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Lest we forget

Nov. 11, 2008
In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw ...

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

--Lt. Col. John McCrae, MD, Canadian Army (1872-1918)

Veterans Day is a very significant and solemn holiday but one with an odd history. It was originally observed as Armistice Day-- intended simply to commemorate the day the awful guns fell silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of November, 1918, ending the four years of brutal carnage that came to be known as the War to End All Wars or simply, World War I.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Veteran Affairs (VA), in November 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with the following words: "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…"

It was after World War II that Veterans' Day as we now know it-- a day to honor all those who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States and, I will add, the U.S. Coast Guard-- came to be:

"An Act approved May 13, 1938, made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday - - a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as 'Armistice Day,'" states the VA. "Armistice Day was primarily a day set aside to honor veterans of World War I, but in 1954, after World War II had required the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in the Nation’s history; after American forces had fought aggression in Korea, the 83rd Congress, at the urging of the veterans service organizations, amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word 'Armistice' and inserting in its place the word 'Veterans.' With the approval of this legislation (Public Law 380) on June 1, 1954, November 11th became a day to honor American veterans of all wars."

Cover of a Korean War V.F.W. Magazine

That's how we got to the now familiar Veterans Day, which is a great holiday to observe-- especially if one is a veteran or is related to those who are, as am I.

But it seems to me, and this has nothing to do with trucking but so be it, that the war that ended exactly 90 years ago today is getting short shrift in this country in terms of official commemoration and news coverage. But not here. We all should pause today to reflect and pray for those Americans who served and suffered and especially for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in that long ago but brutally horrible war that wiped away a generation of young men in Europe and helped usher the United States into its eventual role as the world's policeman and pre-eminent moral force.

Maybe because I am something of a student of history, especially American military history, I often think about what our doughboys, sailors, Marines and fledgling airmen must have gone through in 1917 and 1918, thrust as they were so suddenly into the jaws of hell and expected to be the fresh blood to put an end to the unprecedented slaughter. I can of course only imagine what they witnessed and endured as well as what any veteran of any of our wars right up to now who served in combat have.

Doughboys on the Western front, circa 1918

As it happens, I have an interesting souvenir of the end of the Great War that was made by a German POW for my great uncle, John Rutledge Johnston, who served in France with the U.S. Army. It is a three-sided piece of scrap aluminum fashioned to wrap around a wooden box of matches as a case. It is decorated with nail punchmarks that spell out my uncle's name on the short side and the top is adorned with a Maltese cross, the date "1919," the name of the town they were in or near, "Fleury," and some olive branches to boot. I don't know anything else about it, except that Uncle Rut made it home OK and history books tell me that not all German POWs were repatriated until 1920.

And I'd be completely remiss this Veterans' Day if I did not pause to salute at least three other relatives of mine who served Uncle Sam in wartime.

My dad, Raymond Cullen, who's 85, got to tour Europe courtesy of the U.S. Army from 1943-45, gaining the rank of Technical Corporal and leaving his bootprints in England, France, Belguim and Germany. Like his aforementioned Uncle Rut, he guarded prisoners, too. In his case it was after the famed battle for the bridge at Remagen-- the last then standing over the River Rhine.

My father's oldest brother, my late Uncle Dud-- Charles Dudley Cullen Jr.-- sailed the Pacific far and wide as an able seaman in the United States Navy. And the middle brother, my Uncle Rut-- John Rutledge Cullen-- who is stoutly dealing with some old-age infirmities right now, is the Marine in the bunch. He fought his way across Guadalcanal and a few other picturesque places and like his brothers, speaks very little if at all about what he saw and experienced on the front line.

WWII GI cartoonist Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe--two dogfaces somewhere in Europe, circa 1944

To Dad and Uncle Rut and everyone else out there who has served our nation:

Thank you and Happy Veterans' Day!

PS: And Happy Birthday to OMO, wherever you are!

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