Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book R & R: The Last of the Doughboys

Today's Book Review and Recommendation is "The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War" by Richard Rubin.

The Doughboys are what we called the soldiers and marines who fought in WWI, like calling the soldiers of the WWII era "G.I.s." The 100th anniversary of the First World War is going to be upon us very soon. I don't know as much as I'd like to about that conflict, so I thought I'd pick up a couple of titles to rectify that situation. One that caught my eye was Richard Rubin's "The Last of the Doughboys" that was just recently released (May 2013). The book's back cover said that Rubin had interviewed some of the last surviving World War I veterans. Being into applied history and oral history interviews, I thought this book would be a great place to start. Well, every once in a while I make a brilliant decision without even knowing that I'm doing it. "Last of the Doughboys" was a great book on so many levels.

I really enjoy Richard Rubin's writing style. His voice is very conversational and his pacing in this book keeps the reader engaged. I suspect that comes from Rubin's experience in writing feature articles for magazines like the Atlantic, The New Yorker, Smithsonian, and others. He has one other book out, but it is not a work of military history. You see, what I like about Richard Rubin is that not only is he an outstanding writer, but he follows through on his natural curiosity. And as a result he accomplished something that I think the rest of us who are "doin' history," whether it's academic or popular, should be a little chagrined that we didn't think of it first and then act on it.

So one day around 2003, Richard Rubin the writer hears the declaration that many of us have heard in one form or another: "We're losing up to 1,000 WWII veterans every day! We have to hurry and collect their stories while we still can!" But Rubin took the thought process one step further and asked himself if there were any veterans of WWI still alive, and was anyone scrambling to get their stories. Rubin then went about finding out. Initially, no one knew the answer. The Department of Veterans Affairs didn't have a list, they only estimated (based apparently on actuarial tables) that there were as many as fifteen hundred still living. After repeated inquiries from Rubin, the VA then reduced that estimate to "fewer than two hundred."

Rubin did find dozens of WWI veterans to interview: men and women, American and Canadian, Army, Marine, and Navy, all between the ages of 101 to 113. His best and main source for locating these veterans was the French government, who maintained a list of recipients of the Legion d'Honneur. The French awarded this medal during the late 1990s to American veterans who had served on French soil during the "Great War." Others he found through media research. It turns out that this forgotten war from our distant past wasn't so distant after all. Rubin traveled the country, conducting his interviews from 2003 to 2010. Some of his subjects had vivid memories of the events that had occurred eighty-five years or more in their past and were interviewed on more than one occasion. Others, let's just say they proved to be less than successful. His last interview subject was the last surviving American veteran of WWI, Frank Buckles, who passed away in February 2011.

I'm amazed at what Rubin did as far as thinking up this project, and then unrelentingly following up until the last veteran of WWI had passed away. In addition, I am more than impressed with what he did with the information. If the veteran was a combat veteran of say, Belleau Wood, then Rubin explains the circumstances, events, and effects of that battle to the reader. You'll also hear about what conditions were like on the home front, how we treated the immigrant population, the military's handling of "shell-shocked" soldiers, how we suppressed free speech with the Sedition Act of 1918, and how we deployed cavalry (yes, still using horses) to guard the Mexican border. You'll even learn about media coverage of the war and popular culture as expressed in song lyrics of the day. Every aspect of the war is covered, and accompanied by the voice of the young person who lived through it and experienced it. This book is a "page turner." The history is accurate and provided in a voice that is entertaining and engaging.

If you are looking for a book that covers only the military actions, strategy, etc., of the First World War placed on a timeline, then "The Last of the Doughboys" is probably not the book for you. If instead you are looking gain an insight on the whole of the war and its effect on regular people whose lives were forever changed by it, then I cannot urge you strongly enough to read this book. It will have a prominent place on my bookshelf, ready for a re-read in the near future.


Robert Basil said...

Rubin in his intereview stated that he could find no information on Joseph Wnuk.

Here it is.

Hyman said...


Anonymous said...

Yes! US Marine, Eugene Lee, (age 104)interviewed by author, Richard Rubin, (pg 200) stated that his best friend, "Joseph (Winook) Wnuk," USMC was killed by German artillery fire the NIGHT BEFORE THE ARMISTICE! What a tragedy.

Wnuk has been earlier awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in Belleau Wood fighting.

God's blessings, peace and a nation's grateful thanks to you, young Marine Wnuk.

We remember you and your courage.