WWI author visits Wheaton Historical Museum to talk new "doughboys" book

WHEATON –The origin of the name "doughboy" – the informal name for a member of the U.S. Army or Marine Corps, especially the American Expeditionary Force of WWI – is unclear.

But New York City author Richard Rubin decided that he wanted to tell their story. He managed to track down several dozen of the remaining WWI doughboys – ranging in age from 101 to 113 at the time of the interviews and now deceased –and wrote their stories in his new book, "The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten War."

He recently came to Wheaton's Cantigny Park to discuss his book and the stories within. Reporter Nathan Lurz spoke with Rubin about the book.

Nathan Lurz: What originally interested you in the topic of the doughboys and telling their story?

Richard Rubin: A few years ago, I was listening to the radio, and there was a gentleman on the radio talking about WWII veterans. He said they were dying off very quickly, at the rate of a thousand a day, and that we needed to try and get their stories now, while we could. But I thought –what about WWI veterans? There are a lot of WWII stories out there, and I love them very much, but I hadn't really heard very many veterans talking about their experiences.

Lurz: How did you get in touch with the remaining doughboys?

Rubin: I figured that the war was 85 years ago, so a soldier who was 20 in 1918 would be 105 today. I figured maybe I would find two or three at most. It took me several months to find the first one. It was very frustrating. There was no central list anywhere, and it seemed like everywhere I looked nobody knew anything.

I got my first big break when the government of France had started giving out the Legion of Honor to American veterans who had served on French soil. This was 1998 when they started to do this, and they started undertaking a massive search and trying to get the word out. They ended up giving it out to 550 or so, and they graciously shared their list with me. Five years had passed, and these were very very old people, so of course something like 90 percent of them had died. But I was able to find quite a few.

Lurz: As you were talking to these veterans, what were some of the things you took away from their experiences?

Rubin: They were some of the most remarkable people I'd ever met. I did all the interviews in person, face-to-face, and one thing most of them had in common was that they were very stoic. They really downplayed the trauma and significance of their experience, even though their experiences were terribly traumatic and significant.

One veteran in the book, I asked him if he had ever been gassed in the war before. He said he had been gassed all the time, and I was shocked – poison gas was a terrible thing and did awful things to people. I asked him what that was like, and he said 'I just lost my voice for a few days, and I came back eventually.' That really was emblematic of how people viewed their experiences.

Lurz: What did their experiences mean to them?

Rubin: For them, their service was one of the most significant things they did in their lives. Maybe the most for some, some even told me it was the more important thing they had ever done. No matter how traumatic their experience – and there were some that had truly traumatic experiences – they were all proud of their service.

Information on Ruben's book and videos of the interviews Rubin conducted can be found at http://www.richardrubinonline.com/.