On this, the one-hundredth anniversary of the end of the so-called “war to end all wars”, please allow me to tell you little bit about my grandfather.
John Maciejewski was born in Menasha on either March 26th or March 27th of 1897. His birth certificate said the 26th but the church records at St. Mary’s said the 27th. So, he got two birthdays that we celebrated every year. That’s him, lying on the ground, front and center, in the photo above.
John was 20 when the US entered “The Great War” and he enlisted in the army a short time later. Before long he was shipped to Europe to fight in the fields and foxholes of France.
Like so many who have been through the hell of war, my grandfather never spoke of it. Or, if he did, I never heard him even though I grew up under the same roof. Occasionally, my grandmother would share details of his experiences. Like how he rose to the level of Sergeant but was busted back down to Corporal after he and some buddies were caught drinking while on guard duty. Hey, they were from Wisconsin. What did they expect?
One time, when I was about seven years old, my grandmother encouraged me to feel the back of my grandfather’s head and touch the soft spot where a German soldier hit him with the butt of his rifle causing him to lose a chunk of this skull. There were also a couple of other smaller soft spots from where he was hit with shrapnel.
I have a small notebook that I found in our attic many years after he died. John had carried it with him during some of his time in France making notes along the way.
From the notebook I know that on June 5th 1918 he went on patrol accompanied by a Corporal Grunska and a French soldier. The corporal was wounded and the French soldier killed. And on June 13th a Corporal Owens was killed, a Corporal Halvorson was taken prisoner and two others in their division were wounded.
I also learned from the notebook that he wore the same clothes from June 14th to July 1st and on July 27th he saw a hundred “flying machines”. He also wrote that on August 2nd they “went over the top” three times in five hours and gained 17 kilometers. Then, on August 30th, they went “over the top” again but only gained a quarter of a kilometer and then had to retreat. The next day they went “over the top” one more time and “took many prisoners”. However, in this battle, his best friend was killed.
He didn’t write much more after that.
I do know, however, that he was awarded a Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration bestowed on foreign soldiers who distinguish themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with the enemy in France. My grandfather earned it by “single-handedly capturing a German machine gun nest“.
You gotta admit, that’s pretty badass and sounds nothing like the quiet, gentle soul whom I grew up with.
John made it back from France and worked for years as an electrotype technician at Marathon Corporation in Menasha until suddenly, at age 50, he lost his eyesight. Doctors speculated that it might have been caused by the injuries sustained to his head thirty years earlier in France but, at the time, they had no way of telling for sure.
He spent the last 23 years of his life in darkness. By the time I was born, he was in his 60s and didn’t get out much anymore. His constant companion was his radio that was almost always on in our home. Maybe that’s why I ended up in this career. I don’t really know for sure but it must’ve had some affect.
So, today, as many area church bells toll observing the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, I hope you join me in taking a few moments to think about my grandfather and all those other young men, many of whom never returned, who a century ago went off to a foreign land to fight in the First World War. And the same goes for those men and women who have gone off to fight in the wars since the “war to end all wars”. May their sacrifices never be forgotten.