We need to better recognize World War I veterans

William Wehrs

wiwehrs@ursinus.edu

On November 10, 2018, according to numerous media reports, President Donald Trump decided not to attend an event honoring World War I veterans. This decision unfortunately reflects the trend of Americans forgetting about World War I. According to a 2014 study done by “YouGov,” 22 percent of Americans aged 18-29 were unable to name the U.S. president during World War I, and a combined 13 percent thought it was either Franklin Roosevelt or Theodore Roosevelt. Additionally, 43 percent don’t know who Russia sided with, and only 41 percent knew when the US entered the war.

Trump choosing not to attend the event honoring World War I veterans also ties into the United States’ history of ignoring World War I veterans. This began almost as soon as they returned home. According to Brandon Weber of “UpWorthy,” the veterans’ pay was awful. Ultimately, vets had to petition to the government asking for compensation, and in response were handed certificates that were not cashable until 1945. With the Great Depression, however, things got far worse.

As Terence McArdle of “The Washington Post” reports, in 1932 around 20,000 veterans gathered outside of Washington DC to demand bonus payments. President Herbert Hoover called in troops, and the day of July 28th took a bloody turn. General MacArthur ordered a coordinated removal, and the army brutally cleared the streets of the veterans. First came almost 200 cavalry who drew their swords and slashed at anyone in their path. Additionally, infantry threw tear gas at the crowd of veterans. The soldiers then set fire to the veterans’ dwellings with contemporary columnist Bess Furman describing the harrowing scene as “a nightmare come to life.”

This was not the only instance of deplorable treatment of World War I veterans, however, as many African Americans who served faced adversity as well. According to David Olusaga of “The Guardian”, in 1919, at least 19 African Americans were lynched for wearing their uniforms in public. Additionally, in October of 1919 when former African American soldiers attempted to organize sharecroppers in Arkansas, they were massacred. A white man, H.F. Smiddy, witnessed the events and recalls that “several hundred of them… began to hunt [them] and shotting [sic] them as they came to them.” Additionally, there was an “Arkansas Gazette” employee, Sharpe Dunaway, who recalls that the soldiers who came to Elaine to quell tensions “committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes, or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.”

This treatment of veterans is unacceptable when one considers the accomplishments of the American soldiers during the war despite the enormous costs. One example is US soldiers managing to drive the Germans out of the Belleau woods. According to Richard Rubin of “The Atlantic,” the French were unwilling to go into the woods, as they regarded them as unsafe. Undaunted, the Americans plunged forward and succeeded in driving out the Germans, but at the tragic cost of around 10,000 casualties. It is well past time to start remembering the U.S. contribution to World War I and honor veterans similarly to the way we honor them for their service during World War II.