September 30, 2021
When I was a kid, my maternal grandfather and grandmother lived on our farm in a trailer house. My brother and I spent many hours of our childhood with Grandma and Grandpa.
In their later years, they moved into the house with our family, so we could care for them. We were fortunate to become close to our grandparents and learned about the experiences of their lives.
In fourth grade as a social studies assignment, I chose to interview my grandfather, who had served from 1917 to 1918 as a U.S. Army infantryman in France during World War I. He participated in the bloody battle of Meuse-Argonne that finally brought what was known as “The Great War” to an end.
Whenever my grandfather started to tell his grandchildren about the war, Grandma usually cut off the conversation, saying, “Arnold, those kids don’t need to hear about that.” Well, we wanted to hear about it. We wanted to know and understand his service and his part in World War I.
My grandfather had grown up in a log cabin in Kentucky, and when he was drafted into the Army, he took six weeks of basic training at Camp Zachary Taylor in his home state. He eventually boarded a ship bound for the battlefields of France.
He told me in the interview that the American soldiers were initially not allowed to carry weapons to the front. They followed seasoned French units along the muddy and rat-infested trenches to see the front as “observers.” He recalls asking one mud-covered American soldier who was returning from his time at the front, “What is it like up there?” The soldier answered bluntly, “It’s hell.”
Grandpa would find out soon enough for himself when his unit went out of the trenches and over the top into “No Man’s Land,” during the final drive of the war at Argonne. During his time in France at the front, Grandpa received no letters from back home. His family wrote to him, but the letters never found him. His family in Kentucky likewise received no word from their son. Grandpa wrote letters, but they never made it home.
He said that with all the blood, death and destruction he saw in the French countryside, he believed that his mother’s constant prayers were the only thing that brought him back home safely after the war. After the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, ending the war, he continued to serve in post-war Belgium, until he returned home and was discharged.
As a student of American history, I found his story so compelling. I’m glad he told it to us, even if it was in bits and pieces when Grandma wasn’t listening. One of my cousins actually had the opportunity to visit France and see firsthand some of the exact battlefield locations where Grandpa actually fought.
We can learn history from books, but we all know of real-life heroes in our own little towns, who served valiantly on battlefields around the world for the sake of their country. If one of those veterans is in your family, ask them to tell you about their service. Ask what unit they served with, and where they were deployed. Get to know the details about where they fit into the history of our country.
Out of more than 16 million U.S. citizens who served in the armed forces during World War II, only about 326,000 are still alive. The Korean War and Vietnam War veterans are aging as well. It is important to know their stories while they are still alive and can tell us about the real American history they witnessed.
Knowing those stories are just another way we can honor the men and women who have served our country in uniform, through thick and thin. Freedom is not free, and they are the ones who know that firsthand.
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