Photo by Jon Barrett
I write books on the Great War so Veteran’s Day has special meaning for me – being the 11th day of the 11th Month – timed with the Armistice that ended hostilities in that conflict. WWI is a war that has (as a result of the centennial) only now started to get its due. The Americans were there for such a short period of time that the war did not have the emotional impact that WWII did. Yet we suffered 116,000 deaths from combat and other means along with another 204,000 wounded. When you consider the short period of time US troops were in battle, these losses are staggering. Remember – the US ground forces engaged in only two campaigns which spanned less than three months time. At that rate, in only a year, the US would have easily passed the casualties in the US Civil War.
The stories of the men that fought in that war are no less harrowing and courageous as those of WWII. In some ways it was a more horrific war. The use of chemical weapons made battle deadly and crippling in ways we cannot comprehend. When you look at the aircraft of the era, flying at high altitudes with limited oxygen, in frigid open cockpits – the romantic image gives way to the grim and bitter realities of that kind of fighting.
I am privileged to write about such men. Recently I spoke at the Museum of the US Air Force for the League of WWI Aviation Historians on Frederick Zinn. Fred was the subject of my award winning book, Lost Eagles. A Galesburg/Battle Creek MI native, Fred was Michigan’s first aviator. He was the United States first aerial combat photographer (in 1916, a year before the US joined the war). Fred sent all of the replacement pilots to the front in WWI. When the war was over, he pioneered the search for missing airmen. In WWII (at over 50 years old) he established the systems for tracking and identifying missing airmen, all while serving as a counter-intelligence agent in the OSS in Europe (precursor to the CIA).
I arranged with the Museum to bring Fred’s uniform out from storage for the League members to see. I like to think it made my lecture more tangible, more real. When it came out though, there was a sense that Fred Zinn was there, in the room. He stood before us, in that French aviator’s uniform, basking for a few moments in silent glory – praised and applauded by people that had a minor comprehension of the risks he had undertaken in a war that has been often forgotten. I have no words to convey what it was like to stand next to that man’s uniform.
During his life, Fred never claimed the accolades that he deserved. He was a humble man. His commitment was to the families of those men that remained missing – in both world wars. Fred understood that Veterans Day was not just about the men and women who have seen battle – but it is about the families who bear burdens and emotional scars that most of us cannot comprehend.
On this Veterans Day let us remember not only those that have given their full measure for our nation –but those that are missing still, awaiting for us to bring them home. Let us remember as well the families of our vets and what they have given up for our country. Let us remember all of the Frederick Zinns – the silent heroes who, in their own ways, changed the world we live in. Let us remember the wars, great and small, where blood has been shed in the name of freedom.