Veterans’ Day doesn’t get the same attention as other national holidays. We don’t get a vacation day or have fireworks displays, though we do have the usual sales that accompany – and trivialize – our most somber remembrances.
Veterans’ Day was originally Armistice Day, and it commemorated the signing of the armistice ending World War I between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire on one side, and the Allied Powers (including the U.S.) on the other. The war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. The holiday is often confused with Memorial Day in May; that date honors the memory of those who were killed in wartime, while Veterans’ Day honors all military veterans, alive and deceased.
Many of our military conflicts prior to the 1980s were fought largely with conscripted soldiers. While there were volunteers and regular officers, the bulk of America’s fighting force was made up of (mostly) men who had been required to register with their local draft boards, called into service, and sent off to training and perhaps the front lines. The sacrifice of all of our military men and women is laudable; no one gets rich by joining any branch of the military, and the individual risks plus the stress on family members and friends, is significant. But to have had no choice in the matter puts the service of draftees on another level. Their lives were interrupted by no choice of their own, and none of the wars or conflicts America has been part of could have been waged without them.
As Veteran’s Day 2020 draws to a close, I’d like to tell you about five military veterans from my family. The first is my dad, Jim Kephart. Dad was a student at Michigan State College in 1950-51 when the Korean Conflict started. For a time it seemed like college students would be exempted from military service, but that soon changed, and Dad realized that he could either wait to be drafted into the Army and have no choice in the matter, or go voluntarily and maybe have some control over what happened to him. He chose the Air Force, which had recently become independent from the Army in 1947 after World War II. He was sent to Texas for basic training, and when his abilities as a clerk became apparent, he found himself working in the base office. Although Texas was hotter than Dad was used to, being a Michigan boy, he would have been willing to stay there for the duration, handling the behind-the-scenes administration that any large organization requires, but one day an officer asked him if he’d signed up to go to the United Kingdom. Dad had seen the posting for a clerk position on a bulletin board, but, having no particular interest in going to England, had ignored it. The officer told him that there was going to be a large group leaving the base for Korea in the next week, and if Dad didn’t want to be in that group, he should volunteer for Europe duty.
Being a smart man, he did. He spent the next three and half years at Royal Air Force West Drayton as part of the 3911th Air Base group of the U.S. Air Force. West Drayton was a non-flying base that provided air traffic control services to military aircraft throughout the U.K. and France. Dad ran a logistics office, keeping supplies moving to where they needed to go to support NATO and U.N. troops in Europe and in Korea.
Some people (including Dad himself) refer to that as “flying a desk” in the Air Force, but it takes tens of thousands of support staff to run a war, and each of them had to put their other lives on hold to serve their country. While my father wasn’t on the front lines or flying the fighter jets, he was a military man at the beginning of the Cold War, when missteps by either side, diplomatically or militarily, could have resulted in global disaster. I’m proud of his service and thank him for it.
Three other veterans are my great-uncles on my mom’s side of the family, Elmer, Eldon, and Arvid Hansen. Elmer was born in 1920, Eldon in 1922, and Arvid in 1924. They all registered for Selective Service in 1942 and were all called up within eight months of each other. Elmer was with an infantry unit in California in January, 1944, according to the article below from The State Journal in Lansing, Michigan. Eldon was serving with a quartermaster unit in Iceland, and Arvid was with the Great Lakes Hospital Corps in Illinois. Elmer eventually saw service in the Pacific and Arvid in Europe. I didn’t know Eldon, as he died in 1969 when I was only six, but I remember Elmer and Arvid well. Elmer was more reserved while Arvid was more outgoing and funny, but the one thing they shared was a reluctance to discuss their wartime experiences. Only Elmer came close to talking about it with me one day just few years before he died in 2011; he told me he had seen people do “terrible things” to each other in the Pacific islands and that his fervent hope was that someday we’d figure out a way to stop doing that anymore. Arvid, who died in 2014, never talked about it at all; it was the one thing you could bring up that would stop him from joking and laughing, so you learned to stop asking. My great-grandparents were a three Blue Star family, like many families during World War II, and while all three of their sons returned home, none of them were quite the same young men they’d been when they left.
The last veteran is my wife’s great-great-great-grandfather, William Davis Everitt. While his service pre-dates Armistice Day, his service was another example of the type of sacrifice America’s soldiers have made throughout our history. Living in Scott County in southeastern Indiana at the start of the Civil War, he helped muster a company of volunteers that became Company “I” of the 81st Regiment of Indiana Volunteers. Everitt was first a lieutenant for the company and soon became its commander, gaining the rank of captain which gave him his nickname for the remainder of his life: “Cap.” He fought with the 81st for three years, from July of 1862 through the end of the war in 1865, seeing action from Kentucky to Georgia. He wrote a touching series of letters to his wife and young children which have been preserved through the years. I’ll be doing a series on those letters over the next few months. But he also had to put his life as a farmer on hold for something bigger than himself, and his family had to take on those burdens while he was gone.
While it would certainly be better if we could figure out a way to stop having wars, they have been a nearly constant backdrop to American history since our fight for independence nearly 250 years ago. It’s our veterans – both those who gave their lives and those who came back, forever changed, who we honor today. I don’t think it’s incompatible to both be against war, as I am, and also in favor of giving our military veterans the respect they deserve.
To Elmer, Eldon, Arvid, “Cap,” and my dad… thank you.