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Thursday, Apr. 28, 2016

Gray Matter: Wars and rumors of wars

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I hope my last story concerning Armistice Day didn't cause undue confusion. I should have explained that, though I knew it officially became Veterans Day in 1954, I thought it interesting to trace the true origins of this special day.

The first World War started in 1914, but the US was not involved until April 16, 1917. A registration of men, ages 21 through 40, was immediately ordered. When fighting ended 19 months later, 112,000 personnel had died - over half from disease, mainly the fearsome flu epidemic. About 37,000 were actually killed in action. According to records, more than half the US forces were not involved directly in combat, which was true for Peter Grauer, who recorded the story of Armistice Day.

Single and aged 26, he was among the first called. Recruits from Cherokee County, with a group from Plymouth County, headed for Camp Dodge, on May 26. After 2 months of intensive training, they went by troop train to Camp Mills, Long Island, NY.

There, aboard a British ship, they departed in a convoy for the 12-day crossing. Landing in Liverpool on Aug. 28, they were immediately transported to Southampton, from where they crossed the Channel to Le Havre. A four-mile hike took them to an American camp, where they stayed briefly. Next, they went across France by train for additional intensive training in Alsace-Lorraine. Following this, the company marched to a fort near Belfort, which is where last week's account took up the story.

After the Armistice, thoughts of immediately going home were soon dashed. Grauer's company was dispatched to Gondrecourt in the poorest area of France. All troops were ordered to clear up evidences of war, and help restore infrastructure wherever they went. At Gondrecourt, they built barracks and other facilities while a rigorous program of athletic training was instituted to keep up morale.

As time passed, an ingenious system of post schools was improvised. It seems that 6th grade was the average level of education of the AEF. Many among them were unable to read or write. Their division soon had nearly 3,000 students enrolled in 26 such schools, with special attention to the illiterate. Others, Peter among them, went on to study American and French history, civics and other more advanced studies. There were even opportunities for officers, with sufficient education, to continue training in the professions in French universities.

Finally,on May 27, 1919, Cpl. Grauer set sail for home from the port of St. Nazaire, on a captured German ship, renamed the "Pocahontas." Ten days after landing at Newport News, VA, they took a train to Camp Dodge, by way of St. Louis. Peter's father went to Des Moines to meet him. When his discharge finally came through, on, July 14, 1919, they headed home, arriving on the morning Flyer. The next day, a family gathering was held at his Uncle Adam Grauer's farm to welcome the triumphant hero home.

Sadly, the triumph was short-lived, for an even greater conflict began less than a quarter century later. Though but a youngster, I still remember the day my mother picked up the Rotogravure Section of the Des Moines Register and pointed out a special feature, "Pictures from World War I." That was the first time the chilling prospect had been openly acknowledged, that there could be more than one World War. I sensed my parents' apprehension and I was frightened. Individual wars end, but warfare goes on. The inept manner in which world leaders (perhaps our own chief among them) settled the score after the war of 1914-18, seems to have set the stage for what followed. In view of those bitter lessons, the Marshall Plan was used after WW II to turn the conquered into friends, instead of enemies.

Still, no matter how much is learned, societies seem to go on creating more problems, thinking somehow, that wars will solve them. They won't, of course, but mankind seems to never learn.