Prepared by William T. Henderson for the Veteran’s Day portion of worship at St. Peter’s, November 2002
Eighty-four years ago (97 this year) on November 1918, the guns fell silent in France as the Armistice was signed at 11:00 a.m. in the Western European Time Zone. Thus ended the “Great War,” “World War I,” “The War to End Wars.” Would that this last sentiment had proven to be true.
No one likes war, least of all those directly involved in it. Most of us who have had the duty of wartime service, and in particular, those whose assignments placed them under fire, all seem at some time or other to echo the sentiment or confession that “WAR IS HELL” for it brings to the fore, as almost no other experience, the worst in human nature.
I can never forget my second night in Korea in the cold spring in 1952. That night was spent on a train taking a sizable group of newly arrived replacements from our point of entry at Pusan up to Seoul. The trip occupied the entire night. The noise of the train’s wheels on the rails was deafening as the war scarred cars were bare of any internal finish or anything else to provide comfort for we passengers. There was a floor, a roof, glass in the windows, and a tiny feebly glowing light bulb at either end of the car. But I remember no doors on the openings at the ends of the cars, so the cold night air blew freely through the cars as we huddled on the hard wooden benches which had long before replaced whatever sort of seating the original makers had put into the cars. The ancient and battered engine screamed, rattled, and roared adding its din to that of the wheels on the tracks as we rocketed through the night being carried to a destination we only knew as a name in the news.
We could see little of the country through which we were being carried at what seemed to be breakneck speed. There was just us, the train, and the noise it generated as it seemed to fly through the night. There were no lights visible in the surrounding country, no towns, no one other than us on our noisy flying train. It was more than unnerving; it was terrifying. It was cold. It was without interruption until we got to the terminal near Seoul sometime near daylight.
We could see Seoul across the River Han and we could also see the great bridge which connected Seoul with its river suburbs. The middle two spans of the bridge were collapsed into the river and a temporary wooden patch connected the still sound ends. It was on this very evident wartime victim that we were taken into Seoul itself.
The city had been fought over a number of times and great areas of it had been burned as a result of the shelling and bombing. The burnt areas were, at the time of our arrival, cleared and were simply cinder covered acres through which ran the remains of streets – somewhat patched together by the UN and Korean military. In some of these areas, refugees and survivors had patched together temporary shelters of cardboard and tin. Other areas had hardly any evidence of the ebbs and flows of the war. The Korean population was quickly returning to reclaim their city, but it was a city of military occupation with almost every activity geared to the ongoing military effort. The same was true of the entire country. Our weapons, trucks, jeeps, planes, and trains had priority over everything else. We were the wealthy ones with food, clothing, first pick of shelter, weapons, and creature comforts. The Korean population really had to make do with whatever they could scrape together and the entire country had been stripped almost bare of resources as the competing armies had fought over it. It was a scene of great tragedy. I have gone on with this because I want to try to describe for you some of my own fears, my own uncertainties at being in the midst of a tragic and chaotic time.
I am proud that I could serve in such a time, and I’m also proud of those with whom I served. I’m also proud of those who served in the armed forces both before Korea and since. Most of us did it not because we had a burning desire to do so but because we were convinced that it was our duty to do so at the time. Before my service, long before by birth, my father and two of his brothers were in France in 1917 and 1918 and Kathie’s and Millie’s father, Carl Luther, was in the service here in the United States at that same time. I have come to marvel that my grandparents could cope with the anxieties of having three young men in France given the news of the war which came to them and to others during that time. Letters moved slowly at times in 1952 and 1953 even with the advantages which were ours with air mail service. Communication was much, ever so much, slower in 1917-18 between the U.S. and France when almost all correspondence and everything else moved by ship. Kathie speaks at times of the long absences during WWII of those from St. Peter’s who were overseas sometimes for years at a time. Mail in that war was slow, erratic, subject to censorship and sometimes subject to the extreme limitations of what was called V Mail – a mechanism in which letters to and from overseas service persons were microfilmed for transit and reprinted on paper on the receiving end for those who were the recipients.
War disrupts, destroys, tears and wounds in ways both physical and emotional. The damage is severe, terribly destructive, and wasteful of people and resources. Perhaps the greatest damage is the inner psychological and spiritual damage and destruction as people are torn from one another, torn from family, torn from community and the known and familiar. There was nothing familiar in my all night train ride in 1952. War kills. It kills physically. It kills hope, shatters dreams. War is a waste.
But we still mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month! We cannot forget. We dare not forget. And we dare not let those who did not experience it forget either. I can only pray that we, as a people, do not forget and do not allow ourselves to become so self-righteous and so falsely confident that we think it is right to initiate war unilaterally. Such has never been our way as a nation and as a people. It is not part of our faith. It is not part of our politics. It must never be our way.