In honor of Veterans Day – a story about my grandfather.
George Ormond’s pale blue eyes watered until the day he died. But he never complained about the Great War. Word was that mustard gas got him, but in those days, people didn’t talk much about injuries, follow-on treatment, or post-traumatic stress. My grandfather died when I was 21, about the same age he was when returning from the war. I wish I’d had adult conversations with him about his experiences, but it’s obviously too late. He likely didn’t realize how interested people might be in a blue-collar kid from Brooklyn’s renditions of his encounters on the front lines.
One of my earliest memories of my grandfather taught me a valuable lesson. I was five-years-old, in my front yard, and he watched me kill a bug.
“Why did you do that?” he asked.
“Because it was going to bite me,” I answered.
“But it wasn’t bothering you.”
And I realized he was right. I felt so ashamed, but I learned from his short training session. This war-hardened man taught me in a few sentences to be sensitive to each life.
Private Ormond spent his 18th, 19th, and 20th years in the U.S. Army’s 27th Division – New York’s Division. From 1917 through 1919, he trained in the U.S., deployed to the Western Front, and returned to his city’s heroic homecoming for the troops. As a child, I understood my grandfather had been in World War I. But as a child of 7, 8, and 9 years old, I didn’t realize the old man in front of me wasn’t much older than I was when he told the stories of places so far away about a time seeming to be so long ago.
I remember hearing about trenches, and how his unit even had gas masks for the horses. My grandfather didn’t try to scare me, but I think he wanted to share a part of the family history not recorded elsewhere. But I didn’t understand the importance of listening to those stories at the time.
My grandfather was a bit of a conundrum. At one moment, he’d be my jovial “Pop Pop,” smiling, arms outstretched, waiting for a hug, and in the next, a grumpy old man seemingly annoyed by my childish noise. He loved my grandmother, who was the yin to his yang. As somber and unhappy as he seemed most the time, she swung to the opposite side of the pendulum. She joked, played games with my brother and I, and let us turn the couches upside down to build indoor forts. Even as kids, we wondered how these two very different people ended up together.
The two of them raised two sons, the first members in either family to attend and graduate from college. My father served as a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, and my uncle a navy pilot.
My dad used to say, “My father was born before the Wright brothers flew the first plane, and in his lifetime he got to see his own son fly off aircraft carriers.”
My grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with both sons and their families, including their six grandchildren. I’m not sure I’d ever seen my grandfather happier. Just three years later, my fun-loving grandmother passed away. Pop Pop deteriorated quickly, and was laid to rest by her side seven months later. Sadly, he never got to see two of his grandchildren carry on the military family tradition. My cousin, Mark, spent a career as a navy diver, and I, as a naval intelligence officer. I had the honor of being the first female Ormond to wear the uniform.
Following my navy retirement, I finally researched my grandfather’s war history. The 27th Division to which he belonged included a brave band of New Yorkers who fought in fierce battles including the Somme Offensive. President Woodrow Wilson federalized this New York National Guard unit in July 1917, and Major General John F. O’Ryan commanded “O’Ryan’s Roughnecks” throughout the war. His men loved him, and his enlisted men voted on the unit patch, which included stars of the constellation Orion’s Belt, in honor of their leader. I remember my grandfather pointing out Orion’s Belt in the night sky, and it became the first constellation I could identify. Pop Pop never shared the connection with his commander and the stars, but it was our one and only astronomy lesson in our 21 years together. That time and those stars now hold an even more special meaning to me.
Assigned to F Battery, 104th Field Artillery, Private Ormond saw action in the infamous “no man’s land,” Verdun, the St. Mihiel Offensive, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. According to O’Ryan, “The Verdun sector had been the scene of very severe fighting and the word ‘La Meuse’ connoted to the French soldier the most desperate fighting, the most terrible suffering, and the most hotly contested area of the war.”
“The Meuse-Argonne Offensive is considered an epic battle which essentially ended World War I,” wrote Pamela A. Bakker, author of “The 104th Field Artillery Regiment of the New York National Guard, 1916 – 1919, From the Mexican Border to the Meuse-Argonne.” Bakker stated it was the bloodiest battle in which the U.S. engaged, resulting in 95,786 wounded and 26,277 dead.
“The citations pertaining to the 104th Field Artillery Regiment, as well as those for the entire 52nd Field Artillery Brigade, almost always have the repeated phrase ‘while under heavy enemy shell fire,’ with many adding ‘under machine gun fire, and gas concentrations,’” Bakker continued. Private Ormond’s unit also was attached to the most gassed division among the Americans, which may explain the eyes that teared for the following sixty years. He never mentioned the hunger, the sleeplessness, the lice, the filth, the mud, the cold, or the dysentery common among the men. He also never mentioned the unending fighting, the injuries, or the deaths, which surely he had not forgotten. Instead, he spoke of pride of having served.
George Ormond instilled in his family a sense of service to country. His two children served, and two of his grandchildren served. My grandfather taught me lessons while he was alive, starting with respect for each life. Learning more about his history, I learned new lessons about his humility regarding his own wartime service. Although I will never see what the mysterious war hero’s injured eyes saw, I learned a great deal from him. I appreciate who he was, what he did, and the courage he displayed both on the battlefield and throughout his life.
Published in “All Gave Some,” Military Writers Society of America 2014 Anthology (Red Engine Press ISBN 978-1-937958-75-6)