Monday, January 29, 2007

Flashback: How World War I Shaped My Parents’ World. Graves Registration, Getting Drunk on the Fake Armistice and Why the Soup Had No Oysters.

[Reminiscences of our family for my kids and 13 grandchildren].

“Lafayette, we are here!” Woodrow Wilson flack George Creel wrote and, through the propaganda office in the War Department, alleged it was said by General John J. Pershing when he arrived with the American Expeditionary Force in France. It seemed so perfect: the Marquis Lafayette came to the colonies to help it win the Revolution; now Americans were returning the favor to save France. Creel was the perfect publicitor for Wilson and along with him, war. A Missourian, the 41-year-old journalist and muckraker Creel promoted Wilson for president when the ascetic-appearing scholar ran Princeton University; he did the big issues book for the Democratic National Committee when Wilson ran for reelection as the man who kept us out of war: a slogan Creel thought up at the very time the president was seeking war—and what Creel knew was a hoax. . To Creel there were only two classes of men—skunks and the greatest men who ever lived. The greatest men are people on Creel’s side in whatever battle he’s concerned with.”

Now we were engaged in war with Wilson as head man and Creel was excited. Using cronies of Wilson to get to the president personally, Creel suggested himself for a top job that he himself invented—heading a Committee on Public Information which would disseminate all the propaganda needed to get people revved up. Creel’s self-appointed task was to create a “war will.” But it was not easy, even for a hustler like Creel or a president like Wilson who saw himself as a messiah.

A central problem was trying to bring about a draft. Creel set up a crew of frenetic war-boosters called the “Minute Men” to spur a wish for a draft but they were striking out. And right at this time none other than Wilson’s nemesis Theodore Roosevelt, the overgrown boy who had been an immensely popular president through adroit public relations starting with an almost wholly fictitious raid up San Juan Hill (which it wasn’t), wanted to recruit a division of volunteers which TR, 59. himself would head. TR had said that the American spirit would send “men volunteering from sunrise to sunset to serve their country.” Wilson detested someone of energy and color trying to move in on his war—and especially short-circuit the draft. Roosevelt seemed destined to live forever and maybe run yet another time for president in 1920. He was as he always had been: a brawny robust man of action with graying brown hair, drooping mustache, barrel-chest, 200 lbs., muscular, standing 5 feet 8 inches.

Wilson stalled TR on setting up the volunteer division—proving that occasionally if you put off things in politics, things sometimes take care of themselves. Less than two years later Roosevelt died in his sleep at 60 from the accumulated effects of a renewed bout of malaria and a leg infection--maladies contracted in Brazil five years earlier which never left him when he was struck down with illness as he plowed through forests in a 7-month 1,500-mile expedition following his White House years.

Roosevelt thundered against the draft, declaring that voluntarism was the only way. But Wilson didn’t want to wait for voluntary enlistments: men must be recruited right away, before the damned war would end in a loss to the Germans, without Wilson having a chance to be leader of the Allies. The Germans were sinking 900,000 tons of shipping a month and the Allies were crumbling. Creel, the genius propagandist, sent his 75,000 Minute Men to every theatre in major cities and soon the opinion tide had turned. without him being the leader of the Allies. The big urban newspapers joined in the crusade. “We must save western civilization!” wrote “The New York Times”—and this was a headline, not an editorial. And as for the “Chicago Tribune,” the paper which later steadfastly opposed entry into World War II, crusaded for national preparedness, advocated universal conscription and called Henry Ford an “anarchist” for opposing the war (which prompted a $1 million libel suit from Ford).

With Creel whipping up enthusiasm and TR dead, conscription passed. On May 28, 1917, Major General John J. Pershing, who had been boosted up the ranks early because he had been a close buddy of Roosevelt in the Spanish-American war, TR promoting him over 862 senior officers as a personal favor and making him a brigadier general…that and having married the daughter of a prominent Republican senator who ran the armed services committee—ramrod straight with a brush mustache and hawkish face—set sail for Europe on the “SS Baltic,” with a first detachment of men. When they arrived in France, Creel’s “Lafayette, we are here!” statement was flashed. Then the American Expeditionary Force arrived throughout June; by March, 1918 there were 250,000 men in France; it increased to 1 million by July and 2 million by November. Two-thirds saw action in 29 divisions.

Pershing was an old-line military man who believed the president, as commander-in-chief, ruled—all but on one thing. No way would Pershing do what the French’s Marshall Josef (Papa) Joffre wanted: mix American doughboys in with French troops with the mélange under French commanders. Wilson had been ambivalent but allowed Pershing to have the final say. Pershing later had to compromise. American troops were under the supreme command of Marshall Ferdinand Foch, a wily old butcher but U. S. soldiers followed U. S. division commanders. All during the war, Foch operated a communications channel to Washington behind Pershing’s back, urging Wilson that unless he dispatched 600,000 more infantrymen within the next six months unattached to any divisions for use as replacements for French and British armies, the war would be lost. Wilson seemed confused and allowed Pershing to make the decision—which was a firm no.

Angered, Foch convened a summit of every major allied politician in Europe to force Pershing to allow his troops to be used as replacements: Lloyd George of Britain, Clemenceau of France, Orlando of Italy all beat on Pershing while one of his bosses, Tasker Bliss, the army assistant chief of staff, offered him no consolation, just sat smoking and listening. Foch pounded his fists together and begged Pershing to allow his forces to be dispersed to units smaller than a division while the politicians murmured like an amen corner similar to the British House of Commons. “Without this dispersion of Americans,” shouted Foch, “our troops will be driven back to the Loire! In the name of God, sir, will you reconsider?” Pershing calmly replied, “Gentlemen, I have thought this program over very carefully, deliberately and I will not be coerced.”

Pershing was one of this nation’s most interesting commanders: on August 15, 1915 a smoky fire had erupted in his family’s quarters at the Presidio outside San Francisco and Pershing’s wife and three daughters were asphyxiated (with one son rescued by an orderly). Pershing measured up to that incredible loss manfully and after the funerals hardly stopped working: but he suddenly turned into quite a ladies man in his late bachelorhood from which he never again ventured into marriage. One of his favorites was Mary Pinckney Hardy MacArthur the comely widow of a general who had won the Medal of Honor and mother of a young officer, Lt. Colonel Douglas MacArthur who would do anything to promote her son to general status which her late husband had occupied. In response to her favors, Pershing grudgingly acceded to move young Douglas along, who was in charge of the Rainbow Division (where he made brigadier general) but he favored far more generally a desk-bound officer who had a superb sense of plans and organization—Captain George Catlett Marshall, who was later to become a major rival to MacArthur.

In Chicago, 21-year-old George J. Helfrich, single and an office-worker and part-time semi-pro baseball player was drafted. His younger buddy and fellow teammate, Harold Nicholas Roeser, my father, was too young for conscription. Helfrich and Roeser lived near each other in the city’s largely German north side, had attended St. Alphonsus where masses were often said in German and belonged to families that strongly opposed a war to save Britain. But still, Helfrich was rather excited about going and Roeser, 18, was generally looking forward to it when he would get older (but, living at home as all young adults did, was strongly advised not to enlist by his former socialist now conservative Republican streetcar conductor father, Adam).

Helfrich went through basic training and quickly caught a troop ship to France—but, alas, he was assigned to a new department with the onerous title of the “Graves Registration Unit.” It was mobilized for grisly work in the future, when American dead should be registered so they would be buried with the correct headstones and families notified where their sons were lying. At first there was no work to do beyond getting old-fashioned refrigerators ready to store the bodies for identification and registration before assignation to the graves. Then Pershing deployed the First American Army south of Verdun where in a single day’s fighting he captured 466 guns and took 13,251 prisoners. Then began a trickle of casualties—one hundred from Cantigny, slightly more here and there at first which increased to a full tide and the job for Helfrich was all-consuming: bodies had to be recovered at battlefields after the fighting, bodies entombed in shell holes or collapsed trenches or decomposing in broken soil. Graves Registration marked the plots and when time allowed, recruited chaplains and the dead men’s comrades to watch the solemnities.

Helfrich’s detachment moved constantly, settling in Montfaucon (Meuse), a 6th century hilltop village which was an observation point for the German army until it was captured by the U. S. 37th and 79th divisions on September 27, 1918. He never returned to Europe following the war, but knew every yard of the Meuse-Argonne U. S. cemetery where battles raged continually until Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, telling me in detail much later. In only three weeks of steady fighting battle deaths of Americans numbered 18,000—a daily average of about 1,000.

Shortly before the official Armistice, with the Kaiser having abdicated, the German General Staff determined that they would sue for peace—and they wanted to do it so their armies would not be entirely decimated. General Pershing opposed an armistice which involved negotiations, preferring that the war continue until the Germans had no recourse but to give up, obviating any negotiation for armistice. But Woodrow Wilson disagreed. Thus negotiations began on November 5 and every day thereafter came reports that peace had finally come—only to draw on for another day.

When peace finally came on the 11th, Helfrich’s work was far from done since there were bodies that were unclaimed to be identified and buried. Gruesome as his detail was, Helfrich, a calm, meticulous often laconic German, went about his tasks and returned home a few months after Armistice, opening up to me very late in his life as we drove from Reading, Pennsylvania to Washington, D. C.


Back in Chicago, when the first rumor of Armistice occurred, on November 5, 1918 Thomas Francis Cleary, the marble worker, took it to be the first day of peace and so, in his overalls, left the foundry and went with his worker fellows to a bar where they celebrated peace well into the evening. Then, radically tipsy, he caught a street car to his home and trod in to face an extremely cool reception from his wife, Anna. “Well, goddammit, I think something has to be said for some celebration for the end of the war!” he said. But Pa, said my mother, Frances Catherine Cleary who had been working late at J. Walter Thompson, peace has not been declared. The war is still on because nobody signed an Armistice! I saw the sign on the Tribune building saying the war isn’t over yet!”

“Nonsense!” he said, sitting down to his dinner which began with oyster soup. “We were all told the war is over. I tell you the war is over! Don’t contradict me: the war is over! Do you think I’m too stupid to know the war is over! Let me ask, goddammit: why are there no noodles in my soup! No noodles!”

The bowl is full of noodles, said his wife. You are drunk.

“Not drunk! There are no noodles here!”

With that, an elbow on which he had leaned his head, slipped and he almost went to the floor.

Everybody laughed.

“You do not laugh at your father!” he thundered to his children. “When I say there are no noodles in this soup, it is not an occasion for merriment!”

The next morning when he awoke to go to work, the newsboys outside peddling the papers were shouting that the war had not ended. And when the real Armistice came, on the 11th , Tom Cleary was at his home, sober, only having savored his usual growler of beer.


At J. Walter Thompson ad agency, McQueen, the Chicago manager, was the recipient of heavy praise from the New York headquarters office for increasing his client load and conducting his company’s Chicago business with crisp dispatch. It was because, he told them, he had set into place a Production Department staffed by two former clerical women (called
“office girls” in contemporary parlance—Leddy and my mother, Frances—who followed the ads every step of the way from initial concept through copy-writing to art execution to half-tone production to final approval to publication. At the same time they followed radio commercials through the conceptual stage to writing to prompt delivery to the stations in behalf of the clients. He was amply rewarded with a fat pay raise and he received more allowances for improved salaries down the line.

At the same time, he did a courageous thing and fired his dilettante son Alexander who wasn’t any great shakes at copy-writing—getting into a bitter row with his wife and Alex’s mother over the decision. He swiftly promoted Ted Jardin to assistant chief copywriter with a handsome increase in salary. And he elevated his one-time secretary Leddy, head of Production, to an even higher supervisory role to oversee all the business features of the agency including billing. In her place he named Frances Catherine Cleary head of Production at a fat salary increase. She was then 21. As was the unshakable convention, young unmarrieds stayed at home living with their parents as did Frances.

Frances’ higher estate and salary was welcome at the house on Wellington (not Cornelia as I had mistakenly placed it some days ago; the house on Cornelia came later). Her mother, my grandmother, Anna Kenny Cleary, came down with Irish depression, a neurotic state that ever since has passed down the generations, wreaking on many of Cleary blood. So the Clearys hired a live-in maid, made possible by Frances’ higher board payments.

Later, sad to say, two daughters of the Clearys came down much later—decades later--with serious depression, Marie and Anne. And it carried over to the third generation with Marie’s son, Fr. George Helfrich who suffered for many years with the malady. Thank God my own mother was spared—a factor she attributed to purposeful lack of introspection and rigid concentration on only practical things. “People who think too much,” she would tell me, “and have nothing to do but think are susceptible to depression. I am not because I am not concerned with all those fancy theories that intellectuals concern themselves with. And I thank God for it.” So do I. Whenever she would catch me musing, she would ask if I had run out of work to do around the house. To her, introspection was the next thing to abject indolence. Ever since then, whenever I catch myself introspecting, I lie down and it passes over.

At the beginning of 1919, the troop ships started to come home from the war. George Helfrich was on one of them and took a better job at an office in Chicago as salesman for a division of Pratt & Cady, a manufacturer of chains and metal equipment. And he started once more playing semi-pro baseball with his good friend, Harold Roeser, my father. While the experience of cataloging the dead made George Helfrich more religious, another Helfrich brother who came home from the war, one who had seen savage fighting on the Marne and at Soissons and Reims and the Marne had shattered ideals. He had become cynical about the ultimate purpose of life as result of his experience with war’s carnage, abandoning his Catholic religious faith. A droll, lanky young man he would sit on the porch of his family home when the bells of St. Alphonsus would ring calling the faithful to Sunday Mass.

As his mother, a fat devout German Mama would trot down the stairs to the sidewalk on the way to morning Mass with a rosary in her hand while the huge bells bonged, , he would light a cigarette, blow an insolent puff of smoke and imitate the huge bells bonging …shouting in German “bring gelt! [money!], bring gelt! [money!].” His mother would shake her head sadly at her heretic son but he had seen so much war that he could not believe a God existed who would allow it to happen. In a sense he was a working class version of nihilistic intellectuals who survived the war and who lived in Paris, writing for obscure publications and drawing up fanciful concepts for novels, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald—the disillusioned whom Gertrude Stein described, along with her lover Alice B. Toklas: “you are all a lost generation.”

As for George Helfrich, he took up a new game which was starting to make inroads in the middle class—golf. He introduced my father to it. They gradually got weaned away from baseball and then Helfrich met a young women on the golf course to whom he were firmly attracted. She was Marie Cleary who worked in some steno pool, the older sister to my mother. After they played golf, they danced at the country club. She went home and told her sister Frances Catherine, “I just met a great guy. Nothing on looks but a terrific dancer.” The next week Marie said that it might be good to have George bring a friend to play golf as well as she would in turn bring her younger sister, Frances.

This George Helfrich said he would do. So the next Saturday he brought to the country club his friend, Harold Nicholas Roeser, who was quite a golfer. Harold Nicholas was paired with Frances Catherine and that day, long after George and Marie left for dinner, Harold and Frances continued to play for a total of 36 holes. Harold was a beginning sports reporter for the old “Record-Herald” helping to cover the Cubs. He entertained Frances with funny stories about politicians and sports heroes the inside dope he said he knew. Frances told him only that she was an office girl at J. Walter Thompson, passing herself off as steno pool because she had had experience with guys shying away from a woman who was a fast-rising success…especially when she earned three times their salary. So he told her his dreams: that when things get better in the postwar, Americans will very likely travel overseas, and he meant to get a job with a steamship company and sell people on European trips. To him fun was far-away places with strange-sounding names.

Notwithstanding their talk about potential growth of European travel once the war rehab was finished, as a German man and Irish woman, they found they shared the same observations about the recent war and the folly of fighting and dying to save England. Harold was sure he was a conservative Republican; Frances wasn’t sure she would go that far since she felt the Democratic party was all for the working man. But they went out to dinner and talked until late. When neither wanted to rush home after dinner, Frances suggested they go to some place where they could dance, Harold said—well, he didn’t dance. With other guys that should have ended it for her. Not this time.

Surprisingly, Frances said that was all right. So they went to a German place and talked well into the night before he took her home on the street car. When he got her home, her parents were worried sick about her because it was almost 3 a.m., a scandalous hour. But Tom Cleary allowed that Harold Nicholas Roeser was a good man because in a brief talk they had the same idea of the baseless war that had just ended. Father got home at about 4 but Adam and Mary Roeser, no ones to worry, had already clocked about six hours of sack-time by then.

When Harold awoke that Sunday morning, the bells of St. Alphonsus were bonging and he lay there smiling at the thought of George Helfrich’s brother sitting on the porch singing along with the Germanic “bring gelt! Bring gelt!” Somewhere inside him he wondered if this church and Sunday Mass thing wasn’t all a very clever bunch of baloney to keep the working man in line and pump up contributions to support an army of indolent priests who didn’t do anything productive, who didn’t work and never seemed to do anything but urge “bring gelt!” He had brought that up to Frances the night before; she told him to dismiss it from his mind: it was too disturbing to contemplate. She said he should busy himself with other things and not think too much. But, sneakily, he did now and then.

He forcibly dismissed it from his mind—a church as a sham was too distressing to contemplate--and bounced out of bed to make Mass.

1 comment:

  1. Tom-
    These postings are priceless. In terms of instructing old farts like meself ca. 1937, but think of all the younger boobs out there who can't remember beyond the Greatful Dead.

    Please don't falter. Don't give up. Don't quit. Too many depend on your works.

    As Barry Goldwater was once handed to read: To be an Admirer, is not to be a Synchrophant! (sp?)