chancy thing.



posted by Donald at November 12, 2007


My father volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1939. "What do you want to do?" they enquired. "Command a motor torpedo boat" he replied. "What are your qualifications?" "I've messed about in boats all my life and I'm used to being in charge of men." "Ah", they said, "we have hundreds of volunteers with those qualifications and many of them don't wear glasses. Go home to your wife."

Posted by: dearieme on November 13, 2007 4:28 AM

I love these detailed accounts of the past. The details really bring the past to life.
Your father's mother's father might very well have served in one or both of the Prussian wars of the 1860's and survived. They were both relative cake walks. Very low casualties.
I'm surprised that your uncle's oldest son, who made a career of the military, escaped Korea. He was born in 1920, which would have made him 30 or 31 at the outbreak of the war, probably a 1st or 2nd Lieutenant at the time. They were front line cannon fodder in that conflict, especially in its first year. But as you say, he lucked out.

Posted by: ricpic on November 13, 2007 9:58 AM

How true about timing. My father (b. 1926) joined the Navy when he turned 18 in late 1944, but by the time he was finished with training the war in the Pacific was nearly over and he never saw combat, though he served for a while in the occupation of postwar Japan. He had a brother who was about five or six years older who joined the Army (whether drafted or enlisted I do not know) shortly after Pearl Harbor, and hard a far, far worse experience, spending two years in Italy in almost nonstop combat. It was all because of age.

Posted by: Peter on November 13, 2007 10:11 AM

So true about luck and timing. They play a role in so many things. The arts too -- imagine someone gifted in figure-drawing or figure-painting. Born in the 1500s, he'd have had a good chance of becoming an official Renaissance Artist. Born today, he'd be an employee of Marvel. Or someone with a prankish conceptual gift. In the middle ages he might have been a jester. Today he'd be a celebrated Gallery Artist.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 13, 2007 2:16 PM

So eventually my father was called up by the Army. "What do you want to do?" "What have you got that's most like motor torpedo boats?" "Well, how about tanks?". "Good: I don't want to walk to my death."

Posted by: dearieme on November 13, 2007 3:39 PM


Do tell me what's so low about being a comic book artist? Seriously, I'm questioning the juxtaposition here. Considering what you often criticize in elite attitudes towards art, it smacks of glass houses and stones.

Also, Marvel works on a contract basis with artists now, the days of bullpen comic artists is mostly over.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on November 13, 2007 8:36 PM

Spike - In the little semi-syllogism I sketched out, the only "wrong" is in a value system that places "gallery artist" above "comic book artist." But that ain't *my* value system. As for whether being a comic book artist is "low" -- well, I sure hope it is, at least in many cases, because I often like low. I don't want low artists to give up being low. (Not a big fan, for example, of blues being "appreciated" as though it's concert-hall music.) I value "low" very highly.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 14, 2007 2:43 AM

You write: "There was nothing like World War 2 walkie-talkies; the speediest means of communication was via telegraphy. And telegraph wires were often cut during artillery barrages so signals troops had to risk shelling while trying to re-establish communications."

Actually, the speediest means of communication was by flare. The next speediest was the telephone and it was telephone wires that were so regularly getting cut during artillery barrages and needing repair by signals troops.

Posted by: do on November 14, 2007 2:28 PM

O Fortuna! Imperatrix mundi!

Posted by: frumious on November 14, 2007 3:03 PM

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