Fernley ceremony commemorates 100th anniversary of U.S. involvement in WWI
Design by Laci Thompson
FERNLEY — Thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe, “The Great War” killed twice as many people from a wide-reaching influenza pandemic than those who perished in combat during World War II. World War I, though, began in August 1914 because of deep political differences throughout Europe — not disease — when a Yugoslav national assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austria-Hungary empire on June 28.
For three years war raged across Europe after Germany declared war on Russia, France and Belgium on Aug. 1, thus setting off a domino effect when Britain then declared war on Germany and its allies three days later. The United States, though, declared its neutrality on the same day, remaining as such until the Americans entered the war on April 6, 1917.
“It brought us out as a country when we went to war because of attacks on shipping and fears in Mexico,” said Kat Miller, director of the Nevada Department of Veterans Services.
Miller and several other speakers commemorated the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entering the war in a one-hour ceremony at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley. The stiff, cold breeze didn’t deter about 200 guests from attending the ceremony, capped by a playing of Taps.
Because of the numerous incidents of the Germans sinking U.S. merchant ships in 1915 and 1916 and Germany’s belief of indirect American support for Great Britain and its allies, critics pushed President Woodrow Wilson to enter the war; instead, the Germans signed the Sussex Pledge not to sink nonmilitary ships. Fear also prevailed in the U.S. of Germany trying to enlist Mexico to join the Axis nations.
On Feb. 1, 1917, Germany abandoned the accord and began stalking both military and civilian ships, resulting in a break in diplomatic relationships between the two countries. Three days later, newspaper headlines predicted war was inevitable and two months later, the U.S. formally entered the war. More than 4.8 million men either enlisted or were drafted, and Nevada entered the call as eagerly as many other states. Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt gave a historical timeline, saying 1,500 men answered the call.
“That was the largest percentage commitment of any state,” Laxalt said, “but the shortness of the war had a lot of casualties.”
The U.S. lost a total of 116,708 men and women to military-related deaths that included 53,402 reported killed in combat or missing in action. More than 400 nurses also died. According to military records, just as many men and women died from a severe influenza outbreak during 1918-1919 as they did fighting, and the influenza pandemic claimed the lives of upward to 40 million people in Europe. Overall, however, Laxalt said 195 Nevadans lost their lives with many of the deaths impacting such as small state as Nevada.
“We had over 190 who lost their lives, and 11 of them are buried in this cemetery,” Laxalt said, noting the number of deaths to Nevada’s population constituted a large proportion of casualties. “Everyone knew everyone, so everyone was troubled with a loss of life.”
WWI, though, changed how soldiers died and wars were fought from the introduction of tanks to submarine warfare in the Atlantic. Sides faced each other from stinky, disease-riddled trenches along the Western Front, while chemical warfare killed thousands of men. The machine gun changed the scope of fighting by mowing down scores of advancing soldiers.
Laxalt, a Navy veteran who served in Iraq as a JAG (Judge Advocate General) officer, said Nevadans have always answered the call to bear arms from statehood during the American Civil War to World War II and Korea to the latest two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While most Americans remember WWII from action-packed movies or recent ceremonies honoring Pearl Harbor Day or to the constant news of U.S. soldiers still fighting in the Middle East, Laxalt said WWI changed this country.
“WWI tends to be a forgotten war,” Laxalt pointed out. “It’s important we commemorate it and knowing always that people will step up and will always do so.”
As a veteran, Miller knows the meaning of answering the call and serving one’s country. Her grandfather served as a chief petty officer aboard the USS Pocahontas, a Navy transport ship that was launched in 1900. The NVDS director, who retired as an Army colonel, said her grandfather shared stories that had commonality between them, especially their service in Europe and visiting France. He also told her of the number of dead soldiers and sailors the trip had to transport. She said the influenza pandemic killed 30,000 sailors and soldiers before the ships arrived in France and before the fighting men saw any combat.
“It was difficult for a young man who grew up in the Appalachians,” she said of what her grandfather witnessed.
“He was a strong, young man, a morally straight young man aboard a ship with all walks of life. He was shaped by the horror of the war, and it made him expand his world. He became a world traveler and a deep thinker.”
Miller said despite the adversities of WWI and what he experienced aboard the ship, her grandfather wore the uniform with pride.
Vietnam veteran Tom Draughon, a member of the Northern Nevada Veterans Coalition who served as master of ceremony, echoed Miller’s comments. His father served in the infantry during WWI.
“It’s important we not forget them,” he said of those who fought in a distant land.
Historian and Korean War veteran Fred Horlacker offered additional insight into the horrors of war and how, in a one-day battle, the British army lost 60,000 men in one day of fighting.
“That was the highest casualty of any battle the British Army was involved in its history,” he said.
To put the number of deaths into perspective, Horlacker said 10,000 soldiers lost their lives storming the beaches at Normandy in 1944.
Horlacker mentioned Sgt. Alvin York, an American hero awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for capturing 132 Germans single handedly. Howard Rosenberg, a University of Nevada, Reno Foundation professor focusing on film studies and art education, read portions of several letters written by soldiers and the thoughts they had while fighting in Europe.
Also during the ceremony, the Maytan Band under the direction of U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Alan Pefley played patriotic music and stirring marches, some associated with the World War I era.
While the music allowed attendees to slip back into time, former television newsman John Tyson, though, summed up the day’s events with a reading of “In Flanders Field,” a poem written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian physician, who looks at the struggle between life and death.
“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.”
Tyson paused for several seconds after reading the poem, one of the most famous pieces of literature that came off the field of battle.
“It was poignant then, poignant today and poignant tomorrow.”