Old Names Matter

by Paul Hundt

Central Park from above.

I often walk through Manhattan’s Central Park, usually from East 96th Street to my club at 59th and 7th. It’s about two miles in all and, about half way, I sometimes pass a solitary boulder just south of the Rumsey Playfield between the Mall and The East Drive. This inconsequential rock, almost a glacial erratic, stood for many years in the midst of a bedraggled patch of brown leaves and bare earth, shaded in part by a few large trees.

If one looked closely, as I did one day, the side facing the path contained a shallow inscription, barely visible but for some flecks of eroding white paint. And if one’s curiosity was piqued, as mine was, one noticed, scattered behind it, about a dozen small, white monuments with slanted tops and shiny brass shields.

The faint inscription on the stone reads simply:


Each of the shields, whose lettering in some cases has been worn almost to illegibility, announces a Memorial Tree and lists the names and ranks of the dead officers and men of a particular company of that regiment. Not all the regiment’s companies are now represented by monuments and only a few of those have mature and sturdy oaks behind them.

I suspect that, when the memorial grove was created after the Great War, each company had its own monument positioned in front of a young sapling. Now about ninety years later, after another even wider and more brutal World War, and four smaller but major conflicts (Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars), most of the original plantings have succumbed to disease or storm, and some monuments and shields have been removed, stolen or lost.

A more recent plaque, about two feet wide and twenty inches high is affixed to the back of the boulder and thus not visible from the path. It repeats the ranks, names and units of the fallen and the almost forgotten battles in which they participated (Baccarat, Oise, Aisne, Meuse and Argonne). The few remaining trees and those little plinths that poked through the detritus, almost trip stones for the unwary, imbued the bare patch with an air of desolation and neglect, as if the living were just patiently waiting for it all to erode, decay and disappear. But the names were accessible should a passing stroller be interested enough to step off the sidewalk and wander about for a few minutes.

The names and ranks implied personality, stimulated the imagination and raised questions: For example, who was Captain Kenyon of Company A? Was he a competent officer? Was he a career man or just a recent volunteer and what made him an officer instead of Sergeant Rogers of that Company? Was he married? Did he have children? Had he gone to college? Similar questions could be asked of any name on those shields. How old was Corporal Peck or Private Blowers of Company K, members of the famed “Lost Battalion”? If young, did they have steady girls? Were they volunteers, draftees, or had they enlisted in lieu of jail? How had they behaved in combat? Questions put flesh on the bones of the names and convey a greater sense of the individual personal disasters those lists of the dead reflect.

Sadly, however, the last time I passed the memorial field, it had been reseeded and fenced off as part of Central Park’s beautification program. Now, none of the names can be seen. I am not surprised. As our country has passed the hundredth anniversary of the Great War, a sense of abstraction has come to dominate. For surely no contemporary, nor even their children, survive to remember the men of the 307th Infantry Regiment who sailed with the American Expeditionary Force in 1917 to fight and die in France.

Farther south, at Fifth Avenue and 67th Street, a  bronze group of embattled doughboys looms over the avenue. It’s the memorial to New York’s “Silk Stocking” 7th Regiment, which fought as the 107th Infantry in the A E F. The monument is much more heroic but it lists neither the 437 officers and enlisted men killed outright, the 98 who later died of their wounds, nor the legendary battles in which they fought. The nameless dead of the 107th are ephemeral, anonymous, without potential of personality— heroes then, but simply ciphers now.

Three thousand miles away in London’s Whitehall stands The Cenotaph, Britain’s monument to the dead of the Great War. It is a 35-foot high rectangular block of stone with an empty tomb at the top and huge sculptured wreaths at either end.

Over thirty-five years ago, on a Remembrance Sunday, the day Britain commemorates the armistice that ended the war at 11:00 AM on November 11, 1918, I was sitting at a green baize conference table in my employer’s London apartment plying my trade and trying to negotiate a license agreement. As the eleventh hour approached, my English counterparts and I adjourned to the TV, stood almost at attention, and watched with the entire country as Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath at the Cenotaph’s base and observed a long silence.

Under those huge wreaths is carved the phrase:


Glorious Dead? I suppose it depends on one’s perspective. The Cenotaph was erected to commemorate the unspeakable losses Britain had suffered. The cream of English society and yeomanry had been almost obliterated on the fields of France. In addition to 1.6 million wounded, over seven hundred thousand men had been pushed into a meat grinder to be pierced by bullets, blown to pieces, buried alive in their trenches, or strangled in clouds of gas and to come out at the other end as corpses and bits of corpses. The losses were so huge that a simple, dignified monument may have been the only way to assuage the country’s feelings of loss, guilt and grief. But no one can convince me that those deaths were “glorious.”

Red poppies, the flowers on the French fields where the battles took place, have been a symbol of those losses almost from the start. As part of their centennial commemoration a few years ago, Londoners placed an artificial red poppy for each of the fallen in the moat surrounding the Tower of London, but even that breathtaking sea of red seemed an abstraction from the reality.

The enormity of the personal tragedies came across to me in the summer of 1972 when I hiked around Scotland for three weeks. The squares and road crossings of small villages along the Scottish border had obelisks with names, hundreds of names, more names than the villages seemed to have been able to sire and support, listed on each of the monuments’ four sides. Then in Edinburgh Castle, there was a chapel where, for each Scottish Regiment, there was a book, a very thick book with heavy parchment pages. On each page were inscribed in elegant script the names and ranks of about twenty dead soldiers. The names and just the heft of the books in this solemn chapel gave a much deeper sense of what had been lost.

Which brings me to a German cemetery I saw in 1965. Germany had lost a vicious and terrible war and was trying to come back from utter disaster. Whatever the Germans felt, they kept to themselves.

I was a lieutenant on the staff of an American mechanized infantry battalion in Bavaria. During the summer, our heavily armored personnel carriers and tanks trained in enormous dedicated training areas to the north but in winter when the ground was frozen and the heavy equipment could maneuver without tearing up the roads and farm fields, our training exercises were local—and cold. One bitter night, we entered a very small village, a collection of about a dozen farmhouses with one tiny store where we could buy cigarettes and sausages to supplement our rations. It was so cold no one was out. The farm families were contentedly ensconced on the second floors of their homes, above their cows that provided some of the heat needed to stay comfortable in that cold season.

We had free run of the village and set up our command post beside the village cemetery. Tucked away, among the snow-covered grave markers I saw a single headstone, topped by five World War II German army helmets (we called them Nazi helmets among ourselves) and a list of about fifteen names in two columns, with the words either “Gestorben im Osten” or “Gestorben Im Westen” and a year. “Died in East” or “Died in the West”. That was all. Obviously, the bodies had never been returned for mourning and burial, and, considering the size of that village, the loss of those fathers and sons must have been devastating. All they had left were the names. It was very cold and very sad.

Glorious indeed! As I recall the Iliad, which has been said of all literature to best portray the gore and death of battle, the famed warrior Achilles forsakes the possibility of a long, uneventful and comfortable existence for a shorter life filled with murderous glory. The Iliad ends before he is killed but later in the Odyssey when Odysseus travels to Hades and meets and holds conversation with Achilles’ shade, Achilles tells Odysseus that it would be better to be living as a slave of a poor man, perhaps the most abject of Greek characters, than to be a glorious lord in the land of the Dead. So much for “The Glorious Dead.”

The combined 1125 dead of  the 307th and the 107th regiments laid side by side would fill an entire football field between the hash marks, and the over 50,000 total dead of the American Expeditionary Force would fill half of Giant’s stadium on a Fall Weekend. (The dead from the Viet Nam War could fill the other half.) Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney had only undraftable daughters and thus never any real skin in the game. But though there was no risk of loss for them, would even they have been so eager in their wars of choice to put the boots of the sons and daughters of others “on the ground” had they to sit in that stadium one fine day and face fifty or one hundred thousand blasted, shattered and bloody shades.

But 50,000 or 100,000 dead, without names, are just numbers, just statistics. Heroic statuary and grand platitudes elide the grim reality. Think of that awful roster of the 53,318 dead chiseled into the black marble panels of the Viet Nam War Memorial. When in Washington, I often go over there to find and touch the names of friends, classmates and colleagues who never made it home. And to grieve. Would those colossal losses in that futile war still be so vivid fifty years later, if we had just set up a heroic statue? It’s names that personalize the cost and give weight to the sacrifice.

Names, like all old grave markers, whether brass or stone, inevitably erode first from memory, then to illegibility and finally to smooth nothingness. Even the Viet Nam War Memorial will eventually suffer that fate. But as long as they are legible, or even just worn, unreadable lines on stone or brass, they speak to us lest we forget that it is men and women who die, not numbers, when our “leaders” and their justifiers develop military ambitions.

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