Friday, November 19, 2010


(Excerpted from my speech delivered to the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force in Mesa earlier this month.)

This month is Veterans Day, honoring all our military personnel, past and present. Currently some 24 million living Americans have worn the nation’s uniform. But only one of those surviving served in WW I, known at the time as The Great War.

Did you know that WW I officially ended last month? The current German government made the final $94 million payment required under the Versailles Treaty, 91 years and another world war (and a half-century cold war) after 1919. The Nazi government had renounced the treaty in 1933, and payments didn’t resume until after WW II.

A bit of background on the holiday.

On the first anniversary of the Great War armistice President Woodrow Wilson (of whom more later) issued a proclamation observing the occasion. Congress made Armistice Day a national holiday in 1938, and it became Veterans Day in 1954.

About 4.7 million Americans served in the Great War, of whom roughly one quarter went to Europe. Some 116,500 Yanks died in the war, including 53,500 killed in action while 3,350 were listed missing. Another 204,000 were wounded. It was the first war in which enemy action caused more casualties than disease. Only 20 years before, 385 Americans were KIA fighting Spain while more than 2,000 died of other causes.

Several hundred WWI servicemen still remain MIA, but a handful are found occasionally. Last year some French researchers turned up the remains of an American who was identified by the marksmanship badge on his uniform. He was a Marine NCO, 29 year old 1st Sergeant George Humphrey, killed in September 1918. He was buried in Arlington Cemetery this summer.

For so important an event, the Great War has received precious little attention. There has never been a national memorial to Americans who served and died in WW I, and obviously there never will be. In 1931 the District of Columbia erected a handsome memorial to those residents who died in the war, but it’s fallen into disrepair. There’s a fine museum in Missouri which receives little public notice.

Not many people today ever knew WW I combat veterans. We were fortunate to know some Great War airmen when the Champlin Fighter Museum existed from 1981 to 2003. Three of our favorites were aces but completely different kinds of people. Two of them were really sweet old gentlemen. Bob Todd had been shot down and captured flying a Camel with the 148th Aero Squadron while Ray Brooks of the 22nd made ace in a SPAD. On the other hand, Ken Porter of the 147th was a crusty old balloon buster who served in the same pursuit group as Frank Luke. Ken once was asked about the knights of the air nonsense, and I’ll always remember his reply. “Son, if you ever found yourself in a fair fight, it meant you fouled up.” Only he didn’t say “fouled.”

I knew of a couple of Great War aces who didn’t get along. We liked to think that it involved a dispute over cards or mademoiselles but we never learned why. Apparently it was a postwar feud because they flew in different organizations in different areas.

A local WW I pilot was Gordon Collinson of Scottsdale, who flew SE-5s in No. 41 Squadron RAF. I once asked him about early dive bombing and he said that his squadron dived diagonally across a road or bridge because that increased chances of a hit. Any Thud pilots in the audience? That’s exactly the way it was done in North Vietnam, unless LBJ’s rules of engagement required our guys to get shot at more effectively by the enemy.

Everybody knows about Frank Luke—or thinks they do. The definitive account of his brief career and famous last mission was published in 2008 by a colleague of mine, Stephen Skinner. The Stand is an intriguing story, especially once the political background is understood. Luke was of course a maverick, but he was by far the most successful balloon burner in the U.S. air service. Because it was essential to destroy the German balloon line for the St. Mihiel offensive in September 1918, he was given wide latitude by his group commander, a fact resented by his strict squadron CO. It’s said that had Frank returned from his last flight he would have been court martialed but more likely he would’ve been transferred from the 27th to the 94th Aero Squadron where CO Eddie Rickenbacker was more supportive.

Actually, there was another Arizona ace, SPAD pilot Ralph O’Neill from Nogales. He died in 1980.

In 1918 the U.S. population had just topped 100 million. Arizona, 48th and last of the continental states, had about 300,000 people. Arizona figured in America’s eventual entry into the war, however remotely. In 1917 the German foreign minister wrote the Mexican government suggesting an alliance: an invasion of the U.S. southwest with a settlement involving return of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to Mexico proper. It was an absurd idea: Mexico remained in a state of chaos after the revolution.

Today, the conventional wisdom holds that Germany started the war. But the record shows room for latitude. The event was precipitated when a Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated the archduke of Austria-Hungary in July 1914. The Serbs made all manner of conciliatory offers but Vienna was determined to have war and refused to settle. Russia began mobilizing in support of the Serbs, which brought in Germany as an Austrian ally. Look at the telegrams between the Kaiser and the Czar—they were both Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, and the Czar and King George of Britain looked more like twin brothers than cousins. The exchange went, “Dear Nicky” and “Dear Willie.” Had Russia stood down, Germany would lack reason to go to war, but could not permit Russia’s huge manpower to mobilize first. Consequently, Britain and France jumped in and the rest, as they say, is history.

Eighty years later a coauthor of mine, noting events in Bosnia, said, “How can you expect peace in an area where they built a monument to the guy who started the First World War?”

It was an entirely unnecessary war that killed perhaps 16 million people, and aggravated the influenza pandemic in 1918-19. Wilson had been re-elected in 1916 on the basis “He kept us out of the war” but then committed America to the conflict the next year at least partly because of heavy U.S. investments in France and Britain. Winston Churchill later said that absent America’s entry, there likely would have been a cease fire in 1917 because the French army mutinied and the Brits couldn’t maintain an offensive by themselves. Therefore, America’s entry probably cost many more lives than would have been lost after the middle of 1917.

Whatever the geopolitics, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the origin of Veterans Day, and urge you to remember the doughboys, airmen and sailors who served during “the war to end all wars.”