FLOTSAM & JETSAM: The forgotten war that I remember

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

The forgotten war that I remember

Sam Smith -  This is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, perhaps the most forgotten and ignored war in which Americans fought significantly. That, however, wasn't true in my family where death at an early age long hung like a shroud.

One my mother's brothers had died while serving in World War I. Trained as a flying observer at Fort Sill, he was killed by a shell as he went to help with the liaison between the airplanes and the artillery. His first cousin,was an aviator with the famed Lafayette Escadrille. He lost his life while on a scouting mission over German territory just a few months before his similarly named cousin died in France.

The Escadrille consisted of American pilots who joined the French Army to fight against the Germans before the US entered the war. In all 65 American pilots died while in the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps. After America entered the war, the unit became part of the US Air Service. One account describes my relative's last flight:

Having been sent out to patrol the enemy's lines on the afternoon of that day, he was seen several times by other members of the patrol during an attack made on some German planes, then disappeared. It was almost a year later that the remains of his charred Spad were located about three kilometers south of Montdidier, with a lone grave close by, marked with broken pieces of the plane.
Another uncle, married to my mother's sister, came back from the war and, according to one of his grandsons, never smiled again. Suffering from what we would call post traumatic stress syndrome, he committed suicide ten years later.

Meanwhile one of my father's brothers was lost near Lisbon while serving as an officer aboard Admiral William Halsey's first command. The then Commander Halsey wrote my grandfather:
Your son was in charge of the forecastle and with the men was busy all the way down the river securing things for sea. As we got to the entrance it was seen there was a large sea running, so we slowed barely to steerage way. We finally ordered all hands off the forecastle. Your son requested permission to stay and secure a hatch. As the safety of the vessel depended on this hatch being secured, permission was granted. . . Scarcely three minutes later a high white wall of water was seen bearing down on us. There was no time to yell more than 'hold on' when the sea hit us. When it cleared, even high up on the bridge where I was, I was gasping for breath from the effects of the water. Life buoys were let go and searchlights were turned on, but your son and young Arthur were never seen again. . . We loved your son dearly and his loss has made a void impossible to fill.
Nothing like this happened to my family in World War II or subsequent conflicts. Still, I can remember thinking about these lost uncles, whom I never met, while on the bridge of a Coast Guard cutter on heavy weather search & rescue missions, watching the forecastle as "walls of water bearing down on us," and realizing it was something I could share with no one because it was a largely forgotten war.