As a young boy, I often waded along the shore of the creek behind my house in Bath, N.C. My grandfather built the house in the 1880s. For many years the creek served as a garbage dump for families living along it.
One time, as I kicked at the mud and debris, I discovered a piece of metal. I took it to the house, cleaned it and showed it to my father. He determined that I had discovered a World War I German belt buckle. The German words “Gott Mit Uns” on the nickel seal of the brass buckle translated “God With Us.”
I have polished the buckle and taken it with me wherever I have lived for almost 60 years. I’ve always wondered who discarded this personal relic of history into the creek like a piece of garbage.
My family research has taken me to the history of the 322nd Field Artillery Battery from Ohio and my Uncle Thorne. Uncle Thorne shipped out to France in June 1918 with the 322nd after being drafted from Cleveland. In September the 322nd was attached to the 32nd Division. They fought in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the most lethal battle in U.S. history.
Did my Uncle Thorne bring the buckle to his parent’s house? How did he obtain the buckle? The questions will remain unanswered since he died when I was 2.
American poet Alan Seeger wrote the famous poem about WWI: “I Have A Rendezvous With Death.” In addition to the German deaths of over 2 million, the Russians suffered about 2 million soldiers lost, the British 800,000, the French 1.4 million and the U.S. 117,000.
Did all these more than 6 million men — and the numbers are approximate, with the true figure probably higher — have a rendezvous with death in four years of slaughter? (Seeger himself perished at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.)
I watched images of U.S. “Doughboys” going off to war in the PBS program “The Great War.” I saw smiling faces of the young men as they marched down streets lined with waving civilians. The young men seemed innocent, unaware of the horror that awaited them “Over There” as the popular song of the day put it. I saw faces like my own must have been as a 20-year-old soldier.
While stationed with the 7th Infantry Division in South Korea in 1964, I vividly recall the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August of that year. Like many of my fellow soldiers, I relished the opportunity to go fight the “Commies” in Vietnam.
When I returned to the U.S. after 13 months in Korea, I was stationed with a helicopter company at Fort Benning, Ga., home of the 11th Air Assault Division. I applied for and was granted an early discharge in June 1965.
In July I watched a television newscast showing soldiers from the 11th, now christened the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), on troop ships bound for Vietnam. I felt a twinge in my heart, as if I were missing out on some exciting adventure. Soon the casualty reports brought me to my senses, but then I could not shake the sense of guilt for not being “over there” with my buddies.
As my ever-aging hands hold the belt buckle from 100 years ago, I find myself close to tears thinking of all the war casualties of the last two centuries, especially WWI. I think about the 100th anniversary last November of the end of “The Great War” or “The War to End All Wars.” I think of all the young soldiers, Allies and Central Powers alike, who had a rendezvous with death.
I treasure my salvaged piece of metal as a reminder of the sacrifice and suffering of so many from 1914 to 1918, and in every war, declared or undeclared. I will honor all those who died this Memorial Day.
I will also remember that I was young once, innocent and unaware of the savagery of war.
Ivan W. Nicholson lives in Bemidji, Minn.