A Pilgrim of the Great War

World War I ended 90 years ago this month, and only one American who fought in its blood-soaked battles remains alive today. How did a Seattle man become the foremost memory keeper of that war to end all wars?

By David Laskin December 13, 2008 Published in the November 2008 issue of Seattle Met

WHEN TOM GUDMESTAD WAS A BOY, his mother showed him a newspaper article about the last Civil War veteran dying at the age of 112. “You will live to see the day that the last World War I veteran dies,” she said. “If you have a brain in your head, you’ll get busy interviewing the veterans still around.” The words held little meaning at the time, but she had planted a seed. Gudmestad is now 55, a tall, burly, Norwegian-descended Seattle native who lives in a comfortable house in Normandy Park with his wife and two children—and a basement full of the memories of World War I veterans.

Fittingly, if strangely, I first learned of Gudmestad from two British guides on a Great War battlefield in the Argonne Forest in France. I was there to research a book about immigrant soldiers—young men from impoverished Europe who had emigrated to America only to find themselves swept into the army when the country went to war in 1917. When my guides learned I was from Seattle they instantly brought up Tom. “It’s unbelievable luck that you two live in the same city,” one said. “He knows everything, he has everything, he’s been over every inch of the major battlefields.” Indeed. Books, photos, helmets, uniforms, shrapnel balls, trench art, diaries, memoirs—if it’s connected to the Great War, especially our nation’s 19-month involvement, it can be found in Tom Gudmestad’s world-class collection.

Tom, shrugging off his obsession with a war that ended 90 years ago this month as a “weird character defect,” acknowledges that the seed his mother planted took some time to grow. Initially, it was the Second, not the First, World War that haunted him. Dad was a Boeing engineer, mom an editor and writer at the Post-Intelligencer, one uncle was a Civil War buff. Family dinner conversations tended to range far and wide through science, archaeology, politics, and history—but always seemed to circle back to a constant hum about World War II. “All my parents’ contemporaries were war veterans, and I grew up hearing about Anzio, the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor. My dad was a carrier pilot in the war—so military history was never far beneath the surface.”

“They say Verdun was a place where you could dip your handkerchief in the blood of the Great War.”

In June of 1971, after graduating from Mount Rainier High School, Tom decided to travel abroad. (The Vietnam War was winding down and a very high lottery number kept him from being drafted.) In that era of Europe on $5 a Day, American college kids swarmed across the Atlantic in droves. But Tom was different—no guitar; no Henry Miller novels; no hash pipe. With $1,000 in graduation presents stowed in his backpack, he flew to Frankfurt, rented a VW bug in Brussels, tossed his camping gear in the back, and embarked on a three-month trek tracing General Patton’s route across Europe.

But then Tom got to Verdun, the ancient fortified city in northeastern France that became the site of the longest and one of the deadliest battles of World War I. In February 1916, the Germans launched a massive assault there intended to “bleed the French white.” Ten months later, more than a quarter of a million French and German soldiers had died and the combat zone had been reduced to a wasteland of shell craters, tens of thousands of unclaimed corpses, and fetid pools of poison gas—and the positions of the opposing armies were exactly as they had been before the battle. Back in the 1920s they said that this was a place where you could dip your handkerchief in the blood of the Great War.

“The battlefield had not changed much in 40 years,” Gudmestad recalls, “except that the French had planted pine trees in the blasted, poisoned soil. When I arrived it was high summer, and the battlefield looked like a ­cathedral with filtered sunshine coming through the dark deep green of the pines. The ground was dappled with shadows—just shell hole after shell hole covered with layers of pine needles. And sticking up through the needles were boots and artillery shells and broken canteens and smashed helmets and bits of brick wall.” Tom turned up a few of them and took them home as souvenirs.

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The following autumn Gudmestad enrolled in Highline Community College, but his real education was a self-assigned study of the First World War. He was in for some grim reading. The Great War took the lives of some 9.7 million soldiers, most of them from Germany, Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and Austria; and 116,700 American servicemen died in 1917 and 1918. For the first time poison gas, airplanes, submarines, and tanks were deployed on a massive, industrial scale. Although it was also called the War to End All Wars, the Great War in fact spawned the regimes of terror—Bolshevik, fascist, and Nazi—that convulsed Europe over the next three decades and set the stage for an even more devastating conflict in 1939.

Two years after the first trip, Gudmestad returned to Europe, this time with a detailed, long-range plan, almost a campaign. He would begin at the northwest end of the Western Front—on the North Sea, near the Belgian city of Ypres (site of three hugely costly battles, in 1914, 1915, and 1917)—and work his way east along the line until he reached Strasbourg, the strategic capital of France’s Alsace region. He’s been back almost every year since, both as a Great War pilgrim and as a leader of informal tours of battlefields, monuments, trenches, and cemeteries.

Over three and a half decades, what began as a garage shelf of rusty old mementos picked up in the battlefields around Verdun has expanded into a small private museum. The collection fills his entire downstairs and part of his living room with 5,000 books, 10,000 photos, helmets, uniforms, rifles, bayonet blades, shrapnel balls, artillery shell cases, oak church panels inscribed with the names of fallen soldiers. “Every one of these objects is associated with a painful personal experience of intense sadness and poignancy,” Tom says. “They are part of a tapestry of human experience. I am only the custodian.”

“When we buried him in a shell hole full of water we didn’t have a blanket or anything to wrap him in.”

Letter from Frank M. Jelacic, Company I, 311th Infantry, 78th Division, to Tom Gudmestad, February 13, 1985:
One soldier on the way home coming off the boat answered an old lady who said, ‘My but you boys look healthy.’ He said ‘Yes all the sick ones are buried over there.’

Ever the reserved Norwegian, Tom declines to delve too deeply into what motivates him, but his friend and fellow Great War buff Major Stephen C. McGeorge (retired), deputy chief historian, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, thinks it all comes back to the experience of the veterans—both during and after the war. “In this country the World War I veteran population was overshadowed within 20 years by World War II—they were yesterday’s news,” says McGeorge. “For Tom it’s not about the great captains or grand strategic maneuvers but rather the personal accounts of the war. He is into the soldier’s-eye view.”

Diary of Arthur W. Schlegel, Company L, 361st Infantry, 91st “Wild West” Division, donated to Tom Gudmestad’s collection:
September 28, 1918

One hell of a night. So stiff with rheum. Rained all night and no cover. Wet. Two fellows had to pull me out of my hole. War is hell.Tommy Williams hit by a HE [high explosive] shell. Hit on behind right shoulder and on right side of head. Killed outright.German snipers in trees, shell holes, all over. We are stalled. Too many machine guns.

Sunday, September 29, 1918
Some day never to be forgotten. 2pm we start over to take Gesnes. By 5pm 2½ K to go and Fritz sending them over something scandalous. We ran through his barrage and are ahead of it…. Keeley got hurt. Our major killed…

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After returning from his second trip to Europe, Gudmestad, now 20, enrolled in the University of Washington and majored in English—likely the only English major in his year who lived in a Burien Fire Department station. By day he battled blazes as a volunteer firefighter; at night he earned money for his European battlefield jaunts tending bar and making pizzas; in the off hours he squeezed in time to peruse the works of Great War poets and memoirists like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, and Robert Graves.

One quarter before graduating, he dropped out and signed on with a newly inaugurated paramedic-training program. Gudmestad belonged to the original group of fire fighter–paramedics who launched King County’s Medic One program in 1976, and for 16 years he worked as a street medic. “Shotgun wounds, stabbings, hangings, drownings, burns, obstetrical emergencies—I am the guy in the back of the ambulance,” he sums up. It was a tough, grueling, often depressing occupation—not unlike treating casualties in a war zone.

By the time Gudmestad became a medic, most of the Great War veterans were in their 80s. “I was reading newsletters of World War I veteran organizations, and it was clear that these guys were dying off quickly. Nobody had made a serious effort to do a survey or get them to jot down their memories.” His mother’s words about the last Civil War veteran suddenly made sense. If he was going to preserve their stories, it was now or never. Tom worked up a questionnaire and sent it to any veteran whose address he could put his hands on. “I dragged my typewriter to the fire station and wrote letters to veterans for hours on end while I waited for calls,” he says. He made contact with some 500 veterans and today has thousands of pages of their questionnaires, letters, and taped interviews—organized by regiment and division—in his basement. “In many cases no one had ever asked these veterans about their war experiences before,” Tom says. “It was as if they had been waiting 60 years to talk about it.”


Letter from Coeur d’Alene resident Gordon A. Needham, Company K, 104th Infantry, 26th Division, to Tom Gudmestad, January 2, 1988, regarding Werner Wagner, a buddy from his infantry who bled to death after a German shell fragment punctured his lung during the Aisne-Marne Offensive in July 1918:
He was a happy go lucky sort; while on the trucks heading for that front he sang songs and suggested that the men were like those going to a funeral they were so quiet, he tried to cheer us up. He wore a No. 12 shoe, which were hard to get, when we burried [sic] him the sole had come loose on one shoe and he had a piece of wire thru at the front of his shoe to hold the sole on. When we burried him in a shell hole full of water we didn’t have a blanket or anything to wrap him in, some one had a blouse or raincoat, can’t remember for sure but we used it to cover his head, placed him in the water, held his feet down until we had enough dirt on them to hold him down, then held the other end down with a shovel and proceeded to fill the hole with dirt which forced the water out. His bayonet was placed on the rifle and was stuck in the ground at the head of the grave, the scabbard was placed on the rifle to make a cross and a dog tag was tied to it.

Some of the exchanges went on for years, the letters becoming increasingly detailed, urgent, vivid. The men enclosed diaries, yellowing newspaper clippings, military medals. Often a last letter would arrive—from a wife or child informing Tom of the veteran’s death. Today there is only one living American Great War veteran: 107-year-old Frank Buckles of Charles Town, West Virginia.

The old men came to look on Tom as a buddy—and when they learned he visited the battlefields every year, some of them entrusted him with sacred missions. One of the men Tom grew close to was Eric Rossiter. When the war broke out in 1914, Rossiter was 17, living in Victoria, BC, and burning to join the Canadian army and fight in France. Since he was underage he needed his parents’ permission to enlist, and they refused. But on the day he turned 18, Rossiter signed and ended up in the signal section of the Seventh Battalion, a heavily British Columbian unit whose ranks had been decimated earlier in the war.

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“Eric went over the top on November 10, 1917,” Tom relates, “in the Third Battle of Ypres, the battle known as Passchendaele. It was among the worst battlefield conditions in the war—a wet lunar landscape of shell crater touching crater, all of them filled with water, the mud thigh-deep. Eric’s duties were to flash Morse code messages by light back to headquarters, which was stationed in a captured German pillbox. His best buddy, a fellow named Ray Lewis, was in that pillbox the day of the battle. Eric stood in the mud and watched as a German shell exploded inside the pillbox. When he was finally relieved, he went back there, recovered his friend’s body, dragged him out to the mud and buried him the best he could in a shell hole full of water. The body was never found.”

“Eric left BC during the Depression and moved to Tacoma to work at the Atlas Foundry. When I was in touch with him in the 1980s, he told me that when he died he wanted me to take his ashes back to Flanders and scatter them on the same spot where Ray had been buried in the mud. By this time Eric was living in a mobile home park in Puyallup. He had a wife and two boys who served in World War II—but it was his buddy from the Great War that he wanted to be buried next to. Well, Eric died in 1990 and I took his ashes with me to Belgium that year. When I got to the place, this old Flemish guy showed me the spot, but the pillbox was gone. A couple hundred yards away is the New British Passchendaele Cemetery. I mixed Eric’s ashes with dirt and scattered them in front of the grave of the Unknown of the Seventh Battalion.”

No one ever charges into battle for God and country,” writes war correspondent Chris Hedges in his searing book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. “Combatants live only for their herd, those hapless soldiers who are bound into their unit to ward off death. There is no world outside the unit. It alone endows worth and meaning. Soldiers will die rather than betray this bond. And there is—as many combat veterans will tell you—a kind of love in this.” Hedges writes at length about “the narcotic of war,” and, as Gudmestad has discovered, the addiction can last for decades after the war has ended—indeed, for life. “They look back from middle age and associate war with youth,” he says. “The painful memories have faded and what they remember is exuberance and friendship. War was the most meaningful experience of their life.”

Gudmestad harbors no illusions about sacrifice, honor, nobility, beauty. Nor does he have any particular interest in exalting the presidents and kings who sent a generation to their deaths. What has obsessed him since that day at Verdun in 1971 is the ordinary guy who fought, who feared, who gave his all or his life. The soldier who lay in the mud with a bullet hole in his trachea waiting to be rescued; the one who held his buddy on his lap and watched him die as his lungs filled with blood; the one who remembered 60 years later the smell of wheat and mustard gas in France in July 1918.

From Vietnam, our country learned the hard way to “Hate the war, not the warrior.” For Tom Gudmestad, his mother’s prescient words have been a guiding light. Hate the war, but don’t forget the warrior, even if he fought 90 years ago in a conflict dubbed with vain hope as the War to End All Wars.

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