Who’s ready for a long rambling post? In 12 minutes Alaska time (as I start typing this), we mark the official ending of The Great War – the War to End All Wars. It didn’t end anything. Didn’t solve anything and didn’t prove anything. As part of my hangar tours, I say that there really wasn’t two separate world wars. Just one conflict between mostly the same belligerents with a 13 or so year armistice in the middle. (WWII began in 1931 with Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, not in Euro-centric 1939…)
On 11/11/1918, most soldiers on both sides had no idea what was happening. 3,000 servicemen died on the morning of November 11th, as the Americans crossed the Meuse River, leaving the bodies of Marines behind as they pushed through the fire of the German Maxim guns. The Americans were seizing the high ground, pushing the Germans back toward their homeland. Then everything went silent. Orders came forward from General Lejeune that our men were to retreat to the position they held at 11 o’clock. Retreat to a position with our backs against the river with no escape, should this prove to be just another rumor. Back – past the piles of bodies, who until moments ago had been their fellow marines, friends, brothers. All killed AFTER the armistice.
Japan and England were allies in WWI. England asked them to strike Germany’s colonial outposts in the far east. Japan wondered why they were doing this for England and not for themselves… They spent the next 13 years reorganizing their society and building an army and navy capable of taking over half the world. Italy too changed sides, joining Germany and Japan, after being on the side of France, England, Russia and the United States in the Great War. An end to active fighting on 11/11 didn’t end the anger, hatred, jealousy, coveting and desire for revenge. Another 100 years passing hasn’t changed that either.
As part of our WWII hangar tour, I show two infantry rifles from our collection. One is a Japanese Koishilawa rifle made around 1927 or 1928. The Japanese stopped making these in 1929. The other rifle was actually my dad’s hunting rifle. It is a Smith Corona 30.06. I call it my “typewriter”, because it was made by the Smith Corona typewriter company. These two artifacts together really illustrate the difference in preparedness between Japan and the United States at the start of WWII. Japan thought they were so well-prepared for their global conquest that they literally stopped making these infantry rifles in 1929! The US was so ill-prepared, we had to have typewriter companies like Smith Corona and IBM make WWI-era rifles for our soldiers to carry.
Our two Coastal Defense cannons on Cannon Beach are WWI guns. They were supposed to be installed on a new battleship in 1919, but after signing the Naval Agreement, the size of everyone’s navies (except Germany and Japan apparently) was restricted. The new ship was scrapped and the guns placed in storage. In early 1942, these guns were pulled out and shipped throughout Alaska. WWI supplying the defense of Alaska in WWII.
If you go to the Aviation Museum in Anchorage, look for two framed pieces of WWI aircraft skin on display. They come from the aircraft of Charles H Russell, a member of the Lafayette Escadrille in France during WWI. The Lafayette Escadrille (originally called the American Escadrille, but the Germans complained and so they changed the name…) consisted of a group of American volunteers flying for France prior to the United States’ direct involvement in WWI. Basically an all American “French Foreign Legion” group of pilots. A wonderful book that covers the Lafayette Escadrille (along with Manfred von Richthofen, Pershing, Patton) is To the Last Man, by Jeff Shaara. The Russells are a very prominent family in Yakutat, since Charles H’s son moved here about 60-70years ago.
At the end of WWI, we all held hands and signed treaties to reduce our military effectiveness voluntarily. We didn’t change human nature. We deliberately weakened ourselves, making us vulnerable to aggressive psychos who’s goal was/is to subjugate and dominate the world. Those people haven’t disappeared after 100 years. They are still looking-hoping for a weakness to exploit. Our only defense is a military so strong and deadly that the world fears a conflict with it. And to keep our own aggressive psychos in check, an armed populace to strong and deadly that our government fears a conflict with it.
And a hope that we never have to use either. Thank you to all our veterans on this and EVERY day.