This is an excerpt from Richard Rubin’s The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War, the story of a decade-long odyssey to recover the stories of the forgotten world war. Rubin interviewed dozens of American World War I veterans for the book, including William J. Lake, a private in the U.S. Army’s 91st (“Wild West”) Division who was drafted in 1917 and served with a machine gun crew in France. At the time of the interview, in October 2003, Lake was 107; he died in June 2004. The Last of the Doughboys is being published this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Pvt. William Lake and the rest of the Wild West Division trained at Camp Lewis, near Tacoma, Wash., he told me, for nine months before they boarded trains for Camp Merritt, N.J., whence they would head up to New York and ship out for France. According to the unnamed author of The Story of the 91st Division, published in 1919, the land portion of the trek took about six days. It was early summer; they traveled through a lot of areas that were probably quite hot at the time, and I doubt there were showers on those trains. Nevertheless, it was a spirited journey:
"After witnessing demonstrations from coast to coast, the men of the 91st felt that they were backed by an undivided nation. The motherly gray-haired old woman standing in front of her little cottage on the broad prairie of Montana, alternately waving a flag and brushing away the tears she could not restrain, contributed as much to this feeling as did the impromptu receptions tendered the men in the great cities through which they passed."
If it sounds like the men of the 91st had a grand old time crossing the country by rail, Pvt. William J. Lake, at least, did not. He was sick the whole way across, was sick even before he left Camp Lewis.
“I got the measles,” he explained.
Eighty-five years later, that continued to mystify him: “I don’t know where I got them,” he told me. “Still don’t know where I got them!” No one else seemed to have them; there was no word of measles in the camp, or on the train. Not even from him: Bill Lake traveled six days on a hot, crowded troop train, from Washington to New Jersey, sick with measles—and never told anyone. “I didn’t say anything until we got on the boat,” he confessed. “I was out on the water.” The boat, he recalled, was the Empress of Russia, a British/Canadian mail ship that was used as a troop transport during the war.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” I asked him.
“Because I know if I did,” he said, “and it leaked that I did have something, I might be out of the company or something, and I didn’t want that, so I didn’t say nothing.” He smiled, and then laughed.
Eventually, out at sea, he told his captain. “I was lying down,” he recalled. “He came around, he says, ‘What’s the matter?’ I says, ‘I don’t feel good.’ He sent the doctor down there, told me I had the measles. … So they put me in the hospital on the boat, hospital room … and then they got over there”—that is, Liverpool, where the 91st disembarked before shuttling across the channel to France—“and they left me [in a hospital] over there for six weeks. Wanted to be sure I was all good before I went back to the company.”
He arrived at the front on Sept. 29, 1918. His six weeks in that hospital in Liverpool, England, had given him a view of the war that no one else in the Wild West Division had experienced, yet. As the lone American among ailing Tommies, he told me, “it was like a different universe. They talked different. And they told me, they didn’t seem to have any money; they was always asking me for money. Well, I didn’t have any money to give them guys. That’s the way it was—they was just left behind and broke.”
“Were a lot of them wounded?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I saw several of them with their arms and legs off.”
When he was deemed well enough to fight, he was put on a train for Southampton, England, then a transport for Le Havre, France, and then, he said, “I had to walk a day to get to the unit,” carrying a 50-pound pack all the while. When he arrived, the first person to greet him was his captain, a man he and the rest of the Machine Gun Company held in very high esteem. Instinctively, he went to salute, but the captain caught his arm and stopped him; shook his hand, instead. Pvt. Lake was perplexed. “He said, ‘Don’t salute me,’ he says. ‘You don’t know who’s looking.’ And so I didn’t. That’s true—you didn’t know,” he told me.
And then he added, softly: “And he was killed that night.”
“He was killed that night?” I repeated, a bit stunned. “How? By a sniper, or …”
“I don’t know,” he said. “All I know is he got killed.” He shook his head. “Well, that hurt me. He was a good guy. He was easy to get along with, but he wanted you to do what [he told you to do]. … He was one of them guys who wasn’t afraid of nothing.” He added: “He wouldn’t ask you to do anything that he didn’t.”
“Do you remember his name?” I asked.
He was quiet for a moment, pursed his lips. “No,” he said softly. “I cannot remember his name.” It seemed to pain him as much as not being able to remember his father’s.
“So what was it like when you got to the front?” I asked him. “What did it look like?”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” he said as he closed his eyes and shook his head again. “Bullets zipping around you all the time. You just never knew when you was going to get hit.”
As he said time and again 85 years later, Bill Lake was lucky. He was not among the thousands of casualties the Wild West Division took. The Germans sure did try to include him, though. Like artillery, machine guns were high-priority targets for the enemy because of the damage they did. (“That machine gun was a wicked gun, that machine gun,” Pvt. Lake recalled. “Oh, man.”) But there are only a few ways to silence a machine gun, since you can’t really assault them directly without exposing yourself to their terrible fire. One is to hit them with artillery; for that you have to know exactly where they are, and you have to be able to hit them quickly enough that they can’t just scuttle away once they figure out what you’re up to. Another way is to crawl up on their flanks undetected—and already you’re getting into a high level of difficulty, as machine gun nests were often well-protected—and blow them up with grenades. Or, finally, you could kill the guys who run back and forth between the machine gun and its supply depot, fetching ammunition.
Pvt. Lake was one of those guys. “So what would you do?” I asked. “You would have to ride back and forth between the front line and the ammunition depot?”
“Yeah,” he said. “But we did that at night. We didn’t do it during the daytime.” Too dangerous.
He was given the job, I imagine, because of his experience driving teams of horses. “They didn’t have this mechanized stuff at that time at all,” he explained.
“So when you would go back and forth between the front and the ammunition depot, you were driving a horse cart?” I asked.
“Mule,” he said.
“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.”
“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?”
… 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.