Digitally colored photograph of Private Guilford Roy Howard.
It seems incredible that 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of American involvement in World War 1. Being history-minded my entire life, I still remember sitting in my parent’s 1966 Ford and going through the math. Born in 1960, I made my entrance to the world 99 years after the start of the Civil War, 43 after the Doughboys went to France, and just 16 after young men stormed the beaches of Normandy. I would also consider and calculate the future. I’d be 41 in 2001, 60 in 2020, and perhaps gone altogether by 2045. What thoughts! My whole life has been consumed by history, and not always by what was in the past. I was also taken by the relevance of the current, and how the moments of today might translate as history in the future. At times, I wished I could escape that – I still do - a constant ticking clock – a house silent at night but for the steady drumbeat of time.
As sensitive as I was to the past, it did not occur to me that my grandfather, a white haired man stricken by Alzheimer’s disease for most of my time shared with him, was part of that continuum. Such realization did not come until later. Whatever he had achieved in life, a long career spent lodged behind a desk for the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company in places like Syracuse, Binghamton and Albany, or fishing in the little creeks near Burlington Flats, New York, for him, everything had been eclipsed by 1917 – the year that America entered the conflict Europe termed, The Great War. He had worked, married and then fathered three children, but the war was ever present in his life, even if he never fired a gun in anger. The war had been all encompassing – like a sea wave that overtook everything and then changed and redirected all that remained in its wake.
Guilford Roy Howard was born on a farm in 1897 in Union Center, New York. His father, like his father before him, operated a saw mill. His great-grandfather served as a carpenter with the Union Army during the Civil War. There was solid wood in the family tree. Guilford would seem destined to follow the same course. After a short time, the family relocated to just outside Cooperstown, New York, where Guilford’s father ran the saw mill for the prominent Clark family – heirs to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. There was one time, several years ago, when I was seated for dinner at the table in the elegant former manor home of the Clarks in a mansion no member of my family had likely ever entered before, let alone enjoyed a meal. In giving a toast in honor of my hosts, I said that it felt good, on behalf of my family, to finally sit “at the big table.”
Guilford selected a different path than working with his hands. A sharp student at Cooperstown High School, graduating with honors in 1915, Guilford faced a choice. His father told him that he would either give him money for college tuition or buy him a car. Guilford, unlike his more immediately gratified brother Raymond, chose college. He left for Syracuse University, where he majored in classics. Long after he was gone, I can still recall routing around in the attic of the family home in Albany and finding old, well-read books by Tennyson and Emerson, and others. The war brought new challenges and Guilford received a draft notice in 1918. Rather than go into the army, he decided to fulfill his idea of becoming a fighter pilot. Although he had never been in an aircraft, was afraid of heights and suffered from poor vision, Guilford thought a flier’s life was for him. Alas, when he failed to pass the Air Service physical, he felt dejected. On August 18, 1918, while walking down a street in Syracuse near the post office, he noticed a recruiting poster for the United States Marines. He went into the office, signed the papers, and was suddenly off to war with the Marines.
Guilford emerged from basic training at Parris Island in September 1918. The newly-minted Private Howard was assigned as a machine gunner to Company C, Machine Gun Battalion, 5th Marine Brigade. He departed for France and arrived in port at Brest on November 10, 1918. Because military authorities were concerned that the old model uniforms issued to his Regiment were being too easily confused with those of the Germans, Howard and his comrades remained on the transport ship awaiting the arrival of new clothing. The new uniforms would not arrive prior to the Armistice that ended World War 1 on November 11, 1918. A diary that Guilford kept during this time, records a trip into the French countryside visiting museums, casinos and other places of interest. In the walled coastal city of St. Malo, Guilford and a few fellow Marines posed in front of the statue of the French author, Chateaubriand and Guilford noted how much it reminded him of the statue of James Fenimore Cooper back home in Cooperstown. After his leave, Guilford was assigned as a guard in the massive camp for German POWs at Camp Pontanezen located near Brest, France. While there, he traded some cigarettes for a ring that one of the German prisoners had made out of a spent bullet casing. The family still retains this souvenir.
Guilford and fellow Marines in front of the Chateaubriand statue.
The 5th Marine Brigade consisted of the 11th and 13th Marines and the 5th Machine Gun Battalion. Elements of the Brigade arrived in France in September of 1918 with all of it being with the AEF by November 9, 1918. Upon arrival in France, the 5th Marine Brigade was assigned to the Service of Supply, which was in need of dependable troops for guard duty. The 13th Regiment soon found itself scattered, and doing guard duty along with the western coast of France, while the 11th Regiment was stationed in the general area of Tours. There it performed similar duties, such as guarding the aviation training center at Issoudun, and furnishing some companies for military police duty. The Brigade’s machine gun battalion was stationed at Camp Pontanezen, Brest. The units of the 5th Marine Brigade continued to perform these general duties until July 1919, when they assembled at Brest and returned to the United States early in August.
Guilford returned home in August 1919, landing in Hampton Roads, Virginia, mustering out of service at Quantico and then arriving in Albany by train from New York City. Shortly after he arrived, he walked up State Street hill from Union Station and tried to get a room at one of the hotels. My grandmother remembered that he was told by the desk clerk that soldiers were not welcome at the hotel because of concerns that they would bring bugs into the hotel on their uniforms. He never forgot the slight. Given the lack of support for a returning veteran, it is uncertain where Private Howard spent his night in the Capital City. Later, back home in Cooperstown, he mulled going back to Syracuse University to complete his studies, but found himself unable to focus. It wasn’t PTSD, but a different sort of affliction that affected many who had gone to France. The feeling was perhaps summed up by a popular song of the time, “How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree).”
Guilford secured a job with A&P Markets and worked his way up through the company – moving as he rose through the organization, from Syracuse, to Buffalo, to Binghamton and finally, Albany, New York. Even during the Great Depression, Guilford retained steady employment. My father, born in 1933, recalls walking to school after a snowstorm one day when a group of kids threatened to throw snowballs. Recognizing him, one of the group warned the others, “that’s old man Howard’s kid, he’s as rich as they come,” dissuading them from their intended barrage. Guilford was not a wealthy man, but in the Depression, wealth and good fortune were relative. He had a good paying job, and that was enough to instill respect in the tight neighborhood.
Guilford retired from A&P in 1957. As a retirement gift, he was given a fine set of Moroccan leather luggage with the gold embossed initials “G.R.H.” He and his wife departed for a cruise to England, where they visited London, a city through which he had once passed during the war. He visited Buckingham Palace and all of the tourist spots. At the Tower of London, he found the inscription carved into a fire place mantle by one of his ancestors, Philip Howard, in one of the Tower rooms where he had been imprisoned upon the order of King Henry VIII. The carvings can still be seen today – a reminder of how history intertwines with life – bridging the old and the new. I viewed the same carving when I visited the Tower in the 2015. When Guilford returned from his trip, he began an effort to try and trace the family history. Fortunately, he left a legacy of basic research and some family letters that would assist in future internet-based research. There are proud family connections to Great Britain in a lineage that extends back to Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk and Arundel castle.
Just a few years after Guilford’s return from England, he began to show signs of dementia. I have only vague recollections of him before he was stricken by the disease. I remember riding with him in the black of night visiting the farm of a friend at West Winfield, New York – his close firend that gave me my middle name. I remember the pitch dark and a sky filled with more stars than I had ever seen before and then entering a battered farmhouse, embraced by the warm and golden amber of the light and knotted pine panel. That is all. His decline was rapid. He died in February 1970 and was brought to final rest in the little cemetery plot at Burlington Flats, New York. My grandmother now sleeps at his side. His government headstone recalls his Marine Corps service and each year, on Memorial Day, a small American flag is placed on his grave to denote his veteran’s status. He is here forever, surrounded by those he knew, veterans of other wars, farmers, friends – a stone’s throw from the creek in which he used to fish. One of his old friends told me once, that as much as Guilford was committed to the outdoors, “as a sportsman, your grandfather was a heck of a businessman.” I inherited his passion for books and history over hunting and fishing.
It was in 1983, when I assembled the last reunion of the World War 1 veterans of my hometown, that I missed Guilford. He had haunted me in comparisons to my life course – my interest in writing, literature and history – but it was only when I assembled the five remaining Great War veterans that it finally struck me. I never knew Guilford’s story. I never knew Guilford’s war. I stood next to men who had marched off to war with him, but I did not know his story. Although he never charged across No Man’s Land, the war had changed Guilford’s life. The projection of who he was and what he would become – were all altered by the interruption of war. He left Syracuse University and would never go back. Would he have continued with his studies in the classics absent the war? Would he have gone into teaching, or met the young farm girl Julia Holloway, whom he married and then brought three children into the world? Questions and answers and fate all jumbled by the war.
I am proud that in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of World War 1, Guilford’s Marine Corps uniform is being exhibited by the New York State Museum in Albany. The artifact allows his story to be told. It is a story that is being used to tell the tale of others who also served in America’s Great Crusade of 1917-1918. In telling his story, a part of him lives and continues to affect the lives of others – of family and even of those who never knew him. That is one of the great things about history. It speaks to the larger issue that in seeking understanding of the past, those who have passed this way before us are never really gone; they remain, in memory and in spirit. We are all part of a continuum. The past is never past, the dead are never truly dead. They live on in us and in all that is left behind.