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COVER STORY | The Veterans of World War I Evoke a Vanishing
Era. Their Very Presence Keeps our memories honest.

Their Eleventh Hour

November 08, 1998|James Ricci | James Ricci is a Times staff writer

Pvt. Homer Fisher of the rear guard is at his post, remembering.

As he sits at a table in the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, sunlight from the adjacent Domaine Chandon vineyards sets aglow his blue eyes, his pink skin, his thin white hair. His recollections march in formation across the middle distance: Once again, the 56th Engineers parade before President Woodrow Wilson in Washington on Independence Day in 1917. Then they are rumbling north toward New York in the dead of night aboard a train blacked out in observance of military secrecy. Then they are rocking in a converted British cattle ship, headed for a hundredth time toward the abattoir of northern France. And, inevitably, German planes are once again above the ammunition dump that Fisher's searchlight unit is guarding near the front lines, and the word among the defenders is "Jerry's up there!" and because aviators love blowing up ammunition dumps even more than shooting down men scurrying on the ground, all hell is exploding.

Fisher, who is 99, exhales. His narrative is finished. He will not be drawn further into discussion of the attack, nor of his subsequent trip home on a hospital ship a few months after the war ended, even though eight decades have passed since then. "I still get headaches, and I'd rather not go into it," he says in a soft voice. "Now we're getting into something I haven't lived down yet."

In military tactics, the function of a rear guard is to remain behind and cover the withdrawal of the main force. Homer Fisher and his fellow American veterans of World War I persevere in that mission as the nation marks the 80th anniversary of the end of their war on Nov. 11, 1918--on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, as it became enshrined in cliche.

As the few among us who lived the 20th century's most fecund tragedy, they embody our truest memory of the 4.7 million American veterans of the era who have withdrawn into the great abstraction, History.

The rear guard has been taking heavy casualties of late. Snapped bones, unfightable microbes and exhausted hearts have been depleting their ranks. They have been falling, the Department of Veterans Affairs says, at the rate of 167 a month. The department estimates that 4,300 are still standing; the Veterans of World War I of the U.S.A. believes that the figure is 3,000. Regardless, those left can't hold out much longer. Their median age is nearly 100. When they are gone, it will be much harder for Americans to remember that conflict five wars ago and those who endured it. The field will be left to historians, hobbyists and "reenactors." We will have the old soldiers' preserved testimony but not their complicating presence to serve as counterweight to our generalizing, romanticizing and trivializing of their war.

It has grown harder for the veterans to convey their experience of the war. Many are shellshocked from the long barrage of the years. Others hear very little anymore. Many who try to give it voice lose their narratives in the snow of memory that has been coming down so hard for so long since those days. Some, like Fisher, remember everything but will not recount what shook them to their souls, or else wave it off with vague summaries. One hundred-year-old William Zelnicker of Sherman Oaks, who was gassed at the Battle of St. Mihiel and hospitalized for a year after that, smiles when asked about the experience and murmurs, "I don't remember." Conjuring details is tiring. Who, at their age, needs to waste precious energy on ugly reminiscence?

The members of the rear guard are, in a real sense, men of the 19th century, some of them grandsons of Civil War veterans. They were bred to manly silence and steadfastness. They would not visit cruel memories on their families when they returned from the war.

"I forgot about it. I was just grateful I didn't get hurt," says 101-year-old combat engineer Albert Willard of Sherman Oaks.

"No, hell, I wanted to get rid of it," says 103-year-old combat infantryman Andrew Hess of Santa Barbara.

"I kind of let loose of the war, tried to put it out of my mind," says Fisher. "But it's something you can't put out of your mind."

Their war, to the extent that it is known at all, has taken on a curious lightness in the minds of later generations, a phenomenon most popularly exemplified by the World War I fantasies of "Peanuts" comic-strip character Snoopy. Americans have "tended to cheerful-ize our behavior in the First World War," literary critic and war memoirist Paul Fussell has said.

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