MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Tomorrow is Veterans Day. It was originally called Armistice Day, marking the 11th day of the 11th month.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Over there. Over there. Send the word, send the word over there. That the Yanks are coming. The Yanks are coming. The drums rum-tumming everywhere. So prepare. Say a prayer. Send the word, send the word to beware. We'll be over, we're coming over and we won't come back 'til it's over, over there.
BLOCK: That was the day in 1918 when at the 11th hour the guns fell silent in Europe and the Americans who'd gone over there could come home.
In the 88 years since, most of those men have fallen silent as well. More than four million Americans served in the First World War. Only 14 are still alive. The youngest is 106. The oldest, 115.
Today we'll hear from some of them. Independent producer Will Everett made it his mission to interview as many of the survivors of the First World War as he could find.
WILL EVERETT: I spent half the year traveling across the country to interview these men. Along the way I encountered a lot of people who would say oh, my dad or my grandpa was in the war, until they realized that I was talking about the other war. The one in 1917. Almost 90 years ago.
At 112 years old, George Johnson was the oldest man in California when I interviewed him in May. He lived alone in the house that he and his late wife had built in the Bay Area in 1930. He was living in Philadelphia in 1917 when his number came up.
Mr. GEORGE JOHNSON: We saw this note under the door. I picked it up and looked at. It was a letter from the government. From the draft board, for me to report 6:00 a.m. in the morning. That was the next morning.
Mr. EVERETT: In August, I met 110-year-old Ernest J. Pusey in Bradenton, Florida, a soft spoken man who worked most of his life at General Motors and is now older than GM itself. When the war broke out he chose to enlist in the Navy.
Mr. ERNEST J. PUSEY: I enlisted when I was 21. I enlisted in the Navy because I didn't want to be in the trenches. If you were in the Navy you were out of the trenches.
Mr. EVERETT: In Bethesda, Maryland, I found Lloyd Brown, a 105-year-old veteran. When the First World War started he was only 16, so he lied about his age to get into the Navy.
Mr. LLOYD BROWN: I was 16, but I told them I was 18. I was two years younger than my record shows. They sent me to Great Lakes, Illinois, for a little basic training, maybe 30 days. Then they put me on a battleship, the New Hampshire. One of my ship's duties was to look for submarines. That was our job. Most all the young people were doing it at that time.
When we went into the war, why, it was quite a popular thing for a young man to do is to enlist during the war. That's why I went in because many young people like myself were going in. Very popular among the young ladies, too, and I was - yeah, I wasn't fond of the war very much.
Mr. EVERETT: The Office of Veterans Affairs had a list of veterans, but it was fragmentary. The records center burned down in the 1970s and most of their World War I files went up in flames.
I didn't have 106-year-old Samuel Goldberg on my list, but during my search he happened to phone the VA to find out if any of his Calvary buddies were left. He was told that not only were his buddies gone, he was the last Calvary soldier left. He served along the U.S.-Mexico border, defending the U.S. against a possible German invasion from the south.
Mr. SAMUEL GOLDBERG: I saw it there. Look at all these guys, 18, 19, 20, 21. I'm going to join the Army. I went to the recruiting office. I understood that they could use signal corps and that's a dangerous spot. You're up there giving signals and they shoot at you. It occurred to me that if it was a dangerous part of being a soldier, that's for me. So I go downtown and I say I want to join the Army and I want to join the signal corps. And the recruiting sergeant, pretty smart guy, he said nah. Join the Calvary. Calvary? Horses? Hey, wait a minute. I have no experience with horses.
Mr. EVERETT: Quite a few of the veterans I met lied about their age to get in. If you served in 1917 and were of legal age, you'd be 110 years old by now. Frank Buckles is 105, but in 1917 he was only 16 when he joined the ambulance corps.
Mr. FRANK BUCKLES: I went to the recruiting station. The sergeant there said if you want to get to France in a hurry, join the ambulance corps, because the French are asking for ambulance service.
Mr. EVERETT: Only three veterans are left who witnessed the horrors of the trenches. 108-year-old Howard Ramsey was a taxi driver in Portland, Oregon, when he joined up.
Mr. HOWARD RAMSEY: Nobody drove. We had to teach the guys how to drive. They couldn't drive a nail and we had to teach them how to drive. We were under shellfire half the time and oh, it wasn't very pleasant, I'll tell you that.
Mr. EVERETT: Another trench veteran is 110-year-old Tony Pierro of Swampscott, Massachusetts. He's the last living American veteran to have seen action at the bloody Meuse and Argonne offensives, where an average of 1,000 Americans died each day in the three weeks of fighting.
Mr. TONY PIERRO: I wasn't afraid I'd get killed. I'd go through anything. But I came back. I came out alive and well. A lot of fellows, they lost an arm, a leg. Thank God, I came out alive.
Mr. EVERETT: Segregation was strictly practiced in the military during the First World War, with black soldiers being used mostly in service capacities. The black soldiers were used to clean up the battlefields and gather the remains of the dead.
114-year-old Moses Hardy, the last surviving African American veteran, wouldn't talk about his wartime experiences, but his son Haywood Hardy recalled that his father suffered post traumatic stress disorder for years after he got back from France.
Mr. HAYWOOD HARDY: He used to fall down. Walk around and fall down. Like faint. And then he'd lay there awhile and get up and go get on. But as he got older, he didn't do that no more.
Mr. EVERETT: I embarked on this mission to find the last veterans of World War I because it was a war we don't hear much about anymore. I wanted to know what it was like to have lived before the invention of the airplane and beyond the advent of the Internet. People have mostly forgotten about these veterans and their long ago war, not that the veterans seem to mind. Much has happened in the nearly 90 years since the Armistice and these vets have moved with the times. 109-year-old Homer Anderson summed it up best.
Mr. HOMER ANDERSON: Hell, I had enough war. I don't want anymore.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Over there. Over there. Send the word, send the word over there. That the (unintelligible) are coming. The (unintelligible) are coming. The drums rum-tumming everywhere. Over there. Say a prayer. Send the word, send the word to beware. We'll be over. We're coming over. And we won't come back 'til it's over, over there.
Mr. EVERETT: I'm Will Everett for NPR News.
BLOCK: Will Everett is the producer of a two-hour public radio program called The World War I Living History Project. It will be broadcast this weekend on NPR stations across the country. To see pictures and video of the First World War veterans heard in the story, go to NPR.org.