On this day, over half a century ago, Chester Hanson threw his bandolier into a camp stove and ran from the exploding bullets, while Ettore Bronte was singing in the streets of Paris, celebrating the end of the last war on earth. In San Diego, young American soldiers, wearing white masks, heard the news as they came streaming out of a quarantined Camp Kearny for the first time in weeks. The headlines in the San Diego Union that day were particularly inspired:
- AUSTRIA WHIPPED, GIVES UP
- HIGH HUN OFFICIALS GET WORD
- SULTAN’S CAVE-IN COMPLETE
- TEUTONS IN FLIGHT FILL HIGHWAYS
Even as the news spread, the streets had already begun to fill with “trucks, flivers, and other machines loaded with Joy-Riders.” The Union reported the streets had a pre-influenza appearance. During that year the Spanish Flu had been less dramatic but more devastating than the war; in 1918, 324 people were killed by the flu in San Diego, out of a population of 70,000, and overseas more men were fodder for the flu than for cannons. So the end of the war added a certain hysteria to the celebration already in progress; the quarantine was over, the war was over.
Just the day before, the Union had reported that Mrs. U.S. Grant had received a letter from her son, John Elmore, a Marine just back from the fight in Chateau Thierry and now in a hospital bed with the flu. He wrote that his regiment had been forced to remain in the trenches for ten days during one battle before relief came: “It was too much, and we lost so many men. In my company we had 250 going in and only 67 coming out. I had many narrow escapes. My pack was shot off my back by a one-pounder, and shrapnel spread all over me but never went through my clothing. We went over the top four times in five days under heavy machine-gun fire. I brought down three German snipers from trees and it was great to watch them hit the ground never to rise again.”
The layout artists at the Union got carried away by the mood; they pasted together a collage for the front page which had the boys of Camp Kearny marching up Broadway past the U.S. Grant and the Statue of Liberty itself.
“And through the long exquisite day,” the Union reported, “and far into the night, with flags flung to the mild breeze, music sounding its martial note, bells tolling, horns and whistles shrieking, and ratchets and firecracks and buzzers adding a blatant crescendo to the mighty din, the blood of all the world coursed through the city’s heart, as the holy and beautiful truth dawned that peace on earth had come to be.”
Three hundred young men, released by the cancellation of the November draft induction at the very moment of their departure for Kelly Field, quickly lost themselves in the human current.
But history wasn’t going to be stopped by any celebration; the war work continued. Boy Scouts were mustered out all over the county to harvest the large crop of castor oil beans which grew in and around San Diego. And something strange was happening out at sea on the day the war ended. Sharks were killing abnormal amounts of halibut, barracuda, and other food fish on the foggy Lower California banks. San Diego fishermen were remaining in port because of the scarcity of fish. Meanwhile, the Japanese were moving into the waters to kill the sharks for oil. Murder, it seemed, was like the fog. Sometimes it covered the sea, and sometimes it moved to shore.
It was not too many years later that the fog swept again around the world, and in 1954, as an act of compensation, the U.S. Congress decided Armistice Day, November 11, should become Veteran’s Day to honor the dead of all wars. Today, the celebration is amoebic; the city of San Diego followed the federal government in observing Veteran’s Day on October 25th, while the State of California and San Diego County, along with Great Britain, Canada, and France, observe it today.
And while bitterness from Vietnam has further fragmented any meaning in the day, the boys of the Argonne, the survivors of Alsace-Lorraine, the veterans of the trenches are beginning to disappear. Over a hundred thousand WWI veterans died last year. Now there are 851,000 left in America, and only a few thousand left in San Diego County. The regiments are beginning to fall now. Whole battalions are going over the top and fading into the history books.
Chester Hanson, 80, lives in Hillcrest, but spends many of his days roaming around the city in his aging van. He’s got a long white beard and wears a straw sombrero and isn’t about to get logged away in some elephant graveyard of a hospital ward. His son is a high-powered rock ’n’ roll agent, and Chester can name off dozens of obscure rock stars to whom he listens. So, along with the best-selling albums of Jim Croce, Chester Hanson can tell you about the kills of Eddie Rickenbacker and Carl Spaatz, first-hand.
“I was working a nine hour day for 90 cents at the Borch Magneto Company in Oakland before the war. They said, ‘Hanson, we like your work but there’s 200 men from the Polytechnic College who would like to take your job for free just to learn the business!’ ”
Chester had heard that the Government was paying 50 cents a day for soldiering, plus room and board. This was a big improvement over his wages, and he figured he’d be sent down to San Diego and just lay out in the sun and never leave; but a month after he joined up, America joined the war.
“On the way to France, I managed to get my ship torpedoed, but it didn’t sink. Then we hit a mine in the English Channel and it still didn’t sink. So we were pretty shaken up by the time we got to this terrible place called Le Havre, with sheet metal barracks and cobblestone floors and chicken wire to sleep on. No mattress, just three little blankets. Damn near froze to death.
“Then we were sent to an airfield at Issoudon, right outside of Paris. They pushed us into boxcars that would hold 40 men or eight horses. I was put in charge of the rations of hard tack and corned beef. It was so cold in the cars that the frost froze on the bolts inside the cars. Most of the men put their overcoats and blankets on their backs and ran all night to keep warm. We carried off two men with pneumonia in Paris, but when we got to Issoudon we fared better; it was downright luxurious. Burlap stretched across timbers for bunks.
“Issoudon had a big aviation school headed up by Carl Spaatz, who wanted you to call him Spotts because it sounded less German. That’s where Eddie Rickenbacker quit being a chauffeur for General Pershing and took up aviation. We were within 20 miles of the front because the airplanes didn’t hold much gas. Some of my buddies were killed by big shells landing in the airfield, we were so close to the front.”
Chester was later sent to Cazaux and attached to the French School of Aerial Gunnery, where he repaired magnetos again, along with air speed indicators, altimeters, machine-gun pumps and carburetors.
“I was what they called a petite mechanic. See, I stayed a mechanic, because the officers told us if we really loved our country we’d stay mechanics. The British had sent all their mechanics to the front and were suffering for it.”
He remembers a strange new airplane that fell out of the sky one day.
“It was a Moran, a French experimental plane that didn’t have any throttle. You controlled the speed by cutting out the cylinders. It came down toward the field at a hundred miles an hour, then shot back straight up, like a rocket. It only had a 17-foot wingspan. When it finally landed it broke a tire and smoked up. The pilot staggered out, all blackened from the smoke, and said, ‘Where am I, and which way is Paris? Well, Rickenbacker and Spaatz ran out there and said, ‘You can go to Paris, but the plane is staying here.’ They kept that plane and had the best old time flying it. Damn thing was faster than any of our planes but too dangerous to fly. Never did get used in the war. Too dangerous for war.
“The first American to be killed in France was from my outfit. We’d attached two engines together to make up an 18 cylinder engine and this buddy of mine went around to crank it up. Took off so fast it just pulled him in and chopped him to bits. Big football player. Goes to show how much we knew about airplanes.
“Some of my buddies had been in the Lafayette Escadrille, which was the group of American airmen who fought in France before we got in the war. Their stock was real high with the French people. At one time they could get up to a thousand francs credit from the shopkeepers, but then America started releasing felons from the prisons and sending them over to fight. This one group of felons got over to a place near our camp and beat up an old Frenchman, raped a pregnant girl, and stabbed another woman. We were given orders to halt them or shoot them. When they were caught we had to get up before dawn and stand at attention while they were hung at Bordeaux.”
He remembers the Spanish Flu. “It started in the winter of ’17. They were blasting graves all night long. We were quarantined for two months. Madame Curie advised drinking four ounces of brandy a day, so quite a few of our company managed to do pretty well. We only lost one officer. Terrible drinker.
“They took us up to another camp where they’d billeted 40,000 Russians who had refused to fight anymore. The French lined them up and shot them down three or four hundred at a time, then buried them with black crosses. Those Russians just stood there with their arms folded and got mowed down. A short time later the Italians started refusing to fight at the front and they were shipped down. We put out bales of straw for them to sleep on, and for some reason they weren’t shot but were shipped back to Italy.”
Even with the “Paris rats,” which were as big as cats and would run over the men as they slept, Chester was having a good time anyway.
“I wasn’t no hero. I’d come over like some of the fellas went to Vietnam, but there was a different spirit then, a spirit of ending the thing. Why, I’d been in France six months before they drafted anybody. I remember my friends Bill Cloke, an ex-sparring partner for big Jim Jeffreys, and a big, husky part-Indian, name of Rube Kerr.
They were out on a work detail, but it was too cold to hold a hammer, so they built a fire. An officer strutted up to them and said, ‘Put out that fire and get back to work or I’ll send you to the front.’ Why, Bill and Rube just threw down their hammers and yelled, ‘By God, that’s what we came here to do. Send us to the front!’ That called the officer’s bluff and he just stalked away.
“Hell, we didn’t go to this war like a bunch of sheep. We knew what we were doing. And if an officer gave us too much trouble, bingo he’d be dead.
“We were fed green chicken on occasion. Guys would vomit in their mess kits. One guy found maggots in his fish, and when he went to tell the officer of the day, a young louse who wore a fancy swivel holster, the officer told him, ‘Go ahead and squawk.’ Well, I heard later that officer lasted 40 minutes when he finally got to the front. One of our guys got him.”
Unlike Chester Hanson, Ettore Bronte, from Brooklyn, got to the front. Now he’s sitting in a wing, or “pod” as the nurses call them, on the fourth floor of the Veterans Administration Hospital in La Jolla. Approximately a hundred WWI veterans are in Veterans Hospital today, some of them permanently. This particular wing is made up mainly of men who have nowhere else to go; it is a combination nursing home and hospital ward. You can see for miles, on smogless days, out across the razorback mountains of San Diego County, but Ettore Bronte can’t see the mountains or the smog. He hasn’t seen in half a century. He left his sight scattered by shrapnel on French soil in 1918.
Around the time Ettore was eagerly joining up at age 16 to fight what John Dos Passos called “Mr. Wilson’s War,” it was not entirely quiet on the home front; Rose Pastor Stokes was receiving a 10-year sentence for writing a letter to the Kansas City Star opposing the war profiteers and the government, and over 1,500 Americans were arrested and charged under the Espionage Act with encouraging disloyalty or interfering with the draft, but all that was soon buried under an avalanche of propaganda. Ettore’s father said to him, “Ettore, you’re too young to enlist, but what are you doin’ here?”
It took several sittings to hear Ettore’s story. He can’t talk more than a few minutes at a time. His lungs are fading. He pulled four cartons of cigarettes from a bag and said, “This will be my ammunition.”
He turned to his silent, moody roommate. “Aren’t you envious?” Ettore asked. “I’m a celebrity. Anything you might wish to add to our conversation please feel free to add.” His roommate remained staring at the ceiling, and Ettore turned to the reporter. “That is usually the extent of our conversation. My roommate is very eloquent, quite loquacious.”
The French had already been in the trenches for two years when Ettore was sent to the front with the American Marine shock troops. “You could see the Germans come out to hang their laundry on the line. I figured, ‘What the hell kind of war is this? I came here to fight and they’re having a picnic over there.’ Then all hell broke loose. The French general went berserk, and when the Germans started the mustard gas, the rats ran to our side. That was the signal for us to take the counter-offensive, up and over, running across no-man’s-land in long lines, then falling to the ground every few feet for cover. Some of the guys around you wouldn’t get up, but you’d keep running.
“I had this buddy. His name was Tommy Dolan, from Worchester, Massachusetts, and as Irish as they make ’em. We had a sort of affinity for each other. Just a couple punk kids. Tommy and me went AWOL together once to Paris on a drunk. Got arrested together. One night we were on the second line in an ammunition dump. A German shell hit directly in the dump. It was like Coney Island on the Fourth of July. Our officers were afraid the explosion would give away our position. So one ordered a man to go in and get the boxes out, so the fire wouldn’t spread. I grabbed Tommy and said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ But Tommy said, ‘I’m no coward.’ He went in there and grabbed a box, walked a few feet. . . I don’t know. . . and it exploded. He was a regular sieve, full of holes. He was calling me.”
Ettore stopped for a moment. He couldn’t talk. His eyes filled up. We had moved down to a patio surrounded by trees, and the wind was blowing hard. He didn’t move for several minutes.
“I mean, the irony of it all. He couldn’t stop the goddam explosion! I ran out and picked him up and took him to the first-aid station and the doctor started yelling, ‘Get out of here, this is no cemetery!’ I looked at the doctor and said, ‘I hope you get it too, Doc.’
“I was with Tommy when he died. He was sacrificed for no reason at all.”
Then Ettore blew his nose and started laughing. “When they caught Tommy and me in Paris, they asked our names. He said, ‘Francis Murphy,’ and I said, ‘Joe Bonano.’ Well, Tommy must think of that now and then like I do when I’m feeling low. Right now. Tommy must be laughin’ his head off, just listening to us talk.
“You know, the difference between us old WWI vets and the Vietnam vets is we’re not confused. A lot of the Vietnam vets here are pitiful. They can’t think straight. Course, they were brainwashed by the fourth branch of government, television. And they had to fight in a stupid war. You ask the old guys on my floor, they’ll tell you, they know exactly what they were fighting for—to save democracy and end all wars. Helps when you know what you’re fighting for.”
Ettore asked to have his wheelchair pushed inside the hospital to the elevator.
“I been trying to help some of these poor old guys on the wards—guys in their fifties who are going blind from diabetes or whatever. One guy, he just hangs on his bed like you couldn’t pry him away with a crowbar.
“Not enough volunteers here. They ought to make those people on welfare come up here and help us and talk to us. I’ve sat up all night with four men who died. This is nothing but a human junk heap.”
The elevator doors opened, and he wheeled in and turned around. He smiled and lifted his hand as if to wave goodbye, but the door shut and the elevator took him up to his pod on 4E.