Friday, January 24, 2014

AMERICAN HEROS AND ICONS

The artillery noise was defining the day of July 30, 1918 at the meadow that touched the river Oise at Seringes-et-Nesles in France.  The fields at Muercy Farms were crisscrossed with deep trenches where members of detachments assigned to the 69th Infantry (The Fighting 69th) pressed tightly against the sides of the miserable water filled ditches in efforts to avoid the shrapnel filled air above.  The artillery barrages were endless and the shrill sounds of unexploded shells that whistled in high arcs above the trenches were un-nerving as all eyes below cast their gazes upward and prayed the overhead rounds would not explode above them showering deadly shrapnel, or worse, down into the trenches that afforded no protection from the sky.  A heavy line of German machine guns lined the edge of the woods ahead of the American trenches across the wide meadow and spewed a solid wall of metal that eliminated all efforts to forward the American cause, the failed attempts proven by hundreds of fallen soldiers who littered the dew covered mud and grass from the edges of the trenches to midway across the killing ground.  The machine gun was “the” ultimate killing machine of the war and to that date in time there was no antidote for it except  bravery and resolute determination.

The Maxim machine gun.  A lightweight machine gun that was highly portable and used throughout WWI on all fronts by the Germans.
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The German MG 08 was termed a heavy machine gun and was a superior weapon to the allied weaponry to include the Vickers Machine gun used by the British and American forces early in the war.
The Company Commander emerged from a depression dug in the side of the trench and shouted for a runner to find the forward observer who was sent to the end of the trench line earlier in the morning to try and determine the location of two machine guns that were thwarting all attempts to safely climb out of the ditch and attack.  Every attempt to exit the trenches and move across the meadow was met with withering machine gun fire that was quickly reducing the effectiveness of the unit by causing extremely high mortality losses.  “Tell that observer to get back to me right now.  NOW!  I want him here NOW or there won’t be anything for him to come back to if we can’t stop those damn machine guns!”
The corporal took off running, his feet slipping in the muddy water laying in the trench, and pushed his comrades out of the way, tripping and catching himself at a sharp turn in the trench.   “Where’s the Sargent?”, he continually asked as he quickly passed by man after man.  “He’s clear at the end of the ditch,” replied a private.  The corporal slowed not a bit as he realized the importance of the mission he was on.
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A trench periscope used to peer over the top edge of a trench while keeping one’s body hidden.
There ahead of him leaning against the forward wall of the trench, his eyes pressed against the eye piece of his periscope, was the Sargent.
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Alfred Joyce Kilmer was born on December 6, 1886 in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  He was named after two priests from Christ Church in New Brunswick named Alfred R. Taylor and Dr. Elisha Brooks Joyce.   His school years were uneventful with general consensus indicating that his academic achievements left room for improvement.  He attended Rutgers Grammar School and graduated in 1904 and continued his education at Rutgers until 1906, then entering Columbia University in New York, graduating on May 23, 1908 when he married Aline Murray.   He and Aline eventually had 5 children.  He considered himself a poet of sorts and published several poetic works considered by most critics as subpar.  However, a few of his works were unique, won fame and continued to be popular even today.  “Trees” is by far his best known work written February 2, 1913.
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In 1909 he landed a position with Funk & Wagnal and was assigned the task of writing a new dictionary which was published in 1912.
World War I was raging and his friends and neighbors left to engage their services where needed in the effort and Joyce considered himself a patriot.  He enlisted in the New York National Guard, the 69th Infantry Regiment, and was shipped to the front in France in 1917.
He was initially assigned duty as a statistician and offered an officers commission but declined stating he would rather serve with the common soldier and retained his rank as a Sargent.  Kilmer’s resolve to do more was rewarded with a transfer to military intelligence in April, 1918 and could have enjoyed the comfort of staying behind battle lines, but he insisted on being with his men at the front.  Soldiers who knew him actually worshiped his coolness under fire, his enthusiasm and willingness to volunteer himself for the most dangerous assignments thereby protecting “his” men who he held in highest esteem. 
“Sargent – Sargent Kilmer – The Captain wants you right now!  Sargent, we gotta go.  Sargent, you hear me?”
The Corporal lurched forward in the mud, slipped and fell against the man who's eyes were pressed against the periscope.  His right hand grabbed ahold of the Sargent’s shoulder to catch himself before he fell.  Sargent Kilmer’s body folded at the waist, crumpled to the ground and lay in the mud, face up, eyes wide open, his legs bent under him, a tiny red mark centered in his forehead. 
Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s life was ended on July 30, 1918 due to a German sniper’s bullet.
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He will be remembered for his many popular lectures and above all for his poetic works, many of which are still popular, “Trees” being one of the most remembered.
On July 30, 1936 a 4000 acre tract of land located in Grahm County, North Carolina was dedicated to Alfred Joyce Kilmer as a remembrance to this truly great American.  The memorial is bordered by the now Santeelah Lake where Santeelah Creeks flows near the ancient 400 year old oaks that have been immortalized by the poem.
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Joyce Kilmer’s name resurrects memories of his famous poem but more importantly he was an American hero from WWI and should be placed on the same level as all heroes who so valiantly fought for this country in all wars.  Sargent York was another brother in arms but that is another story.