How This 107-Year-Old Man Survived World War I

Then, again.
May 23 2013 8:04 AM

The Last of the World War I Vets Speak

No soldiers survive the first Great War. But the author of The Last of the Doughboys talked to some of the last vets before they passed.

(Continued from Page 1)

“What were the mules like with the artillery? Did they get spooked?”

“They would get killed once in a while.”

Pvt. Lake had to make quite a few runs every night, and flashlights—and lighters, and matches, and anything else that might help illuminate the way—were, of course, forbidden. I asked him if he got used to it at some point. “Well, you kind of get used to it,” he told me, “but it’s pretty scary, I’ll tell you, because you don’t know when you’re going to get it.”

Advertisement

“How did you cope with that?”

“Well, it kind of bothered me at first, but I got used to it—well, as near used to it as I’d ever get, because you’d hear bullets hitting off, zipping all around …”

“What would you do when bullets were zipping around? Would you hit the ground, or would you just keep on your way?”

“No,” he said, “I just kept going.”

“So you really just had to be very lucky?” I posited.

“That’s right,” he said. “Very lucky, that’s true.” One night, he told me, “a piece of shrapnel just missed my left arm,” while another one tore through his coat-tail, he said, “about two inches from my back.” If it had hit him, he reckoned, “I’d have been gone … that’s how close I come to getting it.” The following night—“I was just standing there,” he explained, “waiting for something, I guess, I don’t remember what it was”—he had a close encounter with a German bullet. “It was either machine gun or rifle,” he told me. “Whichever it was, I don’t know, I couldn’t tell you. But it hit the heel on my shoe.” And tore it off. He got off a few shots himself—some at a low-flying German aeroplane, others at an enemy gunner—but he didn’t believe he’d hit either.

Another time, he recalled, “I got a little gas”—that is, mustard gas, not the kind we all get from time to time. “Not enough to do any harm, really,” he told me.

“What kind of effect did it have on you?” I asked him.

“Well,” he said, “it makes you sick. It makes you feel terrible.”

“You threw up?”

“Oh, yeah.”

… Everyone in his company was exposed to gas at some time or other. “Some of them got it pretty bad,” he said. “But I didn’t. …It could have killed me, but I didn’t get that much.”

I asked him what it was like at the front when there wasn’t any shooting going on. “Well,” he said, “it wasn’t very often. Up at the front there was shooting all the God damned night.”

“How did you handle the stress?” I inquired at one point.

“Well,” he replied, “I took it the best way I could. I just—I know it was going to happen, so what could you do?”

One day, he recalled, “another guy and I were sitting on a bank.” He paused, lowered his chin, pursed his lips; his voice dropped. “And a sniper shot him instead of me.”

I looked at him for a moment. “You were sitting next to each other?”

“Yeah. No more than two feet apart. And he picked him instead of me. He killed him, of course.” They had been sitting on a little dirt rise, near a trench. And this, I’m pretty sure, is the reason Bill Lake kept saying he was lucky. “They picked him instead of me. I was lucky, that’s all … we were sitting there side-by-side and he picked him instead of me.”

We were quiet for a moment. “They got him,” he assured me. “They found him; they found the sniper.”

“Oh?” I said. “They killed him?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “They didn’t take him prisoner, not a sniper, no. He was up in a tree when they found him, and they let him have it. And he fell out of the tree, dead. And that’s all there was to it.”

He said it with aplomb; the passage of 85 years had not dulled his sense of righteous outrage. There was a very hard feeling about snipers then, even though everybody used them. “They didn’t take a sniper prisoner,” he explained. “They was dirty. They would shoot you in the back as soon as they would in the face, you know. They didn’t care as long as they got you. But they got him, of course.” He told this story several times over the course of our two-hour conversation, and though he never had anything new to add, he kept returning to it: That sniper picked him instead of me.

Excerpted from The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War by Richard Rubin. Copyright © 2013 by Richard Rubin. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Richard Rubin is the author of The Last of the Doughboys.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.