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Doughboys Return From the World War

Doughboys, fresh from the trenches of France, brought home a special sense of identity. That sense would influence domestic and foreign policies for the next two decades.

By David M. Gosoroski

Reprinted with permission from the September 1997
VFW Magazine

Gas attack victims with eyes bandaged
are led across Field Hospital #13
grounds near Caply, France, July 2,
1918. Apparently, they are members of
the famed "Big Red One" Division.

Though America was neutral through the first 21/2 years of WWI, it certainly wasn't a disinterested bystander. While American sympathies went to the Allies, so did merchant ships laden with supplies. The ensuing German submarine attacks ensured President Woodrow Wilson would send Doughboys "over there" to "make the world safe for democracy."

Those dispatched to France were a "replica of the country itself," according to Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., a battalion commander at the front and later, principal founder of the American Legion.

A decade after the war, he wrote, "Our Army in France was more representative of the United States than is the national Congress." Massive immigration of the early 20th century made it a classic "melting pot" fighting force. Its ranks included many who achieved greatness, including artillery Capt. Harry S Truman, 33rd President and VFW member.

Only 6,000 Doughboys -- including 1,300 VFW members -- are still alive, ranging in age from 97 to 116. Though their ranks have steadily thinned, their impact on the treatment of future generations of veterans has been enormous.

Foundation for Service
When war was declared April 6, 1917, the U.S. had no modern army to send to Europe. The regular Army consisted of 138,000 soldiers backed by some 74,000 National Guardsmen. Few regulars had combat experience, and the Guard had little or no training.

The Selective Service Induction Act of 1917 established the system for procuring citizen-soldiers for the rest of the 20th century. Some 72% of all who served during WWI were draftees -- 50% of the men in France were conscripted. In all, the U.S. mobilized 20% of the male population between 18 and 45 (9.2% were black).

Near universal support for the war virtually compelled eligible men to serve. Little resistance emerged to either registration or being called, except from certain left-wing dissidents who objected especially to concurrent U.S. interventions in North Russia and Siberia in sympathy with the Bolshevik Revolution.

Threshold of Hell
The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) totaled just over 2 million men in France, with 1,078,222 (52.4%) actually serving in combat or combat support units. Infantrymen totaled 646,000. The Army Air Service fielded 34,800 men, the Marines 32,385 and the Navy 80,000 sailors in the European Theater.

Expeditionary forces numbering about 5,800 and 10,000, respectively, also participated in campaigns in North Russia and Siberia, 1918-19. A U.S. infantry regiment also was dispatched to North Italy late in the war to counter forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

AEF vets were differentiated from those stateside by overseas caps, Sam Browne belts, distinctive unit shoulder patches and gold stripes on their sleeves. Resentment of untested troops intensified, too, when those who arrived in France last were rotated stateside first for discharge. Reasons why were obvious.

The realities of trench warfare were horrifying and nauseating. Cold and wet produced trench foot and respiratory illnesses. Rats, flies and nits carried all manner of potentially fatal diseases.

"In the trenches men lived a life of primitive instincts -- fear, hunger, thirst -- and with physical extremes, deafening noises, sudden flashes, ex-treme cold, and agonizing pain," wrote John Ellis in Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I.

"There was a deep affection for everyone who had to endure the same horrors -- an uplifting sense of unity and pride in one's own and one's fellows' ability to stand firm in the midst of hell itself," Ellis continued. "Compassion and pride came together to form a brotherhood of the damned."

The no-man's-land between opposing trenches was aptly described by Lt. Hugh Thompson of the 168th Inf. Regt., 42nd Div.: "Desolate was the only name for it. A mass of rusty barbed wire strung on crisscrosses of posts that seemed to grow from the ground. Ghost-like trees were splintered with shell scars. Some had fallen into the mass of twisted wire and upturned earth."

Death at the Front
Escaping trenches on patrols and raids across no-man's-land proved a deadly gamble. Enemy artillery and machine- gun fire exacted a heavy toll on the AEF: 53,313 KIA and 204,002 WIA. But more than bullets greeted Doughboys.

Of 78,000 U.S. chemical casualties, 1,462 died. Some 27% of the total were due to gas. "This was a far higher percentage than the Germans or our allies," according to Army Chemical Corps historian Dr. Burton Wright.

"Shell shock," called le cafard by the French -- a disabling state of depression -- was thought to be caused by a concussion that disrupted the brain's physiology. Almost 70,000 U.S. men were permanently evacuated from the line, while more than 36,000 were hospitalized for long periods from its effects. All told, 158,994 Doughboys were psychiatrically inactivated for some time.

Accidents and disease accounted for 63,195 additional deaths -- nearly 60% in the continental U.S. Half of all Army deaths were from disease. At the height of the war, 11,000 soldiers were hospitalized weekly from influenza and pneumonia in France. A 1918 flu epidemic also took 25,000 soldiers' lives at stateside camps.

Soldier as Pariah
Notwithstanding the suffering "over there," the war and the warrior -- at least for the time being -- remained popular at home.

As many as 200,000 returning Doughboys marched in 450 parades. New York City alone had six parades. However, initial homefront enthusiasm waned quickly, and many Army of Occupation soldiers, discharged long after the armistice, returned to an indifferent society eager to forget the war.

On a train home to Atlanta in late 1919, Pvt. Harry Zander found that where 18 months before "waiters and civilians had fallen all over themselves to give him a chair, now it was filled with brusque businessmen who were no longer concerned over the man in uniform," recounted Dixon Wecter in When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

Demobilization proceeded by units instead of by a soldier's previous occupation (as in England). By mid-1919, 2 million men were discharged. Six months later, Army ranks were reduced to a peacetime low of 130,000.

Press accounts fretted over society's difficulty in absorbing so many unemployed soldiers so quickly. Though employers such as the U.S. Railroad Administration and General Electric provided re-employment by seniority rights, many plants given over to wartime production released torrents of civilian workers. This further unsettled the economy and contributed to the 1920-21 depression.

A "khaki" journal, The Bridgehead Sentinel, editorialized: "Now that victory was won, so far as the folks at home are concerned, the soldier is rapidly resuming his place as a pariah."

In The Theory of the Leisure Class, American economist and social scientist Thorstein Veblen complained the nation was saddled with "a legion of veterans organized for a draft on public funds and the cultivation of a warlike distemper."

Recognizing the Sacrifice
Despite civilian ingratitude, official recognition of bravery was forthcoming. Several new awards were created by the War Department, including the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal.

Also authorized were war service and wound chevrons -- for those wounded and gassed -- and shoulder patches. Clasps denoting battle and campaign service, and small silver stars for gallantry also were attached to the WWI Victory Medal.

The Purple Heart, revived in 1932, was made retroactive to April 5, 1917. The Silver Star was made retroactive as far back as the Spanish-American War of 1898.

In addition to individual recognition, monuments sprang up across the country. The Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Mo., housing the largest museum specifically on WWI, was dedicated in 1926.

Others include the Memorial Plaza and Shrine in Indianapolis, the Pershing Memorial, and the 1st and 2nd Infantry Division monuments in Washington, D.C. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at Arlington National Cemetery, finally completed Dec. 28, 1931, interred remains of a Doughboy Nov. 11, 1921.

Providing Hospital Care
While monuments and medals were welcome, more tangible benefits were desperately needed. Public Law 326, passed March 3, 1919, transferred nine former military hospitals to the Public Health Service. During the last three months of FY19, the Public Health Service opened 10 new hospitals in addition to the 20 hospitals it already operated.

Use of Army and Navy hospital beds, as well as space in the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers also was approved in 1921. Soon after, the Veterans Bureau took charge. By December 1930, VA hospitals cared for 32,000 patients and soldiers homes housed another 23,000 veterans.

Furthermore, five shell shock centers were established to treat psychiatric casualties. By 1942, WWI shell shock cases accounted for 58% of all VA patients.

Also, the Rehabilitation Division of the Federal Board for Vocational Education, established by the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1918, provided services for veterans deemed incapable of employment due to disability.

'Justice to Our Defenders'
Readjustment and rehabilitation were the hallmarks of WWI benefits legislation. Enacted at the war's onset, the War Risk Insurance Act Amendments of 1917 provided government-subsidized life insurance for veterans with an option for dependent death or disability coverage.

In a letter to the amendments' drafting committee chairman, former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote: "It marks a great step forward. It puts the United States where it ought to be, as standing in the forefront among the nations in doing justice to our defenders."

A dependents pension in case of death or disability also was approved, along with a $60 discharge allowance at war's end in recognition of service rendered, under the act. An average earnings impairment disability rating schedule was introduced and, for the first time, service-connected "aggravation" of pre-existing conditions applied.

Moreover, a plan modeled on the Wisconsin Educational Bonus Law of 1919 entitled all veterans to one year's vocational training -- but not college. The Wisconsin law, though, provided $30 a month to attend any non-profit elementary or high school, technical institution, college or university.

Veterans preference was further enshrined in law, too. Non-disabled vets were granted a five-point federal employment preference for the first time through a rider to the Census Act of 1919. In 1923, disabled vets were given 10 points, and six years later were placed at the top of the list.

Always paramount, however, was rehabilitation of the wounded. The Dawes Commission, appointed by President Warren Harding in 1921 to investigate government agencies dealing with disabled veterans, concluded: "No emergency of war itself was greater than is the emergency that confronts the nation in its duty to care for the disabled in its service and now neglected."

'Epoch of Veterans Relief'
Dawes' commission recommended a single agency to care for disabled vets, which became reality when the Veterans Bureau Act of 1921 combined the Federal Board for Vocational Education, the Bureau of War Risk Insurance and U.S. Public Health Service veteran-functions. This reorganization ushered in an "epoch of veterans relief," according to the Bureau's first report to Congress.

Mismanagement of Bureau finances under Charles R. Forbes, however, necessitated codifying and amending all pre- and post-war veterans benefit laws under the World War Veterans Act of 1924.

Another landmark law, the World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 (the Bonus), passed over President Calvin Coolidge's veto, provided 20-year endowment certificates in lieu of a cash bonus, to be paid at maturity in 1945. It was intended to equalize the loss of wages to civilians who earned far more. In 1931, Congress passed the Bacharach bill, providing for a 50% loan valuation per policy.

Placing the flood of unemployed civilian defense workers and returning veterans into jobs fell to the U.S. Employment Service (USES), which registered employers and employees, investigated jobs and reported on labor areas of scarcity or saturation. By 1931, 6.4% of vets were unemployed. All told, USES placed about 500,000 veterans. The Wagner-Peyser Act of 1933 created the Veterans Employment Service within the USES.

VFW led the successful fight for Public Law 522 -- the World War Service Disability Act, passed July 3, 1930. It provided compensation to veterans with non-service-connected disabilities. Within two years, 407,584 such WWI vets were added to the pension rolls.

In response to increasing demands made on the federal government by veterans during the Depression, another consolidation occurred. The Veterans Bureau, Bureau of Pensions and National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers were merged into the Veterans Administration in 1930, led by Frank T. Hines.

Hard times pushed an estimated 15,000 destitute ex-Doughboys to the brink in July 1932. They gathered in Washington to petition for immediate payment of the bonus in full. The Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF), as it was dubbed, was ultimately dispersed by an attack upon the unarmed veterans. The VFW condemned the military rout as "morally indefensible."

A VA survey of the marchers confirmed 94% were indeed veterans -- 67% had served overseas and 20% were disabled. Claims by both Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the Hoover Administration that the first mass demonstration in the nation's capital was by non-veterans were dispelled.

Within a year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt imposed the Economy Act of 1933, which cut veterans disability allowances by 25%. In the effort to cut federal expenses, veterans were viewed as having inordinate special status over civilians.

The previous fall, he had publicly proclaimed: "No one [merely] because he wore a uniform must therefore be placed in a special class of beneficiaries over and above all other citizens. The fact of wearing a uniform does not mean that he can demand and receive from his government a benefit which no other citizen receives." Congress, nevertheless, quickly restored the benefits denied by FDR.

Also, pressure by veterans groups built until, in 1936, a lump sum bonus law was passed over FDR's veto, eventually disbursing $2.5 billion to WWI veterans.

Perhaps respect for Doughboy sacrifices ultimately came with passage of Public Law 510, May 13, 1938, making Armistice Day, Nov. 11, a legal national holiday.

Henceforth, the veterans lobby was recognized as a powerhouse in 20th century America. Organized veterans had demonstrated the effectiveness of public influence on domestic policies, and also steered foreign policy on a non-interventionist course for two decades.

Though numbering only 4.7 million -- 3.7% of the population -- ex-servicemen exerted pressure far out of proportion to their numbers. Some would say unduly. But as Gen. John Pershing said of AEF veterans, they "left a heritage of which those who follow may ever be proud."

That pride created a special fraternity. As 1st Lt. Percival Hart wrote, Doughboys "celebrated the end of an eraÉsuch as in our younger days we had never dreamed could come to pass -- filled with memories and friendships which only death itself can take from us."

One year in the trenches was enough to mobilize American veterans of the World War. Quickly disillusioned by the brutality -- and inequity -- of modern warfare, they formed three new groups, all with specific agendas.

American Legion
In a June 1, 1918, letter to his son, Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (a battalion commander in France), T.R. wrote: "It is the business of each of us to play the part of a good American and try to make things as much better as possible." The junior T.R. took his father's words to heart.

Borrowing an idea from Sgt. William K. Patterson, who was killed in action, Roosevelt was moved to action. In a Jan. 21, 1919, letter, he described a prospective association that would be in the "forefront to do good things."

Less than a month later, Roosevelt presented a plan at an officers dinner. In March, nearly 200 officers and enlisted men attended a caucus in Paris: the American Legion was born.

Then from May 8-10, 1,000 delegates caucused in St. Louis, Mo., electing Henry D. Lindsley, former Dallas mayor, as national chairman. They believed "potentially, it [Legion] is all of the good that was in the Army with none of the bad." Nov. 10-12, 1919, marked its first national convention in Minneapolis.

The Legion's main theme was "100% Americanism." It included opposition to radical groups like the International Workers of the World (IWW). At St. Louis, the Soldiers' and Sailors' Council (SSC) of Washington state, composed largely of IWW members who also were vets, was refused Legion recognition.

"Wobblies" [IWW members] were deemed responsible for a series of 18 letter bombs sent to prominent citizens -- either exploded or detected -- between a major strike and the Legion's May caucus.

Four legionnaires were shot and killed by Wobblies during a parade in Centralia, Wash., on Armistice Day, 1919. One Wobblie was lynched during the mayhem.

Wobblies were portrayed as martyrs and Legionnaires as "tools of reactionary business interests, an image that may have helped deny the Legion credit for its role in passage of the GI Bill years later," according to Michael J. Bennett in When Dreams Came True, a history of the bill written in 1996.

Of course, the American Legion stood unabashedly in favor of patriotism, national defense and veterans rights throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Reaching a membership of 1,153,909 prior to WWII, its accomplishments on behalf of the nation are indisputable.

Disabled American Veterans
A Christmas Day dinner in 1919 at a Cincinnati, Ohio, hotel focused the need to make the plight of disabled veterans known to government.

It was there the Disabled American Veterans of the World War (DAVWW) -- since called DAV -- was conceived. DAV was first led by Robert S. Marx, a Cincinnati superior court judge and former Army infantry captain.

Two groups provided the original base of membership for DAV: the Ohio Mechanics Institute Disabled Soldiers (OMIDS); and a group of disabled veterans attending the University of Cincinnati.

DAV was officially established Sept. 25, 1920, although Marx had presented articles of incorporation the previous May. A subsequent caucus in Cincinnati of 250 representatives from various disabled veterans' self-help groups agreed on a June 1921 convention in Detroit, at which Marx was elected the first national commander.

Marx noted: "In war, all are eligible to be wounded, so all the sick and wounded would be eligible to join the DAV." DAV's purpose: provide service to all disabled veterans and their families. Indeed, it was instrumental in eliminating the endless paperwork and overlapping agency authority to file claims.

Along with the Legion and the VFW, DAV helped secure legislation establishing the Veterans Bureau in 1921, forerunner of today's Department of Veterans Affairs.

Like other veterans organizations, DAV's membership fluctuated, peaking at 44,500 just prior to WWII. By then, it had established firm foundations.

Veterans of World War I
Many veterans of the "Great War" felt the influx of WWII veterans into existing groups would submerge their identity and interests. In response, they formed the Veterans of World War I (VWW) on Dec. 5, 1949, in Cleveland, Ohio. A national convention was not held until 1953; congressional incorporation followed five years later.

VWW sought equity with provisions of the non-retroactive GI Bill through a WWI service pension. That goal was never achieved. Membership peaked at 229,000 in 1968. It has fallen to about 4,000.

Other groups appeared on the veterans scene after 1920, but none reached national prominence prior to WWII.

VFW gained national notoriety by fighting vigorously for the bonus. By 1929, it counted 76,699 members and would more than double in size by Pearl Harbor. Eventually, seven WWI vets would serve as commanders-in-chief.

Copyright ©1996,1997; Veterans of Foreign Wars of United States.
All Rights Reserved.

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