Sometimes history is not about what happened but about what has quietly ceased to exist. One of those silent erasures is occurring right now with the passing of the generation of soldiers that fought in the Great War. Here in the United States only one veteran of the First World War is still alive – Frank Woodruff Buckles of West Virginia who will turn 109 on February 1.
Buckles would be the first to admit that he was not a major player in the conflict that killed more than 9.5 million soldiers. Fibbing his way into the army (he was underage) in August, 1917, he spent the war driving officers around far from the front lines.
Still, Buckles provides that visceral sense of being there so critical to an imaginative engagement with history. Four years ago, when a dozen American World War I veterans were still alive, I was lucky enough interview two of them for a book I was writing about the immigrant experience in the war. Italian-born Antonio Pierro, 110 at the time, was stunned when someone called him a “wop” on the chow line but went on to fight bravely in the Argonne with the 82nd Division’s field artillery. Samuel Goldberg, a 106-year-old Russian-born Jew, was proud that he had faced down an anti-Semitic drill sergeant in the cavalry.
What I took away from these interviews was the sense of the melting pot in action. “Regular” American Doughboys shrugged off ethnic prejudices and came to accept foreign-born recruits as comrades, buddies, and sometimes heroes. The immigrants themselves, fully one-fifth of the American armed forces, assimilated by serving. Goldberg and Pierro’s pride came from standing as equals beside guys named Buckles and York.
Tony Pierro and Sam Goldberg did not have insights into military tactics, politics or diplomacy: but they did powerfully summon up the tensions and aspirations of a time when American soldiers born in 45 different countries marched to the front singing “Over There” and “K-K-K-Katie” in unison. When Frank Buckles passes, the last reverberations of those grand old tunes will pass with him.
David Laskin’s new book The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War (www.thelongwayhomebook.com ) was released by Harper yesterday, March 16th.