The picture below was taken in July of 1918 at Camp Dodge, on the north side of Des Moines, IA. Approximately 18,000 men were assembled on the parade grounds to form a “living” Statue of Liberty.
According to a July 3, 1986, story in the Fort Dodge Messenger, many men fainted-they were dressed in woolen uniforms-as the temperature neared 105 degrees Farenheit. The photo, taken from the top of a specially constructed tower by a Chicago photography studio, Mole & Thomas, was intended to help promote the sale of war bonds but was never used.” (Grover 1987)
My grandfather is in this picture. My family (being easily entertained) has tried many times to pick him out in this mass of soldiers. My grandfather recalls being somewhere near Lady Liberty’s left hand. But he could never find himself in the picture. As in the quote above, he remembered the heat — it took several hours to get everyone in place, and he was positioned relatively early, so it was not easy to stand so long in the heat. Bathroom breaks were not allowed. Water was occasionally passed through the ranks, but not very efficiently. A lot of rearranging was necessary as men fainted, were carried away, and then later returned. My grandfather bought a copy of the picture for his parents and it remains with one of my aunts.
My grandfather was sent to France and fought in World War I. He was 25 years old at the time. He participated in a couple of battles in France and Belgium, in the horrible and futile trenches where so many men died, or were wounded by the new weapons of the day — tanks, machine guns, mustard gas, etc. Thankfully my grandfather was never seriously injured. He lost most of the hearing in one ear when a German mortar landed nearby, but was lucky it wasn’t worse. He returned home safely after the armistice in November of 1918.
As kids we were strictly forbidden from asking our grandfather about his time in the Great War. He never spoke of it in the presence of his grandchildren, and rarely spke of it to any of his children. Our only knowledge that he was a veteran came on Memorial Day. Our small town of 350 people had a parade every Memorial Day, and he proudly marched in it for almost 60 years. In the years I attended, my grandfather was one of only two World War I veterans that marched. There was an earned reverance for these two men that I will never forget. Any time I hear the term “quiet dignity” I think of them.
When my grandfather aged into his early 90s he had to live in a nursing home about 25 miles from where we lived. At first we visited quite often. But his mind began to fail him. On good days he would remember his grandchildren. But one day he did not. My mother and I were visiting and it was apparent he didn’t realize who he was talking to. He began telling a story from his days in the war, about his least favorite job — “collection detail.” After a round of enemy shelling, and after the injured had been taken to the medical tent, a “collection detail” was sent out to retrieve pieces of bodies. He went into graphic detail as my mother and I sat and listened, unable to speak. I didn’t get to visit very often after that. In his last days, my grandfather spoke almost constantly about the war. In a mind that was losing his memories, his memories of the war took over. And now that is my lasting memory of him.
I think of that visit every Memorial Day, along with watching him march in the annual parade. I remember the pride I felt watching him march in the parade, but then feeling even more proud of him after learning some of what happened in the war. After experiencing such terrible things, he came home, worked on his farm, raised and cared for his family, and lived a long life of quiet dignity. He was an extraordinary man, and I miss him today.