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Say What?

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Frank Luke. Photo courtesy US Air Force Museum Frank Luke. Photo courtesy US Air Force Museum

What should we remember?

My calendar notes that November 11 is called Veterans Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada. If as a veteran you are tempted to get warm and fuzzy believing that many—if any—spend a moment thinking about veterans, get over it. Coming mid-week this year probably doesn’t help.

Considering what November 11 really means, the thought of remembrance is good if we remember what we are supposed to remember. Do you remember that in the old days we called November 11 Armistice Day, which reduces the amount of remembering you have to do provided you know what the term armistice means? In asking around I was somewhat surprised that the question brought on sort of a blank look. Let me take this space to help any dear reader who can’t recall the details.

In order to remember first you need to know. So let me tell you what you need to know about the Great War (1914-1918) in order to remember the significance of November 11. (If you really don’t care to know what is worth remembering simply skip to the last paragraph).

If you were a supporter of the status quo, assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s throne was a horrible event and worthy of starting a war. On the other hand, if the oppressive society of the time was too much it was a good thing. In either case the blood spilt on June 28, 1914 was nothing compared to the eventual cost to both sides in the four year conflict that followed. A month later the Empire declared war on Serbia. Then they declared war on Russia (long time ally of Serbia) and on August 2 declared war on France.

Germany followed suit with a declaration on August 2 and an invasion of France, but Belgium was in the way so war was declared on them. Eventually the conflict became truly worldwide in that Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Great Britain, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti Honduras, Italy, Japan, Liberia, Montenegro, Panama, Peru, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Siam, Turkey, the United States and Uruguay in one way or another assumed a role.

By 1917 the original combatants were on the verge of exhaustion. The tactics of its generals, the obstinacy of the Kaiser, the refusal of the principals to concede anything almost ensured the entry of the United States to save its allies, both Great Britain and France. The war was one of attrition, with countless battles being fought on and over the same French soil.  The machine gun, both British and German versions, was efficient beyond all measure. The single shot rifles of past wars no longer got the job done. Far more deadly, the machine gun’s field of fire was devastating. The introduction of poison gas widened the carnage.

The idea of being able to fire multiple rounds quickly soon found its way to the war in the air.

The aeroplane had hardly been invented in 1917 when it was adapted to both observe and to dominate the air in ways the Wright Brothers could not have imagined. Aerial warfare provided both inspiration and an outlet for the best young men of both sides who were frustrated by the stalemates on the ground not to mention the miseries of trench warfare. And so began the golden age of aerial combat.

The result was a whole new way of waging war. Not necessarily any safer for the participants but far more glamorous. But above all it was measurable in a positive way for the enthusiastic and patriotic men involved and it made for very good press. (Read “Sagittarius Rising,” by ace Capt. Cecil A. Lewis, MC, RFC, who flew an SE5a). Only the finest young men became pilots and their losses were costly. Some lasted less than two weeks!

It was soon decided by someone that anyone who managed to shoot down five enemy planes would be designated an Ace. This tradition still is alive and well. To enhance the interest in this war in the air meticulous records have been maintained and to this day it is possible to tell who shot down who, how, when and where,

The Germans honored their flyers who shot down 20 or more planes with a medal known these days as the “Blue Max.” The honor was initiated in the Bavarian court, were French was the language. Called the “Pour le Merte” it was the source of much pride and made for great headlines in the German press. (The “Blue Max’ also happens to be the name of  a really great movie about the Great War in the air.)

The British and French were not quite so glamorous but they awarded their highest honor, the Victoria Cross, to quite a few. The best the Americans could do was to recognize an extraordinary pilot from Phoenix named Frank Luke, known as the “Balloon Buster” for the number of German observation balloons he shot down before being killed after crash landing. He was the only American  airman awarded the Medal of Honor. Eddie Rickenbacher, another famous pilot of the war, survived distinguished service overseas and received the Medal of Honor a decade later.

This unprecedented conflict finally came to an end  on November 11, 1918 at 11 AM. Many wanted to take the battle to Germany.  More than one thought the armistice terms too harsh. Considering that eleven million people died on an 85-mile front over the four years those shedding the blood had enough. The losses were beyond measure and if there was a lesson it was never learned. The Great War was over... for the time being. Here is the last paragraph.

There is a display at the Sandpoint Library beginning November 5 and running through December 16 of the airplanes involved in the war in the air. The models, all 1:48 scale, are remarkable in their detail and their decoration. The 22 models represent the actual planes used by those pilots who shot down five or more of the enemy. Each type is identified by name of the pilot and the kind of ‘crate’ he used to achieve immortality. If it isn’t fascinating it certainly is interesting and informative. See and enjoy. It might help you remember, the significance of November 11, 2009 and all the 11/11s hereafter. Protecting our freedom is usually costly because it is so precious.

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Paul Rechnitzer Paul Rechnitzer Transplanted 30 years ago, Paul is a retiree from the oil business who knows no other place he would rather live and breathe local history.

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