The World War began in August 1914, and ended … well, maybe it never ended, but we achieved some major victories in Europe and the Pacific in 1945. Future historians will probably call it the Second Thirty Years War.
Both of my grandfathers served in World War I. Grandpa Martin enlisted at 15. He was big for his age and had never owned a pair of shoes. The Army give him a pair of shoes. He went to France with Pershing and got along famously with the French and the American officer corps. He didn’t speak English until he was 7 years old, a Cajun from Louisiana. When the American officers heard the young private could speak fluent French, they dragged him everywhere to interpret for them. Thirty years later he was a full colonel and chief interpreter for General Marshall in China. My mother was born in San Antonio while Grandpa was stationed there following the war.
Grandpa Carroll was a corporal in the cavalry, 1st Illinois Volunteers, to be precise. When war broke out for the Americans, Grandpa signed up to be an infantry officer. He had just graduated from the University of Illinois as a railway electrical engineer. Two weeks before his graduation as an infantry officer, the Army Signal Corps came around looking for cavalry types who would volunteer to fly airplanes. He volunteered and became an advanced combat flying instructor at Kelly Field, Texas. By the end of World War II, Grandpa was the commander of the laboratories at Wright Field, Ohio, a major general who was also commander of the Army Air Forces in the Pacific at the end of the war. My dad was born in Dayton, Ohio, while Grandpa was assistant chief engineer there after the war.
I grew up in a home filled with stories of the exploits of my family in World War II. There were a few stories about World War I. Grandpa Martin would shake his head remembering sights he never spoke of on the Western Front, where thousands of American soldiers died, victims of artillery, the Queen of the Battlefield, and machine gun fire, the grim reaper that ended massed bayonet charges, at least until the Japanese brought them back in the Pacific.
What was missing from the old black and white photos of Grandpa Carroll doing rolls and loops in JN-4 Jenny bi-planes, SE-5 Scouts, French Spads, and German airplanes was any sense of reality about the whole mess. The grainy old film is viewed at a remove of 100 years, shrunken and lifeless. The images are fading and hard to make out.
The Imperial War Museum asked Peter Jackson to make a commemorative film about World War I. They didn’t have any idea how or what, just wanted a great film about it all. Oh, and it had to use actual footage of the time. Jackson didn’t have a clue, either, but it occurred to him that he might use movie magic to bring to life those who died long ago, and are all but forgotten.
I heard the stories from my grandfathers. My children hear them from me. But, it took Peter Jackson to make it all real, right down to an artillery strike that kills a horse and rider right before our eyes.
The film is called “They shall not grow old.” It is showing in limited engagements all over the country. We owe it to ourselves and our children, to our fathers and mothers and the memory of our grandfathers and grandmothers, to go see this film and think about how real it all was.