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Remembering the veterans

Jack Betts
Jack Betts writes on politics and life in The Carolinas for the Charlotte Observer's Editorial page.

RALEIGH They called them doughboys. American soldiers serving near the Mexican border wore a coat of white power that arose with almost every step in the chalky adobe soil there. One story goes that soldiers first carried the nickname “adobes,” later shortened to “dobies” and ultimately “doughboys.”

They were among the ones who marched off to that awful German-American war, fought in the trenches in the mud and amid the stench of rotting bodies, their own waste and the constant fear of what would come next.

With them were the boys of the Anderson Machine Gun Company of the South Carolina National Guard. They were part of the 1st Regiment, South Carolina Infantry, before President Wilson nationalized them as part of the 118th Regiment of the 30th Division.

Just like his brother

Victor St. Clair Minor was among them. He had just turned 21. He was proud to be a machine gunner. And he was happy to be in the Army, my mother told me long ago, because that's where his older brother Charlie was.

Charlie had been an enlisted man under Black Jack Pershing down on the border chasing Pancho Villa, and later became an infantry officer. St. Clair wanted to be an infantryman like his brother.

My grandmother did what war mothers of the day did. She sewed a flag – red border, white rectangle in the center, and two blue stars for the two boys she sent off to win the War of all Wars. She hung it on her front door on River Street.

The Anderson Machine Gun Company was part of the Old Hickory Division – boys from South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee. They were called the Old Hickories after Old Hickory himself, Andrew Jackson, born near the S.C.-N.C. border and later a lawyer in Tennessee.

They mobilized on the fairgrounds in Columbia, sailed from Hoboken in May and crossed to Calais in May of 1918. From there the Anderson boys marched into Belgium and were soon fighting in the Ypres Salient trench fortifications known as the Blue Line. The fighting was intense; by September they had helped break the German Hindenburg Line. After a brief rest, they were back on the front lines.

Early on Oct. 17, 1918, they went over the top. Behind a creeping barrage, a regimental history noted, the Anderson boys were to advance on a 1,000-yard front. An enemy artillery shell exploded in St. Clair's part of that line, leaving, someone wrote many years ago, “a vacant place that, an officer of his company has said, ‘had been filled by as noble and brave a soldier as ever wore the khaki.'”

In time, Charlie Minor came back from France. A gold star was sewn over St. Clair's blue star on my grandmother's front-door flag. Years after the war, St. Clair's remains came home. He lies in a Baptist churchyard in Anderson County, forgotten by all but a very few.

I have the flag from the front door, and a couple of his things. One of them is his dog tag: 1312884.

He was just one of about 116,500 Americans who perished fighting over there.

They call it Veterans Day

Less than four weeks after St. Clair's death, the War To End All Wars came to a cease. The Armistice came on Nov. 11, 1918 – 90 years ago Tuesday. They call this day Veterans Day now, having been combined with the old Armistice Day observance, and I think that's appropriate.

They'll observe Veterans Day here and elsewhere around the nation Tuesday. But there are fewer and fewer who remember someone from what became known as World War I, and fewer veterans from World War II each year who are able to attend these observances.

I was Regular Army 40 years ago. For my money I think our country has never properly valued the contribution and sacrifice of the men and women who served under arms. I'm not talking about me. I stayed stateside all three years, never faced hostile fire.

But for the millions of troops like St. Clair and Charlie Minor, who did the hard fighting in hellish wars in places like Belgium, France, the South Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq and hundreds of other places we never hear about, we can never do enough to repay our debt. We can never do enough to honor their service.

Not just another day

For many Americans who don't work for government agencies that observe the Veterans Day holiday, Tuesday will be just another day at work. It will be another day to take advantage of a sale, perhaps a time to take a few minutes to remember, and move on. Too many employers who have benefitted from the sacrifices that veterans have made, and still make every day, don't observe Veterans Day by giving their workers the day off. A lot of them do. That's a choice, made consciously and according to a variety of circumstances.

But if you're an employer or have a lot to do with how your company is run, there is something you can do to thank those who went off to fight for us.

If you can't afford to close down and give everyone the day off, at least give your military veterans and reservists the day off.

It would be a fitting way to say thank you to them – and to the memory of the millions of soldiers and sailors and fliers and medical corps members and others who were fighting for us on their last day on this earth.

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