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Echoes of World War I resound with descendants

Dressed in a World War I-era uniform, Pascal Bouilleaux plays ''Taps'' at the end of the Memorial Day ceremony at Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France, Sunday May 28, 2017.

MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES

By BRIAN ALBRECHT | The Plain Dealer | Published: November 20, 2017

CLEVELAND, Ohio — A hundred years ago America entered World War I, the bloodiest conflict the world had known.

The battlefields are now buried under progress and gravestones, the combatants gone.

But America's Doughboys are not forgotten.

Three Northeast Ohio soldiers who lived to tell, or barely tell the story, are still remembered by their descendants.

Letters of a soldier on the true meaning of war

On November 11, 1918, the end of the war on a date that became known as Armistice Day (later Veterans Day), was a relief, but not a celebration to those who fought and survived that conflict.

In a letter home to his mother, Clevelander Howard Eells Jr. wrote of the difference between the home front and battlefield, come war's end.

"There you have a strange contrast -- millions of crazed people to whom the war has never been real in the way we have known it, cheering and shouting and celebrating thousands of miles away from the mud and destruction of the battlefields; while beside that picture, is one of a line of tired, bespattered men standing up to hear the announcement that the nights of hiking, the hours upon hours of work at the guns, the deafening noise and every other hideous accomplishment of war, is at last over for them and scarcely a voice raised above a weak exclamation.

"As I look back I wonder that there was such an utter lack of excitement and display of feeling. I suppose this was due to the fact that we were all very tired men."

When America entered the war, Eells was already an Army veteran who rode with U.S. troops into Mexico in 1916, pursuing Pancho Villa who had raided an American town across the border.

Eells and his brother, Samuel, became part of an artillery unit sent to France during World War I.

Eells found himself getting hardened to the horrors: "Yesterday for the first time in my life I saw a human casualty and it made no more impression on me than had someone taken a branch and broken it before my eyes."

Yet in other respects, he wrote that his appreciation for love and family had deepened from the experience, and was also "enriched by what sacrifices we have made."

Howard Eells' grandson, Mark Wilson, of New York, has a collection of the old soldier's letters and photos.

"I knew him when he still quite cogent and full of spark," Wilson said. "He was jovial, intelligent, interested. He was just full of life, with a great sense of humor, a delightful person who loved people and really adored Cleveland."

Despite his dour outlook regarding the original Armistice Day, Wilson said his grandfather came to hold the holiday in great esteem.

Eells' daughter, Adele Pierce, of Vermont, also noted, "The 11th hour of 11th day of 11th month was not just a holiday, it was a very important day to him throughout his life."

Pierce said her father never lost his military bearing and patriotic outlook after the war. "He was very stern about handling the American flag on the flagpole outside of our house. It had to be raised in the morning, and come down before sundown," she said.

Though she doesn't remember him talking much about the war, she noted, "I think the memory never left him."

And he often sang the songs of that era, including "Over There" and "It's a Long Way To Tipperary."

Eells died in 1978 and is buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.

The old soldier is gone but his words live on, including his concerns about the future.

In one letter home, he accurately feared that yet another generation would find itself fighting the same battles in World War II.

"I believe we must often in the years that are to come take our bearings from this particular period of the past that we may not lose the way they dictate and find ourselves for a second time facing another such calamity."

The danger, Eells noted, lay not in those who knew war, but those who didn't -- and for those, "there must be established a realization such as will make it (war) impossible for the future."

War was prelude to public service

James Hudec fought his war and rarely looked back.

The Cleveland soldier battled in France and was a member of President Woodrow Wilson's honor guard for the signing of the World War I peace treaty in Versailles.

But his stories of that service were few and far between, according to his son, Bill Hudec, 77, of Maple Heights.

"He never really talked about any of this, about how he got into the honor guard or anything," he said. "No, he had so many other interesting experiences, he didn't really talk about the war."

Hudec said those experiences included life after the war when his father, an ardent and talented baseball player, was offered a catching job by the Cleveland Indians.

"He said, 'Well, there's no money in baseball,' so he went into politics and he was a several-term councilman of Cleveland's Ward 30."

His father was also a senior engineer for the American Steel Wire Division of U.S. Steel.

There are lingering reminders of his father's war service, such as a bullet-creased helmet. A matter of inches would have meant certain death, "if he would've raised his head," Hudec said

He also still has his father's .45 caliber service revolver, and recalled that when he was a child his father would hand it to him.

"He'd say, 'OK Billy, now try to pull that trigger.' I couldn't pull that trigger and he'd say, 'Well, someday you'll be bigger and that gun will be yours. You'll be able to pull the trigger.'"

Hudec recalled his father with fondness. "He was a character. He never really got mad. He was laid back, and he would handle things calmly and coolly, but he was a character. He was a prankster. A teaser."

Come Veterans Day, Hudec said he thinks about a poem he once wrote for the occasion, "about the things in life that you wish for. You can wish for riches and everything else, but I said I would've wished to know my dad a little better."

His father died in 1963 at age 69, and is buried at Highland Cemetery.

When asked if he's still proud of him, Hudec smiled, and said, "Well, yeah. He was quite a guy, when you think about the war, his service with Woodrow Wilson's honor guard, then think about the baseball and the politics.

"But I am far more proud of him because of his heart attitude, and how he deeply cared for people and their needs, than I am of all his many accomplishments and achievements," he added.

"Yes, Dad was an accomplished man, but how he treated people and his concern for their well-being, even to the point of being self-sacrificing, is what impresses me most. He had quite a life."

A diary of one soldier's war

Aug. 12, 1918 was a bad day among many for Sgt. Aloysius "Ollie" Haag, of Akron, who was serving on the Italian front with the 332nd Infantry Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division, during World War I.

A good buddy had just died from dysentery, and Haag had almost shot himself through the leg while cleaning his pistol. The bullet just nicked his leggings.

At least he wasn't getting shelled or bombed, or coping with food shortages and rotting uniforms, or seemingly endless marches and the heartbreak of being away from home and his new wife.

Those were among the many hardships endured by Haag, as detailed in his diary -- or "dairy" as he spelled it -- that has been preserved by his granddaughter, Kathleen Edwards, 59, of Silver Lake.

She was only a small child when Haag died in 1960, and her memories of the old soldier are vague.

"I really didn't get to know him, and when I started to read his diary, I wasn't a whole lot older than he was at the time," she said. "And I thought, this was an incredible way to get to know somebody that died when I was too young to get to know him, or hear his stories."

Haag wrote in his diary about ordeals of war as the Americans supported the Italians in their battles against the German and Austro-Hungarian armies.

There was the artillery shelling: "That evening, Jerry (the Germans) shelled us like hell. Some more were close. They have the most fascinating whistle when they go over our heads. The boys were a little excited at first. They sounded like gas shells. We went back to bed and had our gas masks handy."

And death from the skies: "That night we were visited by the Jerries. They kept us awake all night. A big air raid on our billets . . . There were three (bombs) not over 50 yards from the building that I was sleeping in and they sure did give us a rude awakening . . . Scared like hell."

But the most insidious killer was the 1918 flu pandemic that resulted in the deaths of more than 50 million people worldwide.

Haag wrote that at one point an average of 50 soldiers were being hospitalized with the flu every day. He wrote: "It looks serious. Quite a few have died. They claim it is the Spanish flu. We were exposed too much."

The soldier also dealt with the everyday hardships of life in a war zone. These included lice, or "cooties" as they called them.

As Haag noted, "They're all over. The cooties are having a hell of a time."

There were shortages of food, occasionally relieved by welcome Red Cross shipments. Their wool uniforms, blankets and socks gradually fell apart.

And on one occasion, after not having bathed for three weeks, Haag triumphantly wrote, "Took a bath today. Feel good."

On a personal level, bad news from back home took a toll. Haag's sister, Anna, died of the flu while he was overseas.

Haag wrote, "I feel very bad. A number of letters (from home) were consoling, but it still does not seem possible that she is gone. God bless her soul."

Just prior to going overseas, Haag married Ruby Russell, a hometown girl, and he often wrote of the pain of separation.

As Edwards noted, "Toward end of diary, he misses his wife, Ruby, so much, and he just really wants to get back to her."

Edwards sensed a growing sense of disillusionment with the war as she read her grandfather's diary.

She commented, "I just feel like as things went on and these guys are dying of the flu, not combat casualties . . . They have no socks, their boots are falling apart and they can't get new supplies in, and nobody knows what's going on, they're never told anything. So as the diary progresses, what you see is more and more frustration and homesickness."

When the war finally ends, Haag returns home, where he will raise two children, with two wives, and work an assortment of jobs as a plumber, bricklayer, night watchman and court bailiff.

He became a dedicated member of veterans groups such as the VFW, and maintained the military props for whenever local vets marched in parades.

From family stories, Edwards said, "I think he was probably a character. He was very popular, he had loads of friends, and he seems to me that he probably was a fun-loving guy."

She noted that her grandfather was one of many veterans in her family who served in a variety of conflicts since World War I.

So come Veterans Day, she said, "We really appreciate it. We certainly don't refer to it as 'Happy Veterans Day.'

"It's 'Thank you.' Blessed."

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