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ONE HUNDRED YEARS LATER: REFLECTIONS ON "THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE" IN WORLD WAR I

The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War - Richard Rubin

A few minutes ago (it's now 9:29 PM EST as I write this), I finished reading this book. I felt both grateful for the considerable work the author put into travelling across the country (starting in the summer of 2003) to interview personally as many of the surviving U.S. veterans (men and women alike) of the First World War as could be found --- and thankful to hear these veterans speak of their experiences. This has a special resonance to me because my maternal grandfather (who was born in 1895) had served in France as a corporal in the U.S. Army in 1918. He passed away in the early 1970s (when I was a 3rd grader) as I was beginning to come into an awareness of what war was, courtesy of Vietnam. So, it wasn't until many years later, that I came to have a special appreciation for those Americans who served in the First World War and for the changes that war wrought on this country.

Many of the persons Richard Rubin interviewed represented a broad cross-section of those Americans (both native born and immigrant) who served in uniform between 1917 and 1918. While most of the veterans he interviewed (Army, Navy, and Marine Corps) served overseas, there were at least a couple of them who remained in the United States. Indeed, one of them enlisted toward the end of the war and before he could become more fully integrated in "the Army way", the armistice was signed and he was told he could go home. He hadn't been issued a uniform and aside from receiving transit home, the Army gave him a certificate of service and a dollar.

The author also managed to interview a couple of African American veterans of the war. One of them, was George Johnson, a 111 year old living in Richmond, California in 2005. His Army experience was largely reflective of the disdain and indignities with which many African Americans who served in the U.S military during the First World War had to deal with from their white compatriots, and the general society. Mr. Johnson's case was somewhat unique in that, as a very light-skinned African American, he could have easily passed as white, had he so chose. When he speaks with the author about the experiences his brother had with the U.S. Navy (where he was thought to be white and treated as such, until in answer to a query one of his shipmates put to him, he admitted that he was 'Negro'), it was a very sad and tragic story. One that impacted on Mr. Johnson for the rest of his life and perhaps was the contributing factor that made Mr. Johnson later see himself as white and not black. The other African American veteran the author interviewed in 2006 was Moses Hardy at age 113 in Aberdeen, Mississippi. Mr. Hardy served in one of the U.S. Army "pioneer infantry" regiments in France which saw combat during the final stages of the war.
He was in one of the few African American combat units, for most African American soldiers, upon arrival in France, were placed into labor units. (According to the book: "...only 20 percent of all African American troops sent to France in World War I were used as fighting men.") This was reflective of the then widespread belief that African American soldiers were unfit for combat duties. (Never mind the distinguished service African Americans had provided the country as soldiers and sailors since the American Revolution.)

The book concludes with a series of interviews the author had with Frank Woodruff Beckles, who ended up as the last surviving U.S. First World War veteran. His story was richly fascinating, encompassing so much of the world in which he spent so much time between the wars, working on a variety of jobs.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the U.S. declaration of war against Germany (April 6, 1917), I would strongly urge any one reading this review to pick up a copy "THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS" and treat yourself to one of the most rewarding experiences you'll ever have.