There are at least four exhibits in Sonoma County museums about America’s role in a century-old conflict known in its time as “The Great War,” or, ironically, “The War to End All Wars.”
Given three more decades and a myriad of unsolved issues, it would become World War I — the First World War — a prequel, you might say, to World War II and beyond.
There is enough diplomatic history of those times to fill a library with textbooks, fractured peace treaties, shattered pacts, broken promises and hastily drawn maps.
The History Museum of Sonoma County tells the story in “home front” posters, asking citizens to donate their horses to the cavalry, feed their children corn meal mush to “save the wheat for the soldiers,” use less coal to help the Navy evade German U-boats, send money to feed the “starving Belgians” and the people of the “Bible Lands” threatened by the Turks.
Petaluma’s exhibit is truly “hometown,” with century-old uniforms worn by their Home Guard and the photos and letters sent home, family treasures. There are two smaller exhibits as well, at the Healdsburg Museum and Luther Burbank’s Home.
We are reminded, by the familiar names, that war stories are people stories. Repeated and remembered, handed down through generations, they provide a history more human than all the statistics detailing who emerged victorious, at what cost and how the world changed as a result.
There are no Sonoma County “old soldiers” left to tell us what that war meant to them and to this place. But some of us were privileged to know a few of those men and women and hear their accounts firsthand — “primary sources,” the social scientists would call them.
I remember Hubert Danhausen of Healdsburg who had just celebrated his 98th birthday in 1993 when he showed me a piece of material, yellowed with age, and I read the note written on it:
“The first balloon of the 9th Balloon Co. shot down by the German aero planes Aug. 28, 1918. Nobody hurt. We shot down the plane that shot our balloon down in flames.”
When I asked what places in France the war had taken him, he replied, “All over hell!”
I let it go at that.
Tom Barkas, born in Greece, was 105 when I met him in 2000. He was drafted in Fresno in 1917, trained as a company cook and sworn to U.S. citizenship with 400 others. “All us boys who had come from Europe, they sent us back,” he said.
Earl Murphy was 103 in 2000. He was an Ohio farm boy when he enlisted in the Navy in 1917 and volunteered for submarines, learned all about their electrical systems and stayed in the Navy until 1934, when he retired, but not for long. He came back to the Navy in ’42 and was a lieutenant aboard the battleship USS Iowa in ’43 when it carried FDR to Tehran for his meeting with Churchill and Stalin.
We don’t fight wars with cannons and biplanes as we did 100 years ago. And, so sophisticated are we technologically, very few of us take pen in hand, buy a stamp and post a letter anymore.