In 1936, I was eleven and Veterans Day was still Armistice Day. We observed a Minute of Silence at eleven minutes past the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the exact moment the guns fell silent in 1918.
Standing before the statue of the Doughboy, it was hard for me to connect that heroic helmeted figure, its dull bronze the color of war, with the aging veterans of the color guard, their identical helmets and rifles a shiny chrome. As Taps sounded, tears trickled down their cheeks. I had expected that from the blue-caped Gold Star Mothers, but not from grown men.
Less than ten years later, newly discharged and still in uniform, I stood before the parents of my buddies killed in action. I could offer condolences but no consolation. Neither they nor I could really speak our minds: that blind luck had hung the Gold Star in their windows and not in my parents’. They cried, as I had expected, but my own tears caught me off guard.
Parents who lose a child never finish grieving. If not every day, then those special days of great expectations forever lost: graduations, Sweet Sixteen, turning twenty-one. Something similar happened to me. With each milestone in my life, thoughts of Gerry and Dick would surface. With my eldest child’s twentieth birthday in 1974 came the eerie realization that my buddies were nineteen forever.
One warm June day in 1996, I stood before the new bell tower of a little village in the Ardennes. Earlier that morning, a large monument to the 87th Infantry Division had been dedicated at a place we called the Bloody Crossroads, to memorialize my old outfit’s actions in the Battle of the Bulge. However, the small plaque on the Tillet bell tower had more personal meaning. It honored the memory of S/Sgt. Curtis Shoup, I Company, 346th Infantry, my old regiment. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously.
The Germans fought desperately for Tillet which stood astride their supply lines, and the village changed hands several times. I was wounded there several days after Shoup’s death, by mortar fire called down by an observer hidden in the old bell tower.
The local people were out en masse because their parents and grandparents had never forgotten us. As schoolchildren came forward with floral wreaths, I didn’t even try to fight back the tears. Several familiar faces were missing from our handful of aging veterans. We veterans were dying off fast, roughly 2,000 a day. Dick and Gerry’s parents were long gone and the kid brothers and sisters would outlive the old soldiers fifteen years at most. Then, I thought, no one would be left who remembered.
The next morning, an old student of mine took us touring. As we sped through the forested hills, his amusing stories of life in Belgium today dispelled the gloom of yesterday. Deep into the Iow country approaching the sea, traffic signs to Ypres appeared. Following them past a succession of WWI cemeteries, we arrived at the Henin Gate, a memorial to hundreds of thousands of British war dead whose bodies were never recovered.
Every evening since the first Armistice Day, three Belgian buglers appear before the Gate precisely at eight. As they sounded The Last Post (the British counterpart of Taps), I tried to get a grip on my emotions. Looking around, I found myself surrounded by elderly Britishers at least ten years my senior. They were too old to have served in WWlI, and much too young for WWl. I was bewildered.
Then it hit me. These were the children, many yet unborn when their soldier-fathers fell in 1916, eighty years before. They had come on pilgrimage, perhaps for the last time, to honor the memory of fathers they had never known. I shivered. WWI would not end for them until they went to the grave.
My WWII unit was almost entirely single teenagers. While anyone over twenty-five was called Pop, I don’t recall children’s photographs being shown off in the barracks. The Last Post at the Henin Gate made me aware for the first time of all the children orphaned by WWII, Korea and Vietnam. These wars will last at least a half century more, for children who may honor the memory of fathers of whom they have no memory.