When Winston Roche came marching home from the trenches of World War I in 1918, his lungs burned by mustard gas and part of a finger torn off by a machine-gun bullet, he did not find the hearty welcome promised in the popular song of the time.
"There were no jobs and medical services were inadequate," said the 92-year-old North Hollywood resident. "All we got was a little mustering-out pay and train fare home. A pension for us was never passed."
Which is why Roche, a much-decorated doughboy, was delighted to receive an invitation to ride in a place of honor in Hollywood's Desert Storm parade Sunday.
"It's the greatest honor in my life, being in the Hollywood parade honoring veterans--especially those returning from the Gulf," he said in an interview. His grandson, Robert Doyle Roche of North Hollywood, a petty officer on the USS Saratoga, just returned from the Gulf but will not be in the parade.
Although the parade is being held to recognize Gulf War veterans, its proximity to Armed Forces Day on Saturday caused organizers to extend invitations to veterans of all wars, said a spokesman for parade co-chairman Johnny Grant.
Roche and his wife, Elsie, will ride on a float with two other World War I veterans, Lawrence McConnell, 97, of Los Angeles and Samuel Gossett, 87, of Chatsworth.
A large crowd is expected to view the parade, which will include an Abrams tank, a Patriot missile and a flyover by planes representing several generations of modern warfare, from the B-17s and B-25s of the World War II era to modern jets. Lt. Gen. Calvin A.H. Waller, deputy commander of Gulf forces, is the grand marshal.
A World War I ambulance scheduled to take part will bring back memories to Roche.
He was an 18-year-old youth out of high school when the United States entered World War I, the "war to end all wars." It was 1917, and "Over There" was a popular song of the day. "I wanted to go fight the Kaiser, and I needed a letter from my dad. It was a great honor to fight for America," he said.
He wound up in the 5th Infantry Division engineers, earning $35 a month for digging trenches and gun emplacements. When it rained, he slept in the mud. Meals consisted of hardtack, French rolls and cold coffee.
Roche spent 42 days in the battle of the Argonne Forest. At Aisne-Marne, where the Allies stopped the Germans advancing on Paris, the young engineer was hit in a cross-fire.
"A machine-gun bullet went through my side, pierced my ribs, and tore off top of a finger," he said. "I didn't notice it until I saw the blood."
He was gassed in the trenches at St. Mihiel, inflicting lung damage from which "I still get coughing spells," he said. "The Germans sent in gas shells at night. . . . My gas mask was damaged after we'd crawled through a lot of barbed wire, so some of us got a full dose."
His voice got raspy when he spoke about it. "It burned our eyes so bad we had to be led by hand to a field hospital. I was only 19 and I thought I was done for."
Roche was awarded the Purple Heart, Aisne-Marne, Chateau-Thierry, St. Mihiel and Argonne medals. And, for assisting a wounded French soldier to an aid station, the engineer received the Croix de Guerre. He left the service a 2nd lieutenant.
But when he returned to the United States, he found hard times and only meager services awaiting thousands of veterans. Their urgent needs, he said, caused him and other ex-soldiers to press for veterans benefits.
"We lobbied Congress for hospitalization, schooling, and a chance to buy a home or farm," he said. Although they were unsuccessful, they laid the foundation for the GI Bill that benefited World War II veterans.
Today, there are about 74,000 World War I veterans, said Roche. "Ninety-seven percent of them are in hospitals and nursing homes," he said. "And federal budget cutbacks have caused reduced services for them in VA hospitals. We're trying to keep what we have."
Because of his concern for his friends, Roche has worked as a volunteer at Sepulveda VA Medical Center for 25 years. For 22 years he has traveled to Washington several times a year to lobby for veterans rights.
Four years ago, the French government awarded him and 17 others the Legion of Honor in recognition of the 70th anniversary of America's entry into the war.
When his service years ended, Roche worked as an engineer for the Department of Water and Power on the L.A. Aqueduct.
Later, he was a surveyor and chief of surveys for the city of Los Angeles' recreation and parks. After retiring in 1969, he served on the Governor's Board on Aging and on the Los Angeles office of the Civil Defense Commission.
Roche now gives lectures to veterans groups and schoolchildren.