100 years later, World War I offers lessons on war and hate

Armistice St Mihiel.jpg

Private John Reed, of the 358th Infantry Regiment of the 90th Infantry Division (left) appears with a scene from the drawing “First Division Headquarters Kitchen, St. Mihiel Drive” by Capt. W. J. Aylward, and a shell fragment with a painted scene of the French village of St. Mihiel, painted by a German artillery officer who fired mustard gas shells on Reed’s position at St. Mihiel in September, 1918, which eventually led to both men’s deaths from the lingering effects of mustard gas. (Enid News & Eagle / Photo Illustration by Billy Hefton)

Art Reed, of Enid, Okla., has learned many lessons from war, from watching his father die a slow death from wounds inflicted in World War I, to his own time as a soldier, and from a chance encounter with the daughters of the German officer he credits with killing his father.

Reed, now 81, enlisted in the Army at age 17 in 1954, earned his commission as an officer through Officer Candidate School in 1961, served in Special Forces in Vietnam and remained on active duty until 1981, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.

The guns fell silent in his father’s war one hundred years ago today, Armistice Day, ending what had been billed as the “Great War” or “War to End All Wars.”

World War I found Reed’s father, John William Reed, in Minneapolis, Minn. on April 22, 1918, when he was conscripted into the 358th Infantry Regiment of the 90th Infantry Division and sent to Camp Davis, Texas for basic training.

Less than two months after he was drafted, Private John Reed and his fellow members of the 90th Infantry Division — mostly men from Oklahoma and Texas — were boarding ships in Hoboken, New Jersey to head to the Western Front in France.

Once in France, the men of the 90th came under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing in the American Expeditionary Force, and in September, 1918 they faced the German troops in America’s first major action of the war, near the French village of St. Mihiel.

St. Mihiel, a village then of about 2,000 people, on the Meuse River in eastern France, was the site of a defensive position held by the Germans since 1914.

In a four-day engagement, from Sept. 12-15, 1918, 55,000 U.S. troops and 110,000 French troops succeeded in breaking the German lines.

But, the victory came at a high cost. More than 7,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded in the assault, many of them during German artillery barrages, including the use of the chemical warfare agent known as “mustard gas.”

Private John Reed was one of the American troops injured during the German mustard gas shelling on the first day of the battle.

While he was equipped with a gas mask, a piece of shrapnel tore a hole the size of a silver dollar in his back, allowing the mustard gas to penetrate his body through the open wound.

Private Reed returned home not long after the Battle of St. Mihiel, and was discharged from the Army in January, 1919. But, the effects of the war and his wound lingered.

“He spent the next several decades going from one VA hospital to another, courageously fighting against the debilitating effects of the cancer caused by the mustard gas,” wrote his son, Art Reed, in his book “Until We Meet Again, Old Friend,” a collection of firsthand military tales.

In a Nov. 7 interview with the News & Eagle, Reed recounted watching the lingering effects of the mustard gas take his father.

Before his father died, Reed said doctors removed one of his lungs, part of his liver and one of his kidneys in attempts to stop the spread of the cancer.

“He was dying — it was eating up his insides,” Reed said. “When he died he weighed 80 pounds. The mustard gas just eats you up.”

Reed was just nine years old when his father died in 1945.

Despite watching his father die from the lingering effects of mustard gas, and having his own decision to enlist shaped by World War II, Reed said he never harbored any animosity toward the German people.

His own mother was a first generation German-American, and Reed was happy to be stationed with the Army at Heidelberg, Germany, in his mother’s homeland, in the mid-1970s.

It was there, while visiting the town of Schwetzingen, Germany, that Reed met two women who had an intimate connection to his father, the man who helped kill him and the war that brought them together.

While visiting a doll shop, Reed struck up a conversation with the two sisters who owned the shop. When he mentioned his father had fought at St. Mihiel, Reed said one of the women produced a scroll signed by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The scroll commemorated the service of “Oberst (Colonel) Ludecke, Kommandant (Commander) of the 81st Chemical Brigade for a special mission against the American 90th Infantry Division in September of 1918,” Reed recounted in his book.

The women’s father had commanded the German artillery unit that shelled Reed’s father at St. Mihiel.

“Without thinking, I turned to her and said ‘Your father killed my father,’” Reed wrote. “She turned pale and appeared weak-kneed. I quickly put my arm around her shoulders and, realizing the ramifications of what I had just blurted out, I said to her ‘But he knew enough to marry my mother who was German.'”

Reed, his wife and the two women carried on a friendly conversation about their shared family ties in the war, and to Germany.

Several weeks later, Reed, then back in the United States, received from one of the German sisters a surprise in the mail: a shell fragment from the war, on which the women’s father had painted a scene from St. Mihiel during the war.

“She explained that her father did not want to be in the military,” Reed said, “that he always wanted to be an artist.”

She also sent news that the Battle of St. Mihiel also claimed her father, in much the same way as Reed’s father.

“She explained that while the mustard gas had eventually killed my father from his wounds on the battlefield that day in France, her father also died of cancer just a few short years after returning from the war,” Reed said.

“She believed her father’s cancer had developed from him mixing the chemicals and handling the mustard gas mortar rounds,” Reed said, “just as sure as she believed those mustard gas shells that her father had fired upon the American soldiers during the St. Mihiel campaign had caused them to later die of cancer as well.”

The two men, and millions like them, died as the result of a war that was billed to “end all wars.”

But, while Armistice Day, on Nov. 11, 1918, ended World War I, it did not end war. Two decades later the world became embroiled in the Second World War, at the cost of as many as 80 million lives, and war continues today in as many as 24 countries.

Reed, looking back on both his and his father’s military service, said it’s likely humanity will continue to suffer wars and conflicts.

“As long as there are nations on earth, I guess there will be conflicts,” Reed said, “but the point is the soldier doesn’t go because he wants to — he goes because he has to.”

He said the common soldier, and the majority of people in society, do not relish war or hate their nations’ enemies — but too often are led by politicians who stoke hate.

“Soldiers shoot at each other, but they don’t hate each other,” Reed said. “You shoot at a guy because he’s shooting at you, not because you hate him. The politicians are the ones who create the hate.”

One hundred years after the end of World War I, Reed said a lot still can be learned from his chance encounter with those two German sisters, and their shared compassion over their fathers’ deaths.

“Hate takes a back seat,” Reed said. “Understanding is more important. These two ladies didn’t hate anybody.”

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