My grandfather Pvt. George “Judge” Knott of the 90th “Tough Ombres” U.S. Army division fought in the trenches of the Great War, which began one hundred years ago this year.
He, along with 4.8 million other U.S. “doughboy” soldiers answered the call from Uncle Sam to face the ugliest reality of life. They were largely ordinary Americans who also happened to be courageous.
Yet, despite his service, my grandfather, an unassuming man from Minnesota, has not been properly recognized. Our country’s efforts in World War I have been downplayed, disregarded, and virtually ignored by too many for too long. Consider this:
• THE U.S. military was instrumental in beating the German Kaiser and ending the four years of death and destruction of World War I, a war that claimed over nine million lives (some historians consider this figure woefully low) and wreaked immeasurable misery.
• Nearly five million U.S. men and women (yes, women enlisted in the war) served with casualties amounting to well over 320,000 — more than the 158,000 casualties in the Korean War and 244,000 casualties in the Vietnam War (source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs).
• Soldiers “over there” encountered extreme, filthy, dangerous physical conditions and witnessed absolute horror. They faced ever-present mud, body lice, rats, corpses, deafening artillery explosions, German machine guns, Big Bertha, maiming shrapnel, lack of drinkable water and food, and “beds” at the bottom of funk holes with standing water tainted with mustard gas. Many had substandard training before being plunked down on the front line.
• THERE WAS virtually nothing to help the doughboys acclimate to “normal” life if they were lucky enough to return home. Attempts were feeble at best to deal with chemical warfare gassing and what was referred to as “shell shock.” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not yet identified, recognized or properly treated. Many doughboy veterans suffered physically and psychologically for the rest of their lives.
• These were the men who had to put food on the table during the Great Depression that followed the war. Many possessed only an eighth-grade education, if that. The GI bill enabling them to financially continue their schooling did not exist. Soon after the war, many had to watch their sons fight the Germans all over again in World War II and encountered an entirely different but still hellish perspective of war. Many World War I veterans lived out their days physically broken and emotionally scarred.
I AM NOT the only one who seeks to point out the shameful omission of a national memorial for the doughboys. The late Frank Buckles, the last of the U.S. doughboys, also called for a national World War I memorial on the Mall. There have been recent discussions about rededicating the small municipal World War I memorial or Pershing Park in Washington DC (please see http://wwimemorial.org for more information).
But a repurposed, slipshod afterthought is not what the U.S. soldiers deserve. A recycled memorial is just not good enough. Besides, doesn’t changing the purpose of a memorial defeat its purpose?
Instead, our doughboys deserve our best efforts toward a fitting tribute ... a purposeful, intentional, and evocative structure that acknowledges their contributions in a catastrophic worldwide event that changed the course of history. They have earned their own national memorial in a place of honor. Prior to World War I, the U.S. had never before assembled a large army to fight overseas (called the American Expeditionary Force or AEF). This is something that is hard to imagine now that we have emerged as the sole world superpower with military presence seemingly throughout the world.
OUR ICONIC national memorials help us reflect, learn, and honor our veterans. The Washington DC Mall is the premiere park and face of our nation with over 25 million visitors each year. It’s been pointed out that we have built the other national war memorials on the Mall backwards — the first being the Vietnam when many Vietnam veterans still lived. Then came the Korean, followed by the World War II memorial.
It is long overdue for a World War I National Memorial to join all the other twentieth-century war memorials in its proper place on the DC Mall. There are no more doughboys. No one left to thank. There can be no honor flights. We can only remember. The Great War changed my grandfather’s life, and it changed the world.
Jennifer Rude Klett of Delafield, Wis., a freelance writer and former journalist (www.jrudeklett.com), is the wife of Beloit native Jon Klett and the daughter-in-law of Fred and Joanne Klett of Beloit. She is the author of a nonfiction book about her family’s war experiences in “Alamo Doughboy: Marching Into The Heart Of Kaiser’s Germany During World War I” (Branden Books, 2014). Klett will be a presenting author at the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books at noon today at UW-Waukesha. She is not affiliated with the National World War I Memorial Foundation.