They haven’t disappeared yet. World War I veterans, that is. The last one may have died more than two years ago, but Richard Rubin’s new volume, “The Last of the Doughboys’’ brings them back, the last few survivors of the Great War, for one more march on the parade ground of history. For a long while they were forgotten but not gone. Now, thanks to Rubin, they are not forgotten.
Rubin interviewed dozens of the last doughboys when they were between the ages of 101 and 113, no easy task — not easy to find them, not so easy to converse with them. Some were sparing of speech, reflecting spare memories. Others were fountains — overflowing fountains — of recollections.
One of the loquacious was J. Laurence Moffett of Orleans, 106 at the time of his interview and the last surviving member of the fabled Yankee Division, remembered now almost exclusively on highway signs in the Boston area. His recall was so clear that he was able to summon the number of each fighting unit from each state comprising the 26th Division. (The 101st Regiment Infantry was from Massachusetts.)
One of the most memorable was Anthony Pierro of Swampscott, vivid in my own North Shore memory, interviewed at 107. His discharge papers affirmed that he was of excellent character, had served in Battery E of the 320th Field Artillery, and had fought in major 1918 battles including Oise-Aisne, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne.
This is an engaging book, with wonderful tangents — diversions, they would have been called in the war — on such subjects as the songs of the conflict (“What are you going to do for Uncle Sammy?/ What are you going to do to help the boys?’’); another on books produced during or by the war (“The Soldier’s French Phrase Book’’ and “A Yankee in the Trenches’’); still another on war resistance, patriotism, and the pressures felt by immigrants in America (advice to the wise: “Put a flag at your door, another on your coat, and above all keep one in your heart.’’)
But “The Last of the Doughboys’’ is memorable mostly because of the memorable doughboys it tracks down.
Like Arthur Fiala, who traveled across France in a boxcar marked “40-8,’’ meaning it could be occupied by 40 men or eight horses. Or Reuben Law, a fanatical diarist whose entries for Oct. 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10 in 1918 read simply: “Sick.’’ Or Howard Ramsey, who drew an especially grim assignment: starting a new cemetery in France that we now know as the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.
Here is part of Ramsey’s testimony: “So I remember one night, it was cold, and we had no blankets, or nothing like that. We had to sleep — we slept in the cemetery, because we could sleep between the two graves, and keep the wind off of us, see?’’
Rubin traveled widely, employing a keen eye. He noticed, for example, how German cemeteries in France for World War I dead were populated with tablets in the shape of the Ten Commandments for the Jewish dead, and noting of the Germans who returned to France in the next war: “And yet, though they had four years to do so, they never touched those Jewish markers in their own military cemeteries, never tried to destroy this evidence that Jews were a part of Germany, too, and just as willing, and able, to die for their country as anyone else.’’
And of course there was the fabled Frank Buckles, who died Feb. 27, 2011, the last member of the American Expeditionary Forces. He had joined the Ambulance Corps and had what the British sometimes call a “good war,’’ first in England, then in France. He never saw action against Germans but he did escort 650 of them, prisoners, back home. Later he was detained during WWII by the Japanese.
Buckles’s death made the papers, and made Rubin think about its meaning. His demise, Rubin says, “creates additional degrees of separation between us and the event; reshapes it in our consciousness, breaks it down and reassembles it in a somewhat less solid state, one that is harder to grasp, and to carry.’’ True enough. But his book succeeds by creating degrees of connection, even as it reshapes our consciousness.