Author Richard Rubin sat in the living rooms of many different heroes between 2003 and 2013.
Some of them cried. Some were hard of hearing. Some of them spoke haltingly, enunciating every syllable. No matter what their reactions were, Rubin didn’t mind. He was just glad they were alive.
“My goal wasn’t even to write a book, originally I was just going to write an article,” Rubin said to a room of over 100 Keene State College students and community members attending KSC’s official U.S. Constitution Day observance on Sept. 17.
He said, “I wanted to read this book; I wanted to hear these men’s stories. Honestly, if somebody else had done this before, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Regardless of Rubin’s intentions, he successfully collected the stories and experiences from nearly three-dozen World War I veterans, ranging in age from 101-113.
He spent years tracking down and interviewing for a book he said was initially rejected over twenty times by publishers. Now, “The Last of The Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War,” serves as the only testament of WWI veterans’ experiences since the last American veteran died on Feb. 27, 2011.
Rubin said he never took a single journalism class in college.
Despite parental pressure to attend law school it dawned on him that he didn’t want to be a lawyer and he threw the applications away.
Rubin said, “I’m temperamentally suited to journalism because I’m just a naturally curious guy.”
Fresh out of college with a history degree, he ended up working in Greenwood, Mississippi, writing for the daily newspaper The Greenwood Commonwealth for about a year.
His first book, “Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South,” recounts his experience working at the paper and his return six years later to cover the murder trial of an African-American high school football player, whom he called his, “First scoop.”
Rubin left the newspaper, went to graduate school and got a master’s degree in creative writing.
He then went to work pitching ideas to various magazines and publishers.
After being rejected dozens of times, eventually The Atlantic Monthly started taking stories from him. After getting more work published, Rubin’s interest turned to the history behind World War I.
It was called the “war to end all wars.” One-hundred years ago Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo, Bosnia eventually sparked 19 countries into warfare with one another.
Over 37 million soldier and civilian lives were sacrificed worldwide. The war was fought with frighteningly new and devastating technology. Airplanes took flight, brandishing guns, bombs and giving birth to aerial warfare. The newly crafted machine gun ripped through hundreds of soldiers in seconds.
Chemical warfare evolved with chlorine gas, a substance that would burn a person’s lungs from the inside, causing severe injuries even 60-70 years later.
Rubin stated that when he set out to find the veterans who had lived through these events and learn from them, it was because the perception that these people and the war they fought in was forgotten.
The subtitle of his book is, “The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War.” Rubin stated that he wrote this book because there weren’t any American records of the war.
Over the course of ten years, Rubin tracked down these veterans, taking multiple trips and flights across the country in order to speak to them, but most importantly, to listen.
When asked if Rubin had any regrets in terms of speaking to these people, Rubin said, “I think I did the best I could have done given the limitations I had.”
Rubin had challenges when conducting interviews with the elderly veterans. Due to the ages of these war heroes, the youngest being 101 and the oldest being 113, he was under the ultimate deadline. Rubin said, “If you discover that a man is 106 years old and he wants to talk to you about WWI, you can’t wait a few months to go see him.” There were plenty of times Rubin was too late and lost his race against time.
“There was a fellow that I located in Las Vegas who was 109 that was an African-American veteran. I had been looking for quite a while for African-American veterans.”
Rubin talked with the man’s niece, set up the interview and booked a flight for two weeks later. Rubin said that unfortunately when he arrived, the man was unconscious in a hospital bed. He died the next morning.
Not only did Rubin want to get stories from these veterans, he also wanted to learn more about America’s involvement in the war. “America is the country it is today because of WWI,” Rubin said, “[WWI] was a very traumatic experience for Americans—at a certain point they didn’t want to deal with it. They lost 117,000 soldiers in just 19 months in the war and they weren’t prepared for that.”
According to Rubin, the record keeping on the war in America was scarce. The only information he could find on the war was records from British historians. This was a problem, however; Rubin said, “A lot of British historians are uncharitable toward Americans … they never got over the fact that Americans sat the war out for the first two-and-a-half years.”
“At a certain point it became obvious that no one else was going to [write this book], so I was going to have to go out and do it,” Rubin stated.
To start, Rubin said he decided to contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs [VA] to start a list of names. However, Rubin explained, he quickly found out that the VA office didn’t even have records of American WWI veterans. Rubin said he had to look elsewhere for the veterans’ names and luckily the French government helped him acquire names.
According to Rubin, France started looking for American WWI veterans in 1998 to award them with the Legion of Honour, the highest award anyone can receive from France. The French government ended up giving out about 550 Legions of Honour to American men and women who had served on French soil in WWI. Rubin explained he had heard of the program and in 2003 called to trade names.
Rubin said, “They were so moved by what I had told them I was trying to do … that they took all 550 successful applications from the Legion of Honour, photocopied them and then Fed-Exed them to me. They wouldn’t take a dime for any of it.”
Ironically, Rubin said, “One day, about three years later, I got a call from somebody at the VA [Veterans Affair] asking me if I had a list of living American veterans of WWI and if I would be willing to share it with them.”
To experience even more about the war, Rubin explained how he has flown overseas and traveled to many different places in France, most recently this past summer. There, Rubin recalled how he crawled through the trenches and walked through the battlefields. He collected pieces of the war that littered the country. According to Rubin, “Every time the fields are plowed, stuff comes up. And I do mean every time.” Rubin stated that so much was dropped on France in that war, that the earth will regurgitate pieces of WWI for the next 200 to 300 years.
Artifacts like German and American bullet casings, live 100-year-old ammunition, rusty rifle bayonets and countless liquor bottle fragments can all be found in the fields of France’s farmlands.
Rubin said, “People must have gotten through that war entirely drunk; there are so many bottles everywhere that artifact hunters don’t even bother bending over for them.”
Rubin took these stories, experiences and memorabilia home with him, all in an attempt to give America a historical record where there was none. When asked why he thought America has forgotten about the war and its soldiers, he said, “I think people have forgotten about [WWI veterans] in part because people have forgotten about the war. It was so upstaged by World War II.”
On Feb. 27, 2011, Frank Buckles, the last living American World War I veteran, died at 110. Rubin interviewed Buckles when he was 102. In an excerpt taken from “The Last of the Doughboys,” Rubin quoted his experience with Buckles, “‘I let any person who had any influence at all know that I wanted to go to France,’ [Buckles] told me, ‘I contacted one of the field clerks and told him that I wanted to see the colonel.’ Colonel Jones, the top-ranking American officer in the area, was particularly indulgent of him… ‘Colonel Jones said he’d like to go to France, too,’ Mr. Buckles recalled, eighty-five years later. ‘But he said, ‘When the Army tells me I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to do it.’” Thanks to Rubin’s efforts, he was able to catalog information that eight years later would have become lost forever.
“I didn’t learn much about it when I was younger. But as I’ve gotten older and learned more about it I’ve realized how important it really was,” Judy Boyer of Spofford, N.H., said of WWI.
Rubin wasn’t the only one on KSC campus who had knowledge of war. Fran Merlon said he spent over four years playing golf in the early 1960s on John Hay Air Base in the Philippines as part of his eight years in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. Now a prisoner in his own body, he faces the struggle of multiple sclerosis [MS]. This didn’t stop him from visiting Keene State College, with his two arm-crutches supporting him every step (which was about four steps per-average-step) and showing complete support of Rubin.
Merlon said everything Rubin was saying about these veterans’ memories was true. At one point, in the middle of the speech, Merlon scurried through his pockets , in search for a notepad and pen. He wrote, “Older people repeat over and over stories of what they did and the elders know their stuff.” Rubin encouraged those attending the Constitution Day event to find their own lost history.
He said, “I hope some of you in this room, when you leave here and go out into the world and start writing for yourselves, will seek out people who were witnesses to other historical events and interview them to rescue those events from oblivion.”
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