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(10,122 posts)
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 04:57 PM Nov 2023

My Great Uncle was a WW1 veteran [View all]

Last edited Sun Nov 12, 2023, 01:31 AM - Edit history (2)

When he was eight, his father died unexpectedly.
He dropped out of school to work two jobs to support his mother, my grandfather who was six years old and his younger sister. His siblings stayed in school while he worked.
He never stopped working as his mother and siblings needed his support.
Eventually, he got into law enforcement when he got older.
He lied about his age and joined the army when WW1 came along.

He got shot in the head. They put a plate in and sent him back out to fight.
He got promoted and fought hard. War is a terrible thing. That war was as bad as any.
When the war was over, he came home. He had many ‘souvenirs’ from German soldiers he had captured (weapons, helmets, swords/sabres, etc.)
He just dropped them at my grandfather's house and left.

Years later, my brother and I were playing in the basement of my grandfather's house when we came across his war souvenirs. We asked about them. We couldn't believe we had kind of a war hero in the family we'd never heard about. We were very young. I was about 7 years old. Hollywood was still sort of glorifying WW2 in the movies ..

I kept at my father. "What happened to him?" "Why don't we see him?" "Where is he?" "The family should be seeing him, shouldn't they?"
He'd dropped his belongings and went out west to live in the woods more than 40 years before.
Once a year, he would write his brother.
I told my father “You have to go get him" I would not let it go. My 9-year-old brother backed me.
I didn't understand why he would not be with us or see us.
We basically shamed my father into doing something about it.
My Dad was 2 years old when he returned from the war. He'd never really met him either.

My father relented, tracked him down and sent him thousands of dollars to entice him to visit and pay his traveling expenses. In the fall of 1963, he came to visit for a week.

To this day, I have never met anyone like him. I had an instant, incredible connection with him. It was like we knew what each other was thinking without speaking. I was glued to him for that week. But we didn't say much. It was kinetic. Extraordinary serenity, comfort and safety with another person. I can't fully explain it. Never experienced anything like it since. He seemed to feel something too.

Just as the plates were being taken away after our last dinner, my dad requested of my great uncle "Tell the boys about the war ..." My great uncle was across from me. He froze. Tears welled up. As I darted around the table, my father, with a more insistent tone, demanded again. I said in a panic "He already answered!" Everyone look at me like I was nuts. He had said nothing. I said it again more emphatically as I stood protectively beside him. His eyes and expression answered the question. Nothing more needed to be said. In the silence of his response, I could sense the terror & feel the horror. Like I could hear the screams inside of his mind.

He left the next morning to go back to his home alone in the wilderness.

My mother lost her mother to cancer when she was eight. At age fifteen, she nursed my grandfather as he wheezed to death from the gassings in the WW1 trenches. We were not allowed to speak of the wars around her. It could trigger tremendous suffering she never got over.

I asked to go see my great uncle. I could spend the summer in the wilderness with him. He had built a cabin in the woods. My parents wouldn't let me. A few years later, the police informed us he'd passed away. They delivered a box of his belongings. That was it.

Except it wasn't it for me. I was troubled. This man stopped his childhood at age eight and devoted his life to taking care of his mother and siblings. He served in law enforcement and defended his country. How could such a person wind up like he did? My brother and I started researching. We tracked down people in the town near where he lived (we fixed up his grave). We went through the war records, etc. We found articles that had mentioned him. We traced where he'd been. We found that he had relieved my mother's father in a trench in France - they marched past each other - a few years before my mother was born.

But it still didn't make sense. Something had happened. It seemed to have happened in the war. Trench warfare is horrific but there seemed to be something else or more. Why did he turn in his stripes? I kept digging. Finally, an officer in the army agreed to let me look at records that were not in the public and said he'd try to help me figure out what happened. In 2016, we met at a facility where these records were.

From a review of the records, the officer felt that my great uncle had become upset at the waste of young soldiers by their commanding officers’ careless command. He spoke out. They took exception and made an example of him. They tied him to a wagon wheel and rolled him out to around the trenches barely in range of the Germans. The Germans could practice target shooting at him. They left him there for two weeks. Then, he turned in his stripes.

They broke him.
It happened over 100 years ago and I am crying as I type that.
It is still so hard to accept.

Turns out the army had motivation for seeing me. They had a problem with soldiers coming back from Iraq & Afghanistan who were killing themselves. They wanted to try to understand why my great uncle, who obviously had severe PTSD, had not killed himself. And if they got that understanding, maybe it could help them help others. I had an instant answer. "Look at his army pay. It was going home to his mother and sister. He'd looked after them since he was eight years old. If he killed himself, how would they survive? So, he toughed it out in the woods making a few bucks panning for gold, trapping, dog sledding, lumberjacking, etc. and supporting them like he'd done all his life. It's pretty simple. That was the essence of my great uncle => taking care of his family was his top priority."

Hardly anyone knows he existed.
If it wasn't for him, there is a good chance my family and I would not exist.
There are no monuments or medals for him. Just a flat grave marker covered by leaves in the woods in the middle of nowhere.
I still appreciate the week I got with him. I hope it gave him some relief from the immense pain he was in.
I will never forget him.

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