By Richard Ammon
May 31, 2011
Memorial Day is different from other holidays. Unlike Thanksgiving, Fourth of July or religious festivals where the celebrations recall rather abstract events, Memorial Day for me is about a particular person known and loved by his family and friends. Memorial Day is both a remembrance of millions of lives cut short by war and a remembrance of my granduncle, John Ammon (photo right), who was killed in the mud of France just before World War I ended in 1918. He was thirty years old–an orphan, a patriot, a noble friend and loving brother, a doting uncle, a caring companion and a fearless soldier. He deserves more homage than I can give here.
As a small gesture of honor, I went to his grave today in a quiet corner of Arlington National Cemetery (photo below right). The modest white granite marker is almost never visited and is nearly forgotten by his descendants after 93 years. (Click on photos to enlarge.)
How much more can a person give to a cause, to his country, to his unit, to his family than to bravely sacrifice his life? To endure the horrors of war’s hell and not survive, to die in the blast of an artillery shell, instantly.
I remember him this day, and beyond, with a sad and grateful heart. Several years ago my cousin Albert and I wrote a tribute to uncle John, about his life and his death recalling as much a we could from his letters from the front and from family stories. In the process he became more real, a person of kindness, fairness and integrity.
As a son of a Swiss immigrant he was aware of a greater American purpose than himself and joined the army to commit to that higher cause. (photo left, printed memorial from the government of France in recognition of John’s sacrifice “pour la liberte pendant la Grande Guerre: Hommage de la France”; signed, Poincaire, President de la Republique.)
Shipped overseas in the spring of 1918 with his Company I, he was part of the final October assault against the Germans in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the Champaigne region of northeast France. In the course of a month thousands of soldiers on both sides died in a torrent of steel and blood. (Read the book ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Remarque to understand the horrors and agony of this battle.)
Uncle John almost made it through this holocaust, to October 16, when an artillery shell struck him and his buddies as they were maneuvering in the tiny village of St. George, within view of the local cemetery. He was buried with his friends not far away and later taken to Arlington Cemetery. His grave stone silently bears witness to this fine man on this Memorial Day 2011.
Read his story: Remembering John Ammon