My Connection with the French Town of Stenay and the 100th American Anniversary Ceremonies in the Meuse-Argonne
By Jeffrey A. Lowdermilk
Special to the United States World War One Centennial Commission web site
Part 1: Introduction, The Story Begins
Stephan Perrin, the Mayor of Stenay, France asked me to write a series of articles about my history with Stenay, including my stories and photographs of the 100th anniversary ceremonies commemorating the end of the First World War. The town of Stenay has been an extremely important part of my life because my Grandfather, George A. Carlson, entered the town on the morning of the Armistice, November 11, 1918. The following aticle was translated into French and was published this past winter as installments in Stenay’s regional magazine. So, I thought readers here at home would also enjoy my stories.
“We stayed up all night and talked, because we knew in the morning we would all be killed,” Granddad said with a somber face. I was a ten-year-old and sat wide-eyed on the sofa as Granddad told me his Armistice Day story for the first time. He went on:
“It was the evening of November 10, and we were camped near the old train station on the west side of the Meuse River. On the other side of the river was the town of Stenay, and our orders were to attack Stenay in the morning. When the Germans retreated, they dynamited the bridge, so huge blocks of concrete were scattered in the river. The only way across was to pick our way from block to block, and we knew there was a German machine gun in every window of the town pointed at the demolished bridge. But, early the next morning a messenger rode through camp and told us that the Armistice had been signed. Later that morning I was the eighth or ninth man across the river and we went into town without a fight. We sure were lucky as most of the Germans had retreated during the night.”
This was the first time I had heard about Stenay, France. The town is so important to me because this is where my Grandfather was on the morning of the Armistice.
World War I was such a powerful part of my grandfather’s life. I can even remember my grandmother, Dorothy, saying with a smile, “I got your grandfather with a box of Sunshine Biscuits.” She explained that the biscuit company’s slogan during the war was, “A doughboy in every box!” The term “doughboy,” which was the name given to the American World War I soldiers, has its roots in the Punitive Expedition of 1916. This military effort was commanded by General John J. Pershing, in which he attempted to capture the infamous Pancho Villa in northern Mexico. As the infantry marched through the alkaline deserts, they were covered in white dust and looked as though they had been rolled in flour. Thus, were called doughboys.
Granddad was twenty-three years old when he left Denver, Colorado’s Union Station on a “special” train carrying new doughboys to basic training on March 30, 1918. This is where his diary (which he gave the matter-of-fact title, “My Life in the Army”) begins. The train was bound for Camp Funston, which was within the Fort Riley military reservation, in the heart of Kansas.
During basic training, he was assigned to the 353rd Infantry Regiment (Company A) of the 89th Division, of which he was reverently proud. This division was known as the Rolling W, which had a symbol with a capital W inside a circle or wheel. The 89th Division was made up of men from the “Middle West,” specifically the states of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, and South Dakota. As the symbol is rotated, it changes from M to W (Middle West). The 353rd Infantry Regiment was known as the Kansas Regiment. Their slogan was “We’re from Kansas,” and their emblem was a sunflower.
Following my Grandfather’s death in 1983, my mother gave me his World War I Diary and his 89th Division book. A few years later I read the diary in its entirety for the first time. It was a portal into another world. These were not just words on a page; as I read the lines, I could hear Granddad’s voice, as if he were right beside me, telling me his story. I transcribed the diary, bought a map of Europe, and began to plot his course. It was exciting and challenging. He traveled through some fifty towns, all of which he spelled phonetically (this made sense, as the names would have been passed down through the ranks by word of mouth). But, in order to track the line-of-march, I needed the French spelling of the towns. So I turned to the maps in the 89th Division Book, which became the key to piecing everything together. Soon I had a feel for the general direction in which the division was traveling at any given time, and it became easier to identify the towns. After many hours of studying the diary and the 89th Division Book, I was able to pinpoint towns and battlefields with some degree of certainty, and thus developed a map of his path through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.
Before long, I was reading everything I could about World War I — I was hooked and had to go to Europe!
I briefly visited Stenay in 2002 and returned to France in 2005 for a thorough tour of the diary from Chaumont, France on into Germany for the Occupation.
This journey has been full of significant realizations and awakenings, there’s one that I consider my moment of commitment. On the morning of November 10, 2005, on the eve of the anniversary of the Armistice, I stood among the white crosses and Stars of David in the American Meuse-Argonne Cemetery in northeastern France, as the ground-hugging mist began to lift. That same mist blanketed those hills eighty-seven years earlier on November 10 and 11, 1918. Looking around me, I felt the presence of the brave, young Americans who were buried there so long ago. Born with freedom imprinted in their hearts, they came from farms, towns, and cities all across the United States to answer their country’s call to arms. They came with inexhaustible energy, high ideals, and the determination to put an end to the most destructive and deadly war the world had ever seen. They left their homes, families, and friends to stop a brutal tyranny far from our shores that threatened to dominate Europe and extinguish the flame of freedom. Their lives were cut short, snuffed out in the prime of youth. Never would they experience the joys of marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood, life-long friendships, or any of the millions of experiences that make up a full life. Each made the sacrifice not for his country’s conquest of foreign lands, but rather to protect and perpetuate an idea and a sacred way of life—democratic freedom. It was at that moment I decided to right a book about my Grandfather’s diary and do everything I could to do to keep these young soldiers memory’s alive."
That night I stayed in Stenay at the Hotel Du Commerce. The next morning I awoke in the town my Grandfather had been exactly eighty-seven years before. During breakfast I was surprised when the lady who owned the hotel handed me the phone saying the call was for me. Stunned, I took the phone and said hello. A strong, energetic voice with a British accent replied, “Hello my name is David Howard and I understand you are here for Armistice Day and we would like to meet you.” We talked further and decided we would meet at the American Meuse-Argonne Cemetery for the Armistice Ceremony later that morning. After I said goodbye, the owner explained she had called David Howard to let him know that an American was staying at the hotel.
It was on the landing in front of the cemetery’s chapel that I met David, his wife Marian, and their twelve-year-old son, Freddie. David, of course is British and Marian, an American. They have lived in Stenay for many years and had raised their four sons there. The friendship was instant and has deepened through the years. Once in those early years, David told me, “When you come over you must stay with us, our home will be your Headquarters in Europe!” Ever since, I have affectionately referred to the Howard’s home as HQ. Year after year I have traveled to France to study my Grandfather’s WWI experience and have always stayed at HQ. From the beginning the Howards introduced me to their friends and so on ever increasing the circle of friendship. Soon Stenay became my home while in France.
Part 2: Amazing Friends – Sandra Pershing, Helen Patton, and Remi Foch
My wife, Annie, and I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico and early in 2016 I learned about the centennial events planned for the Pancho Ville raid on the boarder town of Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916. This little known event had a tremendous effect on the development of the United States’ military. Then Brigadier General John J. Pershing was ordered to pursue Pancho Ville and his band of raiders into Northern Mexico. This was known as the Punitive Expedition. An important part of this story is young George S. Patton, Jr. was Pershing’s aide. The Punitive Expedition never found Pancho Ville, but this obscure sliver of history launched two of the greatest careers in U.S. military history, Pershing and Patton.
Immediately I called my friend, Helen Patton, who is the granddaughter of the great World War II general and told her about the centennial. I first met Helen at the 90th Anniversary Ceremonies of the St.-Mihiel Offensive, September 12, 2008. It was there she introduced me to her long-time family friend, Remi Foch, who is the great-grandson of Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander of the World War I Allied Armies.
Although Helen lives in Reims, France she jumped at the opportunity to join in the events in Columbus. Excitedly she said, “There is no way I would not be there!” So, I thought, I must now find a descendent of General Pershing to attend as well. The search was on!
My first call was to my friend, Jonathan Casey, Archivist with the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. He did not know about any Pershing descendants, but suggested I call the Pershing Museum in Laclede, Missouri. I called the museum and talked with the Director, Denzil Heaney. He said there was a descendant, Sandra Pershing, who was the widow of the great general’s oldest grandson, Colonel John Warren Pershing, U.S. Army. However, he said he had no idea how to reach her, so he suggested contacting the National Society of Pershing Rifles.
It was through the Pershing Rifles that I made contact with Sandra Pershing. She was unable to attend the events in Columbus, but sent a beautiful letter, which captured the General Pershing’s determined character and his openness to new ideas in his quest to modernize the U.S. Army. Representing the Pershing Rifles, Captain David Poe U.S. Army, read Sandra’s letter at the opening ceremony in Columbus. Later that day Helen Patton appropriately read the letter to another large gathering.
Through all of this the Pershing and Patton families were also reunited after a hiatus of seventy-four years.
The following is an excerpt from, Patton, A Genius for War, by Carlo D’Este, p.224, which captures the last time the two great men were together.
In 1942 Major General George Patton had been given command of the North African invasion. One of the last things he did before he left for North Africa was to visit his old mentor, 81 yr old General Pershing in Walter Reed Army Hospital. After Patton thanked him for giving him a chance in Mexico, Pershing replied, “I can always pick a fighting man and God knows there are so few of them. I am happy they are sending you to the front at once. . .”
In a final gesture, Patton dropped to his knees to ask for the Pershing’s blessing, “which he gave me with great emotion. I kissed his hand; then put on my cape and gave him a salute.” Pershing squeezed my hand and said, ‘Goodbye, George, God bless and keep you and give you victory.’”
The code name for the North African campaign was Operation Torch. Indeed the Torch had been passed.
In early September 2016, Sandra invited me to France to be part of the team filming a documentary on the great General. This was the first time I had met her. It was in Paris at the Pershing Hall Hotel that Sandra hosted a beautiful dinner including Remi Foch and Helen Patton. A magical evening!
Return to France For the American Centennial Ceremonies:
During the summer of 2018, Sandra called me and said she was unable to find a hotel room for the Centennial Ceremony of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on September 23rd. I replied that I knew of a charming country inn in Stenay, the Moulin Le Cygne. She was delighted and asked if I could help her with reservations. So, immediately I called David and Marian, who made the reservations. During this time, I mentioned to David that it would be historic if we could arrange a reception for Sandra and her beau, Marc Kelly in Stenay during their visit. So, David and Marian then contacted Mr. Jean MARIE, who is the President of Souvenir Français in the town of Dun sur Meuse, to help with the organization of ceremony to honor Sandra. Dun sur Meuse is a charming town just a few miles south of Stenay. Jean MARIE immediately took control and began organizing the large ceremony to be held in Dun sur Meuse at the Pershing Memorial Bridge on Saturday, September 22. Jean MARIE poured his heart and soul into the planning process and can never be thanked enough for his efforts in making the magnificent ceremony such a grand success.
During the wreath laying ceremony at the base of the town’s monument to their dead from the Great War, Sandra was in front of me and laid her wreath honoring the great general and the Pershing family. Then she turned and stepped toward me and in a soft voice said, “Place yours next to mine.” I then moved forward and laid my wreath honoring my Grandfather. What a beautiful and deeply fulfilling moment.
Toward the end of the ceremony, Sandra spoke to the crowd about how this horrific war needed to serve as a stark reminder to future generations and guide them toward a relentless pursuit of world peace.
Following the ceremony Sandra hosted a splendid dinner at the Colimencarts restaurant in Dun sur Meuse. Marian worked closely with the owner and chef to create a spectacular menu. The stunning floral arrangements for the party were created by Marian’s friend Armelle Guerin. The ceremony and dinner party represented a grand group effort!
Special Tribute to Mr. Jean Marie
My heartfelt thanks goes to Mr. Jean Marie, President of the Souvenir Français Dun-sur-Meuse and the members for their outstanding contribution and organization of the Pershing Ceremony. In addition, I want to offer my sincere thanks to Jean MARIE for his year round efforts to honor the World War I Americans, with his museum (A Must!), books, and his care of maintaining the bourne obelisk markers, which define the forward advance of the American 5th Division in the final days of the war.
Part #3: Centennial Ceremony Commemorating the American the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, September 23, 2018, Sunday
The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) manages all of America’s World War I and World War II foreign cemeteries and monuments. The ABMC was founded be the U.S. Congress, under the leadership, of General John. J. Pershing in 1924. The ABMC chose the centennial of the opening of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (September 26, 1918) to be their premier commemoration of the finalization of the war. The remembrance ceremony was scheduled to begin at 4:00 PM on Sunday, September 23.
From my book, Honoring The Doughboys, page 63-64, “During the small hours of September 26, 1918, the thunderous roar of the American artillery signaled the beginning of the battle. The canon barrels belched fire into the darkness, as if the gates of hell had been flung open. In terms of the number of troops it remains “the largest [and] also the deadliest battle in American history. The price of victory was enormous; the U.S. Army suffered more than 100,000 casualties with 26,277 deaths recorded in forty-seven days.” As the battle progressed, 10,000 fresh American troops were added to every day. By the time of the Armistice (ceasefire) was signed on November 11, there were a staggering 1.2 million American soldiers on the front lines. This was the battle that forced the German military to capitulate and sign the Armistice.
The 89th Division was not involved in the early fighting as they had stayed behind to help secure the Saint-Mihiel salient from the American offensive, which had only begun on September 12. The 89th Division began arriving in the Meuse-Argonne sector during the second week of October and immediately joined the fray. My Grandfather arrived in the tiny village of Brabant en Argonne on October 11.
The centennial ceremony was to begin outdoors at the American Meuse-Argonne Cemetery at 4:00 PM, however there was a major problem; it was raining and raining hard. The crowds and dignitaries at the direction of the ABMC made a valiant effort to take their seats on the landing outside the chapel.
Realizing the situation was hopeless, the ABMC cemetery Superintendent, Bruce Malone, moved the ceremony into the chapel. It was cramped quarters for a limited number of the larger crowd. The room was packed with ABMC officials, local mayors, regional officials, dignitaries, top military officers (both French and U.S.), and those from the larger crowd who were able to squeeze into the chapel.
Memorable moments for me were when Sandra Pershing and William M. Matz, Secretary of the ABMC, together placed an honorary wreath and when the Bruce Malone’s wife, Amy Lukens-Malone, sang her stirring renditions of La Marseillaise and the Star Spangled Banner.
Following the ceremony, the original plan was to begin a candle lighting ceremony where eventually all 14,246 headstones would have a candle. The lit candles were to be placed by local Boy Scout troops. However, it was still raining and the candle lighting ceremony was cancelled.
Sandra had planned to graciously host a reception or Vin de Honnour following the candle ceremony. With the ceremony cancelled dignitaries moved directly to the Vin de Honnour, which was held at the 14 – 18 Museum in the adjacent village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. The Museum’s owner, Jean Paul de Vries is a local and international legend within the sphere of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive historians and cemetery visitors. The idea to have the Vin de Honnour at the museum came from David and Marian. They along with Jean Paul and his diligent team worked tirelessly for weeks to organize the spectacular reception. Armelle created the magnificent floral arrangements for the party. An enormous thank you to Sandra, David and Marian, Jean Paul and all concerned!
The party was filled with some twenty U.S. Military generals, with Colonels, Command Sergeant Majors, and their wives. In addition, ABMC officials, local dignitaries and wives graced the party. It was a glorious evening!
As the rain continued throughout most of the evening, David and I were surprised when we left the party at 11:00 to find the rain had stopped. We immediately decided to drive the short distance to the cemetery to see if the candles had been lit. As we drove through the west gates of the cemetery we were amazed to find the candles had been placed and lit on all the gravestones!
The tenacious Boy Scouts had monitored the storm and returned to the cemetery sometime in the last few hours and worked their magic. Thanks to the Scouts the original vision of honoring the brave American soldiers on the centennial of the great offensive had been realized. The cemetery glowed in the soft, beautiful candlelight. The Scouts selflessly and diligently completed their mission knowing the crowds had long since gone home and few people would even see what they had done. The Scouts are to be thanked and commended to the highest degree.
David and I drove to the chapel area and parked where I set up my tripod and began to photograph the incredibly emotional sight. I have no idea who else had photographed the glowing cemetery that night, however I am so grateful I was one of the few.
Part 3A: October 7, 2019, Sunday, The Sergeant Alvin York Centennial Ceremony at Châtel-Chéhéry
At dawn on October 8, 1918, Corporal Alvin C. York of the 82nd All American Division and his small patrol entered the Argonne Forest. They crept further and further into the dense woods and on to the hallowed pages of American Military history.
They surprised a group of German officers at breakfast and quickly took them prisoner. Suddenly, German riflemen opened fire on York’s patrol from a ridge trench line above them. With his patrol being cut down, York sprang to action. Crouching behind some brush his Tennessee backwoods rifle skills took over.
Every time a German head popped up above the trench, York hit his target over and over again. Alvin York did not miss! Soon the Germans began to surrender, and surrender, and surrender. Later that day York and the remaining members of his patrol walked out of the forest with 132 prisoners.
York was promoted to Sergeant and was the most highly decorated American soldier of the war. General John J. Pershing awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor and Marshal Foch pinned the French Croix de Guerre on his tunic.
It is not within the scope of this article to tell the complete story. So, I encourage you to look up Sergeant York. The definitive book, Alvin York, was written by my friend retired (U.S. Army) Colonel Doug Mastriano. The story is also abbreviated in my book, Honoring The Doughboys. But, maybe best of all is to watch the all-time classic movie, Sergeant York starring Gary Copper.
I first met the York family at the American Meuse-Argonne Cemetery during the 90th Anniversary of the Armistice. I’ll never forget shaking hands with the descendants of Sergeant York, son George (since deceased), grandson Gerald, and great-grand daughter Deborah. Through the years we have stayed in touch and in 2017, I traveled to Pal Mal, Tennessee for the York family’s magnificent Veteran’s Day commemorations.
We honored Sergeant York in the village Châtel-Chéhéry, which is the closest town to where the action took place. Gerald brought his wife Linda and fourteen of his cousins from Tennessee to this momentous event.
The total Tennessee contingent was impressive with the York family, family friends, State Senators, York State Park officials, and a large number from the Tennessee National Guard.
At the vin d’ honneur that afternoon, I asked my friend, Doug Mastriano to sign my book. While based in Heidelberg, Germany, he along with his friend, Cory O’Keefe, are credited with locating the actual site in the Argonne Forest where the Sergeant York story took place. They came to their conclusion by researching Germany war records and exhaustive fieldwork. I wholeheartedly recommend reading Doug’s books, Alvin York and Thunder In The Argonne.
When David, Marian and I got back at HQ that evening I wrote in my diary that it had been one of the great days of my life. All of the sixteen years worth of trips to France, the incredible friendships, and life changing experiences seemed to culminate in this one day. It was a Grand day indeed!
Part 4: November 9, 2018, Friday – Diane Newcom Story – Grandfathers reunite through their grandchildren!
The story behind the photo:
This amazing story begins with my old high school, Colorado Academy (CA), in Denver, Colorado. My book, Honoring The Doughboys, was published in the fall of 2014 and during December of that year I gave a presentation about my Grandfather’s World War I diary at the Colorado History Museum in Denver. I had invited my CA friend and former teacher, Tom Fitzgerald. In Tom’s 2014 Christmas letter he mentioned he had been at my presentation and added the title of my book.
One of the many to receive the Christmas letter was Diane and Chuck Newcom of Denver, who were connected to CA because their daughter, Natalie was a graduate. Diane saw my book title in the letter and thought it might be interesting because her Grandfather, Ture Albert Marcuson, had also fought in the war, so she ordered my book. When the book arrived she saw my Grandfather’s division and infantry regiment information and thought they were familiar with what she remembered about her Grandfather’s army units. Her Grandfather was from Kansas, so she asked her husband, Chuck, to help with an online search of the Kansas Historical Society. He soon found an online version of the 353rd Infantry Regimental book and found Ture Albert Marcuson listed in Company A. So eureka, the pieces of the puzzle had come together. Our Grandfathers had served in the same Company!
To make the link even closer, both men were of Swedish decent. This connection is extremely significant as there were only two hundred men in a company. They truly were brothers-in-arms and had been together from basic training at Camp Funston, Kansas, on through the war, the occupation of Germany, and their discharge from the army upon returning home. I also have records that show they were also both active in 89th Division reunions for many years following the war. This is indeed a remarkable relationship. In many ways, by reading my book, Diane is also reading her Grandfather’s story. She could take my book as a guide to France and follow her Grandfather’s path through the war.
During the spring of 2015 I gave my presentation, along with a book signing at a Denver bookstore and Diane attended along with the CA Alumni Director, Sue Burleigh. So, Diane and I have know each other for several years and are very aware of our special connection.
As I prepared for my September 2018 trip, Diane wrote and told me that around the time of the centennial of the Armistice, she and Chuck would be in France as part of an organized World War I tour. Later when I was in France, Diane sent me an email and said the tour, at her urging, would stop in Stenay on November 9. We started to form a plan where we would be photographed sitting on the church steps almost one hundred years to the day of our Grandfathers entering Stenay. The above photo captures that extraordinary moment. We were both wearing our 89th Division emblem Rolling W lapel pins. With my total involvement with the First World War, the twenty some trips to France and Stenay, all the beautiful friendships I’ve made, along with the countless glorious experiences, it is sitting on those steps with Diane that is the most deeply meaningful moment of all.
Part 5: The Evening of November 9, and November 10, 2018, Saturday, Stenay Town Hall
At breakfast, Marian, David, and I talked about the amazing coincidence that had happened the prior evening. We had walked into the La Taverne du Cygne restaurant for dinner and I heard a man’s voice, “Hi Jeff!” I looked to my right and there sat a couple and the man said, “Good to see you again.” Incredulously, I stared at him and the lady he was with. My mind raced thinking they were old acquaintances from my World War I and II travels in Europe. But, I came up empty and stood there totally perplexed. Then he said, “It’s Tim Goodwin and my sister, Lee from Santa Fe.” “Oh my,” I exclaimed, “I haven’t seen you for years. What an amazing coincidence!” David and Marian were as shocked as I was. They had just started on their entrées, so we asked them to please join us. So, we all got situated at a large table and after the surprise wore off we began to talk about World War I and why we were all there. I remember saying something to the effect that had the Germans not retreated from Stenay during the night before the Armistice, my Grandfather would most likely have been killed and that I would never have lived. Tim then looked at me with riveting seriousness and said, “If Russell Wylie had not been killed Lee and I would have never lived.” Slack jawed, I relied, “You both have an incredible story, please tell it to us.”
Tim went on to explain that the 90th Division was operating immediately to the south of Stenay and the 89th Division. The 90th is known as the T and O Division, which stands for Texas and Oklahoma. In the woods (Bois du Chênois) to the east of Mouzay, a German artillery shell killed three 90th Division soldiers early in the morning of November 11. Their names were, Russell Wylie, Joe Lloyd, and Earl Barkdull. Tim’s voice softened with emotion when he said Russel Wylie left behind a grieving fiancé, in east Texas. He paused to let his words sink in. He went on to say with tears in his eyes that Russel Wylie’s fiancé would become their Grandmother. Tim and Lee were there to honor those three men who had sacrificed their lives on the morning of the Armistice. Russel Wylie had died so they could live. Russel Wylie and Joe Lloyd’s remains were repatriated and buried in east Texas. Earl Barkdull is buried in the American Meuse-Argonne Cemetery.
Through the years, I have heard and read about so many personal stories of sacrifice and the generational scars war brings. But, this is a immense story of sacrifice and grace made manifest by Tim and Lee being there to pay tribute to those three men during the one hundredth anniversary of the Armistice.
Following breakfast, the topic turned to the day ahead. Marian said, “Jeff, remember we need to be at a program at Town Hall at 11:00 this morning.” Then David looked at me saying, “You’ll need to wear your suit.” “Ok”, I replied, “I’ll be ready.”Around 10:30 we walked the few blocks to Town Hall and climbed the stairs to the second floor. The large room was quickly filling with Town Council members, friends from Stenay, Tim and Lee Goodwin, Armelle , and standing at the front of the room, the Mayor, Stephan PERRIN, who I’ve known for many years. David and Marian ushered me toward the Mayor saying that Stephan had a surprise for me. What a Grand surprise it was! Stephan began saying in French that I had been coming to Stenay for so many years and that my book and efforts had helped to advance the story of Stenay. He then graciously presented me with the magnificent medallion of Stenay, saying I was now an honorary citizen of Stenay. I was overcome with emotion and gratitude! What a beautiful honor for me to be recognized by the town that had become so special to my heart, as I told Stephane, “Stenay was my home in France.” I spoke to everyone and thanked them for the honor and explained how important Stenay was to me. Marian then translated my massage in French.
Much to my delight a vin d’ honneur (wine of honor reception) followed the ceremony. Many years ago my old friend Phil Rivers (deceased), then Superintendant of the American Meuse-Argonne Cemetery had taught me the importance of the vin d’ honneur. Through the years I’ve attended countless ceremonies and vin d’ honneurs and now there was one for me. The entire ceremony will always be one of the great moments of my life. A huge Merci Beaucoup to Stephane, David and Marian, and my fellow citizens of Stenay!
Part 6: November 11, 2018, Sunday - One Hundredth Anniversary of the Armistice at the American Meuse Argonne Cemetery
I awoke that morning in my room at David and Marian’s home to the sound of the near by church bells tolling seven o’clock. I listened to the bells and thought how Granddad most likely had heard those same bells that morning a hundred years ago. The bells gave me a strong feeling of connection to the long ago past. At this time, Granddad and Company A would have still been on the west side of the River Meuse as they did not cross the river and enter Stenay until later that morning.
Although they had learned the Armistice had been signed and would take effect at eleven o’clock, their orders were still to attack Stenay that morning. They must have thought how they had come so far and sacrificed so much and now they might be killed just hours before the war’s end. What an unimaginable relief they must have felt when they learned the German forces had retreated during the night.
From Granddad’s diary:
“And about nine o’clock that morning we went into Stenay. The third Platoon in which I am in was the first to cross the Meuse River. At that point I was the eight or ninth man to cross. Spencer and I took four prisoners and then got into a French house and had something to eat. The French people were sure glad to see us. I am here to tell you.
"We sure were surprised after eleven o’clock when we could hear no more guns firing.”
As I lay there day dreaming, I heard David’s voice, “Come on Jeff, breakfast is almost ready.” Suddenly, the morning became very busy as the Armistice Day Ceremony at the American Meuse-Argonne Cemetery would begin at ten o’clock and we wanted to be early. When we arrived, I got out of the car and noticed a beautiful sight. High above the trees draped in fall colors flew the American flag.
As we walked toward the landing in front of the chapel I noticed the crowd that was gathering was small and intimate. As we approached, an overwhelming feeling of reverence overcame me. We were walking on hallowed ground on a hallowed day.
One of the first people I talked with was Shannon Kelly. He recognized me because he bought my book several years ago. We had talked a few times on the phone, as his Grandfather was also in the 353rd Infantry Regiment. To my amazement he was wearing his Grandfather’s uniform, complete with leggings! Then I met John Swift, whose Grandfather was in the 1st Division (The Big Red One). He was wearing his Grandfather’s division pin as a tie tack.
It became apparent we were part of a group of graying grandchildren. The one hundredth anniversary had brought us together. We grandchildren were now grandparents. We had an immediate sense of belonging together along with an ache of longing for our Grandfathers.
There was one more surprise. Tim and Lee Goodwin came up to me a said there were two ladies and a gentleman in the chapel looking for me. I went into the chapel wondering who could they be. I walked up to them and did not recognize them. I said, “I understand you have been asking for me.” One of the ladies replied, “Jeff, I’m Julie O’Dea with my brother John and his wife Diane.” We had been young teenagers together at the neighborhood swimming pool growing up in Denver. Unbelievable!
After I caught my breath, I asked them why they were there. Julie explained that their great-uncle, John O’Dea was buried in the cemetery. She went on to say a common friend had loaned them my book in preparation for their trip and they thought I might be here.
Because rain was threatening, the ceremony was held in the chapel. The Superintendent, Bruce Malone orchestrated a beautiful ceremony.
The highlight for me was when Bruce’s wife Amy Lukens-Malone once again sang the French and the United State’s national anthems, La Marseillaise and the Star Spangled Banner.
Following the ceremony, the crowd seemed to quickly disperse with many people fanning out into the cemetery to place flowers on the graves of their family members.
There was one more important thing to do. David and Marian, Armelle, and myself followed Tim and Lee to the grave of Earl Barkdull, of the 90th T and O Division. Armelle had created a bouquet for this moment. We stood in front of his grave as Tim and Lee solemnly placed the flowers at the base of his headstone. With silent prayers we thanked him and honored his life.
Author and photographer Jeffrey A. Lowdermilk is a member of the New Mexico State World War I Commission. His book Honoring The Doughboys: Following My Grandfather’s World War I Diary, is available in the United States World War I Centennial Commission Official Merchandise store.