Veteran generations: ‘Where are the last of the Doughboys?’

Courtesy photograph

We are coming up on a round of centennials, and these won’t be as easy to track as many of the anniversary dates that have been arranged around significant World War II historic events.

In 2014, a great paratrooper buddy, Henry Ochsner, traveled from his California City home to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. There he was able to celebrate with Bruce Springsteen and the superintendent of West Point as table mates, along with heading over to visit the Airborne Museum near St. Mere Eglise. Recently, it was the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and the veterans who could make it out to the USS Arizona were frail and fewer.

We have lost the Doughboys of World War I to the inexorable advance of the calendar. We have so many 90-somethings now, and centenarians, more than ever before. Most of them would be the generational sons and daughters of World War I participants.

In 2013, author Richard Rubin published  “The Last OF The Doughboys,” a fascinating book about dozens of interviews he gathered with veterans of World War I, many of whom were passing their 100th birthdays when he searched them out.

It is a terrific book about the Great War, and Americans who served in that first great conflagration of the 20th century. World War I was the war that ushered in WMD, the so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction. Those killing instruments included rapid-firing artillery, poison gas and, chiefly, the machine gun, which mowed down thousands of troops like so many rows of wheat. It was a gun that killed with machine-like factory efficiency.

My Acton fruit rancher friend, Ray Billett, who died just last year at 78, was the son of Kline Billett, a U.S. Marine who was gassed while fighting in France in 1918. His dad was a Marine battle buddy of my great uncle Jess Turley. They fought in the same company of the 4th Brigade (Marine), 2nd Division, American Expeditionary Force. It is a small world, connected by family and experience.

Right now, we are in the centennial year of 1917, which was the year that America entered World War I, with then President Woodrow Wilson declaring it a “war to make the world safe for democracy,” which it never really did. It was also promoted as “The war to end war.” And it certainly did not do that.

But nearly 5 million Americans served, and of them, 2 million Americans served overseas in World War I by the time of Armistice, more than 53,000 Americans were killed, and 204,000 wounded. That is a death rate that means about 10,000 Americans killed a month during the five heaviest months of fighting that led up to the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.

Another great uncle, Joseph Otto Turley, was one of the 53,406 listed by the Department of Defense as killed in battle, and his brother, Tom, was severely wounded. Along with Jess they all three served in the 4th Brigade, known colloquially as the “Marine Brigade.”

Next year, 2018, will be the centennial of the year World War I ended in Armistice — what we now observe as Veterans Day.

Rubin’s book “The Last OF The Doughboys” was remarkable because his research began 85 years after the end of World War I. His interview subjects are now all deceased, but when he found them, living with family, or in care facilities, they ranged in age from 101 to 113 years. Imagine. Many of them expressed sharp and vivid memories of the conflict that shaped their youth into manhood.

They are all gone now. Even if battle does not, or earlier illness, the calendar ultimately exacts its own toll, and the Doughboys have left this life and live on now only in our histories.

The elderly veterans who we revere and honor now are the ones newsman Tom Brokaw dubbed “The Greatest Generation.” Those sons and daughters of the Great Depression became the troops who fought and won the even larger, even more catastrophic World War II, which ushered in the Nuclear Age, and weapons that could actually threaten all human life on Earth if unleashed to full, deadly potential.

One of our Antelope Valley’s greatest advocates for — and supporters of — the World War II generation is Bob Alvis, a fifty-something veteran of the Cold War who did most of his four years in the Air Force after the last Americans left Vietnam.

On a weeknight, Bob will haul some DVDs and a few pizzas, and maybe some beer, over to the William J. “Pete” Knight Veterans Home. Nobody ever told Bob that he had to do such a thing. He just did it. He just does it.

Early in the 21st century, in that simpler time for Americans just before the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bob put enormous personal commitment and energy into the drive to build the World War II Memorial in Washington.

He also helped organize a dazzling World War II history display at the Antelope Valley Fair in the year before the 9/11 attacks. He brought in a World War II restored Jeep, painted with 3rd Infantry Division, three-striped insignia. In World War I, the 3rd Division’s machine gunners blocked a German drive on Paris, earning the title ”Rock Of The Marne,” meaning the Marne River.

In World War II, 3rd Infantry Division earned new fame when Audie Murphy became the “most decorated soldier,” including the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, multiple Silver Stars and Bronze Stars and some Purple Hearts for wounds.

But Audie Murphy’s most searing wound was to his peace of mind. Arrived too early in our history to be diagnosed for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the G.I. turned movie star slept fitfully and with nightmares of dying buddies. He kept a .45 automatic, loaded, within easy reach, gambled away a fortune and died too young.

During the invasion of Iraq, the 3rd Infantry Division became the first unit into Baghdad, with officers and troops still saluting each other with the greeting, “Rock Of The Marne,” that echo of what the soldiers of the division achieved in World War I. The unit I rolled with as an embedded editor did “passage of lines” through the 3rd Division area on the road to Baghdad.

The World War I Doughboys are long gone. I met the daughter of one such soldier recently. Antelope Valley Senior Of The Year nominee Naomi Tanikawa’s father fought with the 3rd Division in France at the Marne. In the next war, he served with Army intelligence when most Japanese-Americans were interned behind barbed wire at “relocation camps” like Manzanar.

“My mother was so angry with him,” Tanikawa recalled. “She said ‘How can you leave me here with four kids,’” the Tanikawas of California being confined at an internment camp in Colorado.

“He said, ‘I have to go. It’s my duty,’” his eighty-something daughter recalled. For his contribution, he was awarded posthumously a Congressional Gold Medal of extraordinary achievement.

On Tuesday evenings, we have a veterans talking group, Point Man of the Antelope Valley.

It has a spread of veterans, mostly Vietnam War, with a few Global War on Terror vets. The Vietnam War vets were often drafted, and they did what Sgt. 1st Class Tanikawa did. They did their duty. Now, nearly 50 years later, the memories, the ghosts of friends and enemies, still claim space in the minds of too many veterans.

A thing about service, voluntary, or conscripted, is that it most often is the most enormous event that happens to a young person. As someone who does clinical practice with veterans, we learn that human brain development remains formative at the age most young people enter service. What happens to them will stick with them, hard-wired in the brain.

At a recent Point Man — where what is said there stays there — nevertheless, someone marveled that it had been, by now, so long since most of them “were soldiers once, and young.” For the Vietnam War generation, they are quickly becoming the “old campaigners” who are successor to the World War II and Korean War veterans.

The American Legion formed in 1919 as an organization that supported the veterans of World War I.

Vietnam War veterans recall they were “the newbies” at Legion Posts, with the World War II and Korean War brethren giving them hard looks, cool appraisal, and sometimes a cold stare. Later, the Vietnam War era veterans became the mainstays of their Posts. These days, Vietnam War veterans would love more War on Terror vets in the Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

This is that thing about veterans and passage of time. Now, the high “middle age” veterans are, like, Desert Storm vets. The new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMasters, is now considered senior Army leadership, and he is 54. Millions of Vietnam War era veterans are 20 years older than the general.

My friend and fellow veteran clinician is Gerry Rice, MFT. Rice is a marriage and family therapist who pulled his time as grunt infantry and scout dog handler, and has a clinical practice to treat veterans with PTSD.

“To these young troops now, we aren’t the World War II guys,” Rice said. “Our war is so long ago that we are the Doughboys!”

And that is how the torch passes. The Doughboys are all gone now. And the Vietnam War generation of troops: We are the Doughboys.

The “War to End War” did not do that. But it did prepare the ground for time to come, that generations of veterans would have to care about, and sometimes provide care for generations of veterans to come. That is what happens because it appears to be there will be no end to war any time soon in the human experience.