One hundred years ago this month, my grandfather (Johannes Herman Alexander Voigt, 1893-1960), mustered out of military service. He had fought for his country as a cavalry officer in WWI from 1914 until the end of 1918. He was 21 years old when he began his military service, and 23 years old when he was wounded in action. He took a ricocheted bullet under his chin which ended its journey in his mouth leaving a scar he carried with him, as a reminder. After a short recuperation, he was back in action, taking care of his horse and taking care of business. As a result of his wound and his meritorious service, he was awarded his country’s highest military honor, the Iron Cross. He didn’t fight for this country – he fought for his own, Germany, and was extraordinarily proud of his military service.
He left his home country after marrying my grandmother in November of 1920. Germany’s politics and hyperinflation – along with the fact that he had a sister and uncle in the United States, factored into his decision to leave a land he dearly loved for what he hoped would be a better life for him and the family he hoped to build.
He did not hesitate, upon arriving in America, to sign an affidavit proclaiming his loyalty to the United States, giving up his ties to the land of his birth. Years later, his pride was once again swelled as he was sworn as a newly naturalized citizen of our great country. On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed, the United States entered into the chaos of WWII, and my grandfather diligently registered for the draft. At 48 years of age, there wasn’t much chance he would be called into service, but if that call had come, he would have answered. He would have been as proud to fight for his adopted country as he had been to fight for his native one.
I was only 8 years old when Opa died. I think, had he lived longer, I would have enjoyed getting to know him better. I am the last member of my family who remembers this man. I remember a big, strong, and exceedingly quiet man who built my sister and me a see-saw, and swing set in his backyard, and a playhouse in the basement of our home on Wells Street. I remember sitting on his lap and being read to in German. I have no idea what he was reading, he probably just read aloud to me from whatever book he was reading himself. But the gentleness of his voice and the lilt of his German eventually put me to sleep. During his service in WWI, Opa contracted malaria. As a result, he took quinine for the rest of his life. I vividly remember him grinding up a tablet into a fine powder that he would put under my fingernails in an effort to stop me from biting my nails. Horrible stuff! But it worked, and to this day I cannot put a finger near my mouth without tasting quinine and thinking of Opa. That small act has forever bound me to him and a war I know only from the history books. In the course of researching my family history, and examining the things he left behind, I now know him to have been an honorable, hard-working, talented, loving individual, who was taken from us all too soon – he died a week before he was due to retire from a life that found him working as a soldier, locksmith, airplane mechanic and finally, a talented welder. My admiration may be posthumous, but it is no less sincere.
Putting your life on the line in defense of one’s country is no small thing. On this 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, I want to take a moment to honor my grandfather, all the other brave men who fought on both sides of the conflict, and the women who supported them through whatever service they could offer. It was the Great War. The war that brought us tanks, and howitzers and mustard gas. It was my Opa’s war. A war he was proud to have served in. To all the men and women who have served their country – I offer my admiration and my thanks.