Friday, February 15, 2008

World War One Story

A week or two ago one of the last living veterans of World War I passed away. I think there is one American veteran left alive in a nursing home in Florida, and one Canadian veteran living in Spokane, Washington.

When I was little, my great-grandfather Mac (Proctor M. McClure) told me some stories about what he did in 1918. Here is a transcript of a tape recording of one of those times when he told us stories:

Once upon a time there was a little soldier who went to war, across the water, to France. That's Eric and Jennell's Great-Grampa. And this was in 1918. And when we neared the coast of France we had to have a convoy to take us through the submarine zone, in order to land in France. But there were three great big ships, and Grampa Mac was on the flagship, called The Northern Pacific. On the next ship was a man who later became the president of the United States, President Truman. And with him on the battery, from Kansas City, Missouri, was Grampa's brother-in-law, who married my sister in Chicago. Every day about 4:30 we had what was called, "abandon ship drill." And then we'd go down, we sat by our bunks-we stood by our bunks at attention until they blew recall on the bugle, and we could go up above again. We didn't know. We'd go up to the lifeboats first, and stand at the lifeboats. Until they blew the bugle recall, meaning, that's all. Now one afternoon, they had the signal at 2:30, not 4:30. We wondered, “what on earth?” And just as Grampa went down below, the rest of us noticed a great big hulk of something coming right towards us in the front, in the forward part of the ship, our ship. We thought it must be a German submarine. And it was rather frightening. So, we went down, and stood by our bunks, and then we had to go up, above, and get by our lifeboats. Then they had a recall, and we went to our bunks, went anyplace, and guess what it was? It was our convoy, had arrived. Which we had missed, to take us into port. In the front was an American destroyer camouflaged in green and black. There were two of them, going back and forth criss-cross forward so that the submarine could not get under it, and in the back were two more, and on the side was two more. It was the most thrilling thing. We were all just thrilled. And that was the six American destroyers, all camouflaged in green and black to take us through the submarine zone to land in France. That is the story of the convoy to get us there.

Okay, this is a continuation about the little soldier, Grampa Mac, in the war. And it's September, 1918, and Grampa got a leave, a little pass, to go up to the Northern part of France. And I took the train up to this little town called Gerby Ve Lay. [I think Mac meant Gerbeviller, or perhaps Luneville.] I got off the train, "Conductor," I said, "where is the station?" He said, "right there." A pile of rocks was all that was left of it, blown to pieces four years before. I went into a restaurant to get something to eat. Five francs for the meal, French francs. And they apologized for me and said, "The Germans shelled this other half of the dining room and there are big holes in the roof, great big holes, oh, about six or eight inches wide, and it rains through there. So, I got my meal. Then I decided to go. They said, they told me, "if you go down to that house down there, there's a grandmother and a little boy about thirteen, lives with his grandmother, and if he's not at mass, at Sunday church, the Catholic church, he would take you out, three miles out, to the battlefield proper, where the men and boys defended the village. Forty-eight of them. I wasn't going to tell you this. The Germans killed them all, but they held the village so long that the Germans didn't get to go to the port of Nancy, and on in to the port of Paris. They didn't get to conquer Paris that early, the capital of France, because of that. So the place was bombarded and shelled to nothing. Grampa Mac went down, the little soldier, to the house, and the old grandma said, he's at church. So she said, if you go down there, there are the ruins of the castle of the Duke of Lorraine, the chateau it's called, and the chapel, he's at a private church. So Grampa wandered all around. There were only four houses rebuilt during that four years. Just four houses. I went down one street and down the other, up and down. Just a pile of ruble. Everything blown to pieces. So I wandered up to the castle of the Duke of Lorraine. I go through the center, through the front, and where there had been pillars, rows of marble, and white marble. Grampa picked up a piece of the white marble to take as a souvenir. I went through the front. There were only the walls, the side walls and the front wall left standing. I went through the front, and all this, open out onto the forest and the woods there. There was a little stream going along to one side called the Mortagne River. You see I can remember even the name of the river and spell it. I shouldn't tell you that. And, there was a little abandoned fountain of the four seasons. It was empty, dry. As I stood there in the woods I heard BOOM!, our big naval 16-inch guns from America had just arrived to bombard the town north of us in the hands of the Germans, Metz, M-E-T-Z. [If Mac was along the Mortagne River, he was at least 35 miles south of Metz.] Well, I decided to examine the ruins of the wall, so I came back, I came back to the wing on the side here, from that side, on my right. And I saw, the place where there had been steps going down below. But there were no steps, they had been blown to pieces. But there was mud. It had been raining, and it was open. So Grampa slid down the steps. As I did, I went past one wing. It was over here, and as I had a French flashlight the little French boy had given me, I hadn't examined the battery to see if it was any good, it's important to the story, and I climbed. There were four big cells where he had put his servants when they were unruly and there were padlocks on all of them, and I clanged all of them, you know, to make a funny noise. It was spooky because it was down in a dungeon now, with only a flashlight going. Then I went on this side. Now, my part of the story means this is where they were. Now I go back on this side quickly. And there were four rusty ovens where they baked their bread and things, and the stream is on this side, and the water's dripping, drip… drip… drip… Grampa yelled, "Mac" my nickname. My voice echoed seven times in this dungeon. It was very eerie, very scary. So I thought I'd better get outta here. I retraced my steps back where I'd come, I said, oh, where does this place go? So kept going this direction. All of a sudden dub-glub-glub-glub. I stopped in front of a big, oh like a well. Just big enough for me, that if I'd taken another step I wouldn't be able to tell you the story because I'd have been in the well. My bones would be there yet. What did I do? Silly little soldier. I jumped across. Kept going! I was getting lower all the time. The walls, they were getting lower. All of a sudden, I heard, Grrrrg! And my flashlight battery burned out. Here were two big orange eyes coming toward me. I measured my steps. I didn't dare run. I side-stepped ten steps so I thought I was near that well, whatever it was, and I jumped, hoping the animal would not come toward me. And I walked sideways fast way up to the light and was glad to get out of the place. The French people told me that was a wolf, and that was a mother wolf, and probably her babies. Had I taken another step I'd have been torn to pieces. And again, another narrow escape from death, in the dungeon of the Duke of Lorraine.

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