The last of the American World War I veterans have described the perils of war, the emotional toll of fighting and the celebration of the armistice in a new book spotlighting their stories.
Author Richard Rubin spent 10 years compiling information for his book, The Last of the Doughboys, tracking down numerous veterans, all in their 100s, and traveling across the country to meet them.
Each of the subjects featured in Mr Rubin’s book have since passed away. The last World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, died in 2011.
As he tried to track down the former soldiers, he was often met with disappointment, finding out that the man or woman he was looking to speak with was no longer alive.
Rubin told NPR that on one occasion, he discovered a 108-year-old vet who was alive and ‘clear-minded,’ but when Rubin showed up two weeks later, the man was unconscious in the hospital
He died the next day.
But dozens more were alive, well and willing to share their stories.
There was Arthur Fiala, who was 106 when he spoke to Mr Rubin. Mr Fiala spoke of his eagerness to pack his bags and join the Allies.
Mr Fiala, who was from Wisconsin, said: ‘I went to Green Bay and enlisted in the army. And the big war was on then. I said I want to get over to France quick.
‘You pick out the place where you want me to go. The place where I can be. Wherever I can be used, that’s where I want to go.’
Anthony Pierro, 107 at the time of his interview with Rubin, disagreed, saying that the Army is ‘a miserable life.’
He said: ‘You can’t do anything… on your own. They tell you what to do.’
At one point, Mr Pierro said the best part of his time in World War I was being in the French city of Bordeaux.
‘The girls used to say, ‘upstairs, two dollars.’
But you didn’t go upstairs, his nephew Rick interjected.
‘I didn’t have the two dollars.’ Mr Pierro replied.
Howard Ramsey, who was 105 when he spoke to Mr Rubin in 2003, said that he and his colleagues were at one time so ill-prepared for the cold that they resorted to sleeping in a cemetery.
He said: ‘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.’
When asked whether he came under artillery fire often during WWI, J. Laurence Moffitt, 106 at the time, replied: ‘All the time. We lived under it… After a while, you disregarded it.’
Mr Moffitt added that he had been ‘severely gassed several times – but I never went to medical for it.’
William J. Lake, who was 107 when he sat down with Mr Rubin, perhaps came the closest to losing his life during the war in one of the most poignant stories told.
Mr Lake also fought at the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the deadliest battle in American history.
‘Well I’ll tell ya, just bullets zipping around you all the time,’ he said. ‘You just never knew when you was going to get hit. but I was lucky.’
He told Mr Rubin: ‘Another guy and I were sitting on a bank and a sniper shot him instead of me… We was no more than two feet apart and he picked him instead of me. He killed him of course.’
He said that the allied forces later found the shooter in a tree and [killed] him.
‘Oh yeah. They didn’t take [snipers] prisoner.’
Hildegarde Schan, at 107, saw a different side of the war as a young woman.
After working for the War Department in Washington, she was worked for the Veterans Bureau in New York after the armistice.
It was the place where those who had served in the war went to collect their paychecks – and often received bad news.
She told Rubin: ‘It was very sad… You see them coming in with one leg or one arm… I couldn’t take it anymore – to see them come in.
She added: ‘They’d borrow on their check and they’d have to pay it back next month and they didn’t have any money then.’
When the war ended with Armistice Day on November 11, 1918, George Briant wasn’t celebrating. In fact, he was mourning.
He said that he had seen a group of men take shelter in a wooded area before it was shot up by enemy soldiers, killing most of them.
Mr Briant, 103 during his interview, said: ‘Such fine, handsome, healthy young men, to be killed on the last night of the war. I cried for their parents.’
Reuben Law – 105 at the time of the interview — said he was apart of a convoy en route to France in 1918 when a deadly flu epidemic struck.
He told Mr Rubin: ‘I think we were in the water for 21 days… The thing about the trip across was the flu, and there were 91 who died aboard ship.
He said they converted the dining room of a ship to a hospital, where the sick soldiers had to sleep on tables.
Mr Buckles, the final World War II veteran, outlived 4.7million other U.S. World War I servicemen before he died at age 110 in March 2011.
But unlike the others, Buckles did not see World War I combat – at least not yet.
In World War II, Buckles was captured by the Japanese in Manila and was held for three years as a prisoner of war.
He told Mr Rubin about his dramatic escape when the camp was liberated by U.S. Army paratroopers. He said that he quickly grabbed his rucksack, got dressed and got out just before the burning roof collapsed.
The Last of the Doughboys, was released last week.
Attribution: Mail Online