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Death of last WWI veteran reminds us that warfare touches us all

Jan Hearne • Feb 27, 2012 at 8:33 AM

Long before “Downton Abbey” on PBS, I had an interest in World War I, spurred in part by the movie “Reds” and subsequent reading about the era, but also by a childhood encounter.

My family and I returned to Savannah, Ga., for one of our frequent visits — I think I was about 11 — which included time spent with the Fogartys on Whitemarsh Island.

A very British gentleman joined us. Whether he was a neighbor or Fogarty relative, I couldn’t tell you, but he looked as if he came straight from central casting: a handsome older man with white hair, wearing long khaki shorts. Very “Bridge Over the River Kwai” Alec Guinness.

He also used a cane, not as an affectation, but because he was blind. My mom told me he had lost his sight in World War I — mustard gas. I was properly horrified to think a young man would have to pay the price of war for an entire lifetime.

Until my late 20s, I would encounter World War I vets. One, then in his 80s, recognized my married name and told me my father-in-law’s uncle saved his life during the war. In an instant, he was back in the trenches, perhaps wondering why he had reached his 90th decade when so many boys had died around him.

At 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 each year, I try to pause and face east in the old tradition marking the anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement, so it was with some sadness I learned of the passing on Feb. 4 of the last World War I veteran, 110-year-old Florence Green of England.

Mrs. Green, born Florence Beatrice Patterson in London on Feb. 19, 1901, joined the Women’s Royal Air Force Sept. 3, 1918. She never saw combat, nor did she leave England. She worked as a steward in the officer’s mess at the Narborough airdrome and then at RAF Marham, until two months after her enlistment the war ended.

Mrs. Green had fond memories of her war work. She had many friends on the bases and went up in a plane once, through she admitted she was scared.

Twenty million lost their lives on both sides during the Great War. Untold numbers, like my British acquaintance, suffered its effects until they died decades later.

Serving meals was a small contribution to the war effort, but appreciated nonetheless. When the RAF heard about Mrs. Green in 2010, they claimed her as their own, giving her a birthday cake on her 110th birthday in 2011. A delegation from the air base planned to be with her on her 111th birthday, but it wasn’t to be. “When we heard the news, there was a palpable silence, because we all hoped she would make it,” Squadron leader Paula Wilmot said in a news report.

Retired Air Vice Marshal Peter Dye, director-general of the RAF Museum, said it was fitting that the war’s last survivor served on the home front.

“It reminds us of the Great War, and all warfare since then has been something that involved everyone,” he said. “... Sadly, whether you are in New York, in London, or in Kandahar, warfare touches all our lives.”

Jan Hearne is Tempo editor for the Johnson City Press. Reach her at jhearne@johnsoncitypress.com.

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