WWI veteran's diary sheds light on Veterans Day

Not long after the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of 1918, an American ambulance driver from Lakewood took a somber look at the lingering carnage on a battlefield in France.
Associated Press
Nov 12, 2012

 

That time, day and month represented the start of a truce that ended World War I, and later became the basis for Armistice Day, now known as Veterans Day.

Allison LePontois wrote of that day in his diary: "Going back that evening past the battlefield of the day before and seeing those mute corpses strewn here and there, I thought of the words of Christ at the Last Supper. 'This is my body which was broken for you.'"

There were more than enough broken bodies — some 15 million combatants and civilians killed — to prompt people of that era to call World War I the "war to end all wars."

LePontois recorded a small bit of the death and destruction of that war in his diary, but rarely talked about it with his family.

Those unspoken memories were revealed with discovery of his diary, shortly before his death in 1981 at age 86.

Today, those writings are part of the Crile Archives and Center for Military History Education at Cuyahoga Community College's western campus.

The center is named for Dr. George Crile, co-founder of the Cleveland Clinic, who took the Lakeside Hospital Unit to Europe after America's 1917 entry into World War I. The CCC campus was once the site of the Crile General Hospital which treated veterans of World War II and the Korean War.

James Banks, center director, said the LePontois diary captures the essence of the Crile Archives' mission to examine health and healing, during and after war.

The diary "is just a wonderful intersection of local history played out on the grand scale of world history," he added.

On another level, the diary represents a generation that believed "the cause is much larger than the self," Banks said. "Patriotism was a very vital and almost natural component to the service back then."

The two-volume, leather bound pocket diary was donated to the center by LePontois' daughters — Joanne Miller, 86, of Rocky River, and Louise Breese, 81, of Oberlin.

Breese said their father told them about the diary during his last days, and they wanted the archives to have it "so his words could be forever."

LePontois was the son of an inventor who worked for Thomas Edison in New York before coming to Cleveland to devise a way to use coal oil for automobiles in a lab set up by John D. Rockefeller.

The daughters said their father was attending college at Case when approached by recruiters to join the U.S. Army Ambulance Service as America entered the war in Europe.

LePontois served on both the Italian and French fronts from 1917-1919, dutifully recording in his diary the daily risks of war, including:

"Oct. 7, 1918: We were shelled with shrapnel and gas last night."

"Oct. 25, 1918: Shorty Long's ambulance came in this morning with half its body gone. A shell hit the road and blew the sides of his machine off."

"Oct. 27, 1918: I have been driving all day. We have been hauling Marines, mostly H.E. (high explosive) wounds. The Boche (Germans) are shelling everywhere. The gas patients are pouring in."

"Oct. 28, 1918: About three weeks ago one of the sections reported an ambulance and driver missing, and today they found out where he was. It seems that he took the wrong road near the front and instead of heading toward the dressing station, he started out across no-man's-land. Our own infantry, thinking it was an ambulance captured by the Germans, opened up with machine guns on it. The driver, thinking the Germans were firing on him, kept on going and drove straight into the arms of the Boche. His section received a letter from him stating that he was in a German prison camp and his four patients were in a hospital."

"Nov. 2, 1918: Today we moved up and established a dressing station at Andres Ste. George, a town which was held by the Germans yesterday. All about the town were the gruesome sights of the unburied dead lying in the gutters, in doorways, everywhere, just as they had fallen."

Those were some of the memories that LePontois spared his daughters after the war.

Allison LePontois is shown in his uniform with another photo of vintage trucks of the era when he drove an Army ambulance in World War I.

"He said sometimes at night he had to sleep in the morgue because there wasn't time to get the ambulance back to wherever it should be," Breese recalled.

Miller remembered, "He told me that I should like sauerkraut because he always kept a captured barrel of it in his ambulance, and when they got hungry they ate it.

"And when we were kids we couldn't have Spam, and something on a shingle," she added.

The daughters were not surprised by matter-of-fact tone of the diary. "That's typical him," Breese said. "Not bragging. Just relating it."

They said LePontois, who worked for the Truck Engineering Corp. in Cleveland after the war, never seemed bothered by his military experiences.

When America entered World War II, he tried to enlist but was rejected for poor eyesight. So he became an Air Raid Warden in Rocky River, helping assure that the community was prepared for possible attack, while working in the family Victory Garden.

But the past might have caught up with him when his son was drafted and served in the Korean War.

"Our father had a heart attack while my brother was on the front lines in Korea," Miller said. "I always thought he was re-living the war, and he knew what my brother was going through."

The daughters said their father never donned the old uniform he kept in the attic to suit up for events on Armistice Day, and later Veterans Day.

But the girls, knowing of their father's service, said that to them, compared to most of their classmates, the day always meant something ...

"A little more," Reese said.

They're proud of his service. And so was he.

On the November day in 1918 that would become the origin of Veterans Day, LePontois wrote in his diary about standing in a church that had been converted to an aid station.

"Just at eleven, someone with an inspiration began the 'Star Spangled Banner' on the organ. Instantly — except for the moans of unconscious men and the strains of the national anthem, which, although played softly, filled the room with its song of freedom — the place became silent.

"It was a moment I shall never forget. Many a tear showed its course down an unwashed cheek. An officer, performing an operation, stopped and straightened up, his hand holding the knife shaking as if he were stricken with the palsy.

"As the organ struck the last bars of our national song, we, who were uninjured, stood proudly at attention, and as the music ceased and the work continued, I could not help to realize, as I know many others did, that after all, it was worthwhile."