An 86-year-old World War I veteran attends the dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 13 November 1982

I had an interesting experience this past Tuesday at the final event for our Gilder Lehrman, Library of America, National Endowment for the Humanities World War One project: the son of a Great War veteran attended. As you might imagine, I was surprised–greatly and pleasantly–when he told me. I asked the gentleman if during the conversation he might be willing to share his father’s story. It turned out to be fascinating.

As it turned out the man’s father was born in Italy in the 1890s, came to the United States during the great wave of migration in the early twentieth century, and ended up back in Europe wearing an American doughboy’s uniform when the United States entered the war. It is a fascinating but actually not entirely unusual story. An interesting book came out several years ago called The Long Way Home telling the stories of twelve American soldiers who came through Ellis Island. It is one thing to say that millions of people fought in a war. Hearing individual stories makes it more relatable; each soldier’s story, from wherever he came and however he served, is another tile in the mosaic. The veteran whose son attended the function the other day was in his late 60’s when his son was born, which from doing the math as Iroughly calculated it would have been in the 1960s. So, this aspect of the story is a bit more anomalous. It is similar to the stories one hears of Civil War veterans who fathered children in the 1900s and 1910s. To hear the son tell the story was a humbling experience and a reminder that when we discuss about the Great War we are not talking about ancient history, but a historical moment within the living memory of even the children of the soldiers who served.

(image/Department of Defense. Defense Audiovisual Agency by Mickey Sanborn)