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May 24th, 2009
11:24 PM ET

Forgotten vets: 'Doughboys' deserve honor too

Visitors scan the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
Visitors scan the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

I never fail to be moved by the 58,000 names carved into the black granite and the mementos left at the base of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

At night the statues of 19 troops on patrol and the faces looking out from the adjacent wall haunt the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall.

I'm less a fan of the design of the National World War II Memorial but you cannot deny the majesty of its position on the National Mall.

But on the National Mall there is no national memorial to the Americans who fought in World War I. The sacrifice of the American Expeditionary Force is owed a place of honor near memorials for wars that came later.

The World War I troops came to be known as "doughboys," a slang term that dated to the soldiers in the Mexican-American War of 1846. Explanations for its origin range from the chalky Mexican dust that gathered on the uniforms of American troops, the dough used to cook their rations or the clay used to clean uniforms and belts.

World War I began in 1914 but not until 1917 did the United States join the fight alongside the British, French and other nations against the armies of Germany and its allies. Several hundred thousand Americans, most who had barely traveled in their own country, boarded ships bound for Europe.

Their rallying cry was penned by the great American entertainer George M. Cohan. Perhaps you've heard the chorus:
Over there, Over there
Over there, Over there
Send the word, send the word,
Over There
That the Yanks are coming,
The Yanks are coming,
The drums rum tumming everywhere
So prepare,
Say a Prayer
Send the word,
Send the word to beware
We'll be over, we're coming over.
And we won't be back till it's over over there!

And when it was over "over there" the surviving Americans boarded ships for the return passage home, changed by the experience. On the lighter side were the lyrics of Sam Lewis and Joe Young:

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree'
How ya gonna keep 'em away from Broadway
Jazzin around and paintin' the town
How ya gonna keep 'em away from harm, that's a mystery
They'll never want to see a rake or plow
And who the deuce can parleyvous a cow?
How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree'

But these Americans had experienced the horrors of modern warfare. There was brutal hand-to-hand combat by troops charging from trenches, aerial dogfights and bombs dropped from airplanes and poison gas (used by both sides) that choked lungs, killing tens of thousands and leaving hundreds of thousands of others with breathing problems that shortened lives. In 1918, the troop transport ships and the battlefields of Europe were struck by the same flu pandemic that killed tens of millions around the world. By the war's end, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, some 116,000 Americans were dead (among them 53,000 in battle) and 204,000 wounded.

Hidden by trees, crumbling and virtually ignored by tourists walking between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument is a memorial to the World War I fallen who hailed from the District of Columbia itself. The National Park Service has allocated several million dollars to clean up this memorial to D.C.'s troops.

One idea to transform it into a national memorial is to create a trench scene along its side, with statues of soldiers, gas masks on their hip and bayonets fixed on their rifles, peering out as if awaiting the order to charge enemy lines. Plaques would provide information about World War I – among them, perhaps, the poem "In Flanders Fields," written during the war by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD.

Interestingly, there is a site dedicated to the nation's World War I troops in . . . Kansas City, Missouri. The National World War One Museum contains an impressive collection.  The museum is housed in the Liberty Memorial, dedicated in 1926 and refurbished after years of neglect.

Now, don't get me wrong. I like Kansas City. I lived there for a couple of years. I was married there. It's a terrific city.

But a national memorial to the World War I troops should be alongside those for World War II, Korea and Vietnam; lest "the war to end all wars" be forgotten by those who come to pay homage.

The lone living American veteran of World War I is 108-year-old Frank Buckles, a Missouri boy who enlisted at 16. Buckles drove ambulances in England and France, ferrying the wounded to hospitals. Later he escorted prisoners-of-war back to Germany. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp-stories/loc.natlib.afc2001001.01070/ Today a resident of West Virginia, Buckles attends parades and other events in his wheelchair, proudly wearing his military decorations.

"Don't let Frank Buckles die without a National World War I Memorial" is the name of a campaign to create a memorial on the Mall. Check it out on Facebook . The campaign is being led by David DeJonge, a portrait photographer from Grand Rapids, Mich., whose quest in recent years has been to photograph the dwindling number of veterans of "the war to end all wars," in the United States and across Europe.

In a statement issued in recent days, Buckles said: "As the last veteran of World War I, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to give proper recognition to all of the millions who fought in that war and are now gone. I intend to give all of my efforts in the time I have left to see that a national memorial to World War I joins the other war memorials on the National Mall."

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, has authored legislation to create a national World War I memorial on the Mall.  The support of armed forces veterans in the House and Senate, several with combat experience, is being sought.

It's understandable that Kansas City would want Liberty Memorial designated as the only national memorial. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, has sponsored legislation to this end.  Congress eventually will sort out the differences.

But Washington, D.C., is the nation's capital and the Mall is "America's front yard." The sacrifice of those "doughboys" of World War I troops is owed a national memorial on that ground.


Filed under: 360° Radar • David Gergen • Memorial Day
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. KEITH KINNUNEN

    WE CAN ONLY IMAGINE WHAT OUR VETS HAVE GONE THROUGH FOR US. NEXT TIME YOU HEAR A VET. TELL A WAR STORY, LISTEN!!! OR ONE DAY HISTORY WILL REPEAT ITSELF.

    May 25, 2009 at 10:18 pm |
  2. Annie Kate

    It would be nice to commemorate all our veterans from all our wars – both large and small – Civil War (both sides), Spanish American War, Mexican War, War of 1812 and especially the Revolutionary War. To have a meaningful memorial for each of these wars that figure so large in our history and the veterans that fought in each would be a wonderful addition to what is already at the National Mall.

    May 25, 2009 at 9:52 pm |
  3. Todd

    Anderson,

    While I agree with almost your entire post, if you haven't been to the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, you really should. The rennovated museum is truly worth being called our national WWI memorial.

    Of course, there are other forgotten wars today as well - the Spanish-American War, the Mexican War, the War of 1812 - even the Civil War is only paid lip-service today, and Memorial Day's origin lie in that conflict. All of our soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and coast guardsmen should be remembered.

    May 25, 2009 at 8:14 pm |
  4. Reese

    You know I am getting sick and tired of this idiotic debate about whether we can stop Iran and N.Korea from getting nuclear weapons, 'WE CANT, POINT BLANK.' Through all of the talk by the media talking heads the fact that gets lost in all of this is Iran is a client state of Russia and China and so is N.Korea. The leaders of these countries can't take a whiz without consulting their masters first. They are nothing but pawns in a global power game that Russia and China has decided to play with the US, and they're winning. Russia and China control massive natural resources, debt and imports the US needs to remain a viable country. If they decide to pull these back the US economy would collapse in short order. Then the only option would be to go to war, AND WE WOULD LOSE! They have resources and man power to fight a sustained battle and we don't. In which case a nuclear exchange would be our only option, then everybody loses. Lets tell the whole truth people!

    May 25, 2009 at 6:37 pm |
  5. earle,florida

    "as in all wars,the proud soldier indulges not in recognition,but for preserving the virtue of rightousness; memorials are history's depositions immortalizing time's passing,always with permissive hurdling strenghening ignorance,and eternalizing ambivalence to overcome our perennial prerequsite for emancipation; hence the unwise choice of our leaders to look beyond the past is of great concern,when their rightous ideology legitimizes an ill-gotten fate for the proud soldier; wars are an unfortunate reality since the beginning,and to the end of time,their mutiny is non-existent" "God Bless the American Soldier " Thank You! P.S. You know a couple of billions taken out of our foreign aid slush-fund (there's,"one in the middle-east "that can spare the change?") would help in financing/honoring the WW1 Memorial !

    May 25, 2009 at 3:48 pm |
  6. ronvan

    Shocked & amazed. I did not realize this and it is truly a shame.

    May 25, 2009 at 8:33 am |
  7. J.V.Hodgson

    The WWI war casualties ( vets, most ,if not all still not alive they'd be about 109 years old) should be remembered, and respected.
    In terms of both WWI and WWII it took America too long to join the fray. These compare ridiculously with the more recent American proclivity to enter into "pre-emptive wars" Iraq" the "war on terrorism."
    Both of which had less moral justification than WWI and WWII.
    Never the less when the American soldier was called upon they have responded and yes " we will remember them" and memorials of appropriate style and dignity are essential to honour thier ultimate sacrifice forthe "international community".
    Memorial day is not a unique US institution, but one shared (on different dates) internationally.
    Think the following:-
    1) For the sacrifices made by our great nation. "We will remember them" All.
    2) Spare just a passing thought for the sacrifices of our Allies, "We will remember them" as well.
    3) For a fleeting moment show a little respect for our enemies, they died for what they may or actually did erroneously believe in but " we will remember them".
    Bottom line, todays world clearly demonstrates that all the wars simply changed the nature of the problem, or new problems occur.
    Solution: love thy neighbour,or talk to them ( early enough)like it or not you cannot kill them all!!
    Enjoy ( some of us will only be sad at our personal losses) Memorial day in your way ( "we will remember them") but hopefully, allof us with respect and honourable thoughts.
    Then a strong desire and insistence to politicians of all genres and internationally to finally get the point, War partially fixes today, but simply creates another problem.
    Regards,
    Hodgson

    May 25, 2009 at 6:49 am |
  8. Mike

    I guess from what I have heard in the press is that there is not a WW1 memorial worth of what our troops did. Is that the main question being asked here? Seems like the wheels are in motion for it to occur. DC is the most obvious choice. And if we don't have a proper WW1 memorial then that is not right. Why can't we just take a consenus from all the surviving vets and see what they want. I have yet to see that.

    May 25, 2009 at 3:17 am |
  9. Pat

    I have met one Doughboy, whose name, at the moment , escaped me. I do know it was during the 1980 Memorial day events in Newport VT, where this man was a resident. It is a shame we have monuments to war as is, but the men and women who served should be honored. It is in Frank's honor we should.

    May 24, 2009 at 8:33 pm |
  10. William Duffy

    Thanks for bringing this unfortunate issue to light. A significant number of Americans, including myself that have direct ancestors who fought and/or gave their lives in The Great World War (WW1). The sacrifices of these men and women became the foundation for all the riches and blessings that Our Country has come to expect. The Doughboy story is especially befitting, as we reflect on the true nature of Memorial Day. Thanks Doughboys!

    May 24, 2009 at 8:09 pm |