A Letter from My Dad

My paternal grandfather, Clarence Richmond Sr., who died in 1981, was a genuine war hero, decorated by the Americans and the French in World War I for his bravery under fire while he served as a stretcher carrier. Granddad kept a diary in the trenches during the war. Many of his war mementos, including a copy of the diary, are now in the public library in Cleveland, Tennessee.

My Dad - Clarence Richmond, Jr. - has always written fairly philosophical letters, which I almost always enjoy. On the occasion of Veteran's Day, 1996, he went a step further and wrote what amounts to an essay about Granddad and the War. I thought it was worth posting, so here it is.

November 10, 1996

Dear Children,

The byline of a front page article in today's Tulsa World proclaims that "World War I Veterans Are Becoming History." Tomorrow the country celebrates Veteran's Day, originally know as Armistice Day, commemorating the day in 1918 when World War I ended. To most of us living today, that was something that happened way back in history along with the American Revolution and Columbus discovering America, though some 13,000 WWI veterans are reportedly still alive. Over 116,000 Americans died in battles that raged in Europe after America joined the conflict in the last year of the war and brought the war to an end when the enemy was driven back to their own border and called for an armistice.

Most historians say that stopping the war once Germany had to fight on its own soil, and failing to insist on an unconditional surrender, turned out to be a fatal mistake for the next generation. But to the men on the front lines at that time, it was a life saving blessing. Granddad Richmond, then a young U.S. Marine, was one of these who might not have survived another day. I was interested in reviewing the diary he kept to see what was going on during the last 12 hours of that "great war to end all wars" He writes:

"This was the night of November 10. We fell in, and after a short consultation of officers, we moved out in single file. We had not proceeded far, before word was passed back for everyone to be as quiet as possible, that we were going to make a night attack. Our presence must have been discovered by the Germans by the way they shelled us. A number of shells fell right around us. The 2nd Engineers were trying to throw a bridge across the river for us. They lost heavily that night in getting two foot bridges across, though one was blown up by a direct hit soon after it was thrown across. The shelling that night was the heaviest that I had been through so far. Having only one place left to cross on, it was slow work getting across to the other side of the river. Machine gun fire, shells from the trench mortars and artillery fire continued heavily.

"We had one element in our favor all during the night; a heavy fog so thick that the enemy's flares could not reveal our presence. Had there been no fog, it is doubtful if enough of us could have gotten across to have told the tale. Had our exact position been known, the hundreds of machines guns and trench mortars along the bluff overlooking the river would have wiped us off the face of the earth, and they did a good job of it as it was, the next day revealed. Our progress up the river was slow, as the head of the column had to stop every few minutes and clean up a machine gun nest. After each stop, I would be so cold and stiff, would have to take my hands and help get my limbs working when we started again. We could hear the Germans running around in the woods only a few yards away Our progress was just as quiet as possible, in order not to let them know we were near them.

"At daylight we had traveled a little over two miles up the river Along with some others, I began to dig in behind a terrace that ran along the hillside. This gave us good protection from machine gun fire, which bothered us considerably. I had some tea left from the canteen. This I warmed over a can of alcohol. After drinking the hot tea, pulled off my shoes and rubbed my feet, putting on some dry socks. Trench mortars dropped all around us, and machine gun bullets clipped the top of the little ridge right above our heads. Just up the river a mile was the town of Mouzon. I could see the church steeples.

"As noon approached, we became conscious of an unusual quietness all around. Firing had almost entirely ceased. The Germans occupied the crest of the ridge along the river, and if they had sufficient numbers could easily have cleaned us up. After eleven o'clock, all firing ceased entirely, not a sound anywhere. No word had reached us yet. A wounded fellow from our company was discovered down near the river bank where he had laid since before daylight. Getting a stretcher, I went to him and dressed his wound. While we were getting ready to take our wounded man to the rear, a runner appeared with the official news that an Armistice had been signed. Most everybody let out a few healthy yells, but I did not. I didn't feel like yelling. I kept urging the necessity of getting the fellow under medical care as soon as possible. As we had to go back along the river bank where we had crossed during the preceding night, had a good opportunity to see just what we had done and the hazards of our undertaking. Near the small bridge, the bank of the river was strewn with our dead. I counted 25 within a distance of a hundred yards. On the opposite side of the river, the dead were more numerous. As many as 4 or 5 could be seen around many shell holes. The sight of this made me sad, and at the same time breathe a fervent prayer of thanksgiving at being permitted to live through it."

He did live through it and return home to a hero's welcome, then quietly turn his attention to his job, family and church for the next 62 years. I never knew him to talk about his experiences, though his many citations were on display in our home, signed by the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, General John J. Pershing, and Maj. Gen. John A Lejeune who commanded the Marine Corp. At his death, January 25, 1981, the Cleveland Daily Banner ran a column-long eulogy that said, in part; '"The spirit of this great American will live on in the heart of every devoted citizen and every conscientious serviceman. He was the embodiment of the American solder, his toughness, his idealism, his tenacity of purpose, his sense of rightness or wrongness, his discipline, his unyielding love of country, his compassion for the weak and oppressed, his anger at dictatorial governments, methods and personalities. He was proudly patriotic to the end. Because of him and many like him, America is today the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Lest we forget.
Lovingly, Dad

Granddad's war diary is also online, at www.robinrichmond.com/wardiary.

Robin Richmond