Author Interviews
3:26 pm
Fri May 24, 2013

A Race Against Time To Find WWI's Last 'Doughboys'

Originally published on Sat May 25, 2013 4:27 am

Ten years ago, writer Richard Rubin set out to talk to every living American veteran of World War I he could find. It wasn't easy, but he tracked down dozens of centenarian vets, ages 101 to 113, collected their stories and put them in a new book called The Last of the Doughboys. He tells NPR's Melissa Block about the veterans he talked to, and the stories they shared.


Interview Highlights

On how he found the veterans, after the Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion came up short

"In 1998, the government of France had started awarding the Legion of Honor, their highest decoration, to living American veterans who'd served in World War I on French soil. And they undertook an intensive search for such men, and they ended up finding 550 or so men and women, and eventually I found a list of these people; and that was the first big break I got."

On Arthur Fiala, then 104, of Kewaunee, Wis., who left for France in early 1918 and still remembered details like how porpoises swam alongside the boat on his way to Europe and, upon arriving, a man he saw "taking a pee" while tipping his hat to a woman walking by

"That's the kind of thing I don't think you ever forget, I suppose, if you see it — especially if you've just landed in-country after a long ocean voyage. But he — at one point we're talking, and he starts to tell me this wonderful story about stumbling into a mountain village in France, and the girls are wearing wooden shoes and carrying a yoke with milk pails. And he's invited into a house, and they keep a cow in the house on the other side of a partition from the living room. And, you know, a lot of people that I interviewed had really remarkable memories, but I think his was even special in that group."

On whether the veterans had told their stories many times before

"Quite a few of them told me that they were telling me things that they hadn't talked about in 50, 60, 70 years. I asked a few of them why not, and the surprising response often was that nobody had asked."

On the race to get to the veterans before it was too late

"I'm sorry to tell you that often that was a race that I lost. For everybody who's in this book, there's somebody I didn't get to on time. I remember one gentleman who lived out in Las Vegas. I spoke to his niece, who was his closest living relative. He was 108 at the time, and she said, 'Oh yes, he's very clear-minded, and he loves to talk.' So I booked the ticket for two weeks hence, and by the time I got out there he was unconscious in a hospital bed, and he died the next morning."

On veteran George Briant's memories of the war

"Of all the veterans I interviewed, he came the closest to being killed in the war. On July 28, 1918, he and his battery were moving through an open field, and they were stopped. And all of a sudden, German planes appeared overhead and dropped bombs on them. And I asked him how many were dropped, and he said he didn't know, but he was hit by every one. And he went to the hospital for several months and had to beg them to send him back to the front. And he got there just a few weeks before the war ended, and witnessed horrible, horrible things on the last night of the war. ...

"He was walking around, and there were some men who had sought shelter in a patch of woods, and the Germans targeted it with artillery. And a number of these men were killed at that spot. And he came upon their bodies very shortly after that happened, and he said, 'Such fine, handsome, healthy young men, to be killed on the last night of the war.' He said, 'I cried for their parents.' I mean it's a terrible, terrible thing to lose anyone you love in a war, but imagine knowing precisely when that war ends, and then knowing that your loved one died just hours before that moment."

On the experience of hearing Briant tell that story

"It was a strange thing. He started crying quite vigorously, but then a couple of minutes later he stopped just as suddenly, and his mood was actually the best it had been the whole time I was there. I like to think that maybe he purged something that he'd been carrying around for nearly 100 years."

On how, after being known as the Great War and The War To End All Wars, World War I became a forgotten war

"That's a very interesting question, because once upon a time that was not so. If you walk around with your eyes open, you'll quickly discover that there are more monuments and memorials in this country to World War I than to any other war. So for some years after the war ended, it was terribly important to people that it and the people who fought it be remembered. But the war was also a terribly traumatic experience for this country. You have to remember that it didn't start like World War II — we weren't attacked. And Americans were in [World War I] for only about 19 months, and yet in that time we lost 117,000 men. It was a terribly traumatic experience, and afterwards America withdrew into itself. And then of course the Great Depression came along and World War II, and the Great War got pushed further back in our national consciousness."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Ten years ago, writer Richard Rubin set out to talk to every living American veteran of World War I he could find. It wasn't easy, but he tracked down dozens of centenarian vets, ages 101 to 113, and collected their stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

ARTHUR FIALA: I went to Green Bay and enlisted in the Army. And the big war was on. I just said I want to - I'd like to get into outfit that's going to get over to France quick. You do - you pick out the place where you want me to go, wherever I could be used. After, they let me go.

BLOCK: That's veteran Arthur Fiala of Kewaunee, Wisconsin. His story and many more are included in Richard Rubin's new book. It's titled "The Last of the Doughboys." And Richard Rubin joins me now to talk about it. Welcome to the program.

RICHARD RUBIN: Hi. Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: You know, when you set out on this project, you discovered that it was really hard to get an accounting of who were the living World War I veterans at the time. The VA didn't have a list - the VFW, the American Legion - but ultimately, it turned out the French knew, and that was your big in.

RUBIN: It was. In 1998, the government of France had started awarding the Legion of Honor, their highest decoration, to living American veterans who'd served in World War I on French soil. They undertook an intensive search for such men, and they ended up finding 550 or so men and women. And eventually, I found a list of these people, and that was the first big break I got. I actually found Mr. Fiala and a lot of other people off that list.

BLOCK: Let's go back to Arthur Fiala. He was 104 years old when you talked to him, and we heard him earlier talking about enlisting. He served with the 20th Engineers, shipped out for France early in 1918. I want to play a little bit more of your interview with him describing that voyage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

FIALA: Four days, I thought I was in heaven. Oh, it was so nice. The sea was quiet. I was watching porpoises diving alongside the boat. And about the fourth day, it got rough. I got sick. And I was sick.

BLOCK: And, Mr. Rubin, here's what's so amazing about Arthur Fiala, to me, that he remembers so clearly these really tiny details, like those porpoises diving alongside the boat that he mentions. He tells you about a Frenchman that he saw when he lands in France, taking a pee, as he describes it, and at the same time tipping his hat to a woman walking by. Clear as a bell in his mind.

RUBIN: Well, that's the kind of thing I don't think you ever forget, I suppose, if you see it, especially if you've just landed in-country after a long ocean voyage. But he - at one point we're talking, and he starts to tell me this wonderful story about stumbling into a mountain village in France, and the girls are wearing wooden shoes and carrying a yoke with milk pails. And he's invited into a house, and they keep a cow in the house on the other side of a partition from the living room. And, you know, a lot of people that I interviewed had really remarkable memories, but I think his was even special in that group.

BLOCK: Did you find that these veterans, these World War I vets had told these stories many times before, or were they just excavating things they hadn't talked about or maybe thought about for a really long time?

RUBIN: Quite a few of them told me that they were telling me things that they hadn't talked about in 50, 60, 70 years. I asked a few of them why not, and the surprising response often was that nobody had asked.

BLOCK: It must have felt like a real race against time to find these centenarians before, you know, it was just too late.

RUBIN: You know, it was. And I'm sorry to tell you that often that was a race that I lost. For everybody who's in this book, there's somebody I didn't get to on time. I remember one gentleman who lived out in Las Vegas. I spoke to his niece who was his closest living relative. He was 108 at the time, and she said: Oh, yes, he's very clear-minded, and he loves to talk. So I booked a ticket for two weeks hence, and by the time I got out there, he was unconscious in a hospital bed, and he died the next morning.

BLOCK: You also have some pretty poignant descriptions from these veterans of the moment on November 11, 1918, when the guns fell silent, when the war was over. One of the veterans you talked to about that moment is George Briant, and he described it this way. He said: You looked like you were in a new land. You couldn't believe that everything is quiet.

RUBIN: Yes. And he was - of all the veterans I interviewed, he came the closest to being killed. On July 28, 1918, he and his battery were moving through an open field, and they were stopped. And all of a sudden, German planes appeared overhead and dropped bombs on them. And I asked him how many were dropped, and he said he didn't know, but he was hit by every one. And he went to the hospital for several months and had to beg them to send him back to the front. And he got there just a few weeks before the war ended and witnessed horrible, horrible things on the last night of the war.

BLOCK: And when he talked to you about that, he got very, very upset. It must have been a really uncomfortable position for you as the interviewer there.

RUBIN: Well, it was a strange thing. He started crying quite vigorously, but then a couple of minutes later, he stopped just as suddenly, and his mood was actually the best it had been the whole time I was there. And I like to think that maybe he purged something that he'd been carrying around for nearly 100 years.

BLOCK: What was he describing that got him so upset?

RUBIN: On the last night of the war, he was walking around, and there were some men who had sought shelter in a patch of woods. And the Germans targeted it with artillery, and a number of these men were killed at that spot. And he came upon their bodies very shortly after that happened, and he said such fine handsome, healthy, young men to be killed on the last night of the war. He said, I cried for their parents. I mean, it's a terrible, terrible thing to lose anyone you love in a war, but imagine knowing precisely when that war ends and then knowing that your loved one died just hours before that moment.

BLOCK: Richard Rubin, World War I was called the Great War. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars, but you say it very quickly became the Forgotten War. How do you account for the fact that it's now largely forgotten, became forgotten so quickly?

RUBIN: You know, that's a very interesting question because once upon a time, that was not so. If you walk around with your eyes open, you'll quickly discover that there are more monuments and memorials in this country to World War I than to any other war. But the war was also a terribly traumatic experience for this country. You have to remember that Americans were in that war for only about 19 months, and yet in that time, we lost 117,000 men. It was a terribly traumatic experience, and afterwards, America withdrew into itself. And then, of course, the Great Depression came along and World War II, and the Great War got pushed further back in our national consciousness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER THERE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Over there, over there, send the word...

BLOCK: Richard Rubin, his book is "The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War." Richard Rubin, thanks so much.

RUBIN: It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER THERE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) The drums are rum-tumming everywhere. So prepare, say a prayer, send the word, send the word...

BLOCK: All the World War I veterans who Richard Rubin talked to for his book, in fact all the veterans of that war have now died, the last American veteran in 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER THERE")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Over there, over there, send the word, send the word...

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.