In Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth King Henry rouses and encourages his troops to do battle with the French at Agincourt. In the famous “band of brothers” speech he assures his men that “he who sheds his blood with me today shall be my brother.” He also assures them that posterity will not forget what they do that day, a day in the Christian calendar known as St. Crispian’s Day:
This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say “Tomorrow is St. Crispian.”
Then he will strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispian’s Day.”
I was reminded of this scene when I recently cared for a very elderly lady referred to the hospital by a hospice facility. The hospice physician thought she was having problems that he could not control for her comfort and wanted us to do some hospital diagnostics to help clarify her condition. He had no access to her past records because she had always been cared for via the Veterans Administration system.
She was the oldest female veteran of the second world war I have ever met, a 96 year old who, although her mind was not clear, assured me the moment I met her that, “The War Department will take care of me.” Since the U.S. Department of Defense has not been called the War Department since before I was born, her use of the term intrigued me and I asked her in which service she had served. She told me that she served in the United States Army. When I asked her where, she said “Tunis.” She also said that she had served with bomb reconnaissance. Her mind wandered and she began to tell me about a dog who was named Yorky Doodle Dandy and how the dog had done some things that were unintelligible to me, including being taken to Hollywood, and her mind drifted off. I did not press her. (I do not expect to be alive at her age, let alone to be able to communicate coherently.)
I remember that when I was a boy my father told me about bombing the harbor at Tunis from his U.S. Army Air Corps base in Algeria. It was held by the Germans, who were of course forced to surrender. So I went to the Wiki and discovered that, indeed, shortly after the city of Tunis was in the hands of the Allies a large bomb reconnaissance group was sent to the city from Britain. These people were women and men who for whatever reason—be they artists or archaeologists—were very good at looking at photographs of enemy territory taken from airplanes at high altitude and figuring out what the tiny images represented. Since after the Germans left North Africa the Allies would begin to invade Italy, which involved a great amount of bombing, the reconnaissance work in Tunis went on for over a year.
And what of the dog? It turns out that a Yorkshire terrier was acquired by a photo reconnaissance soldier in the Pacific theater and became famous for the tasks he could perform, sometimes under enemy fire, to assist the soldiers. That soldier, named Wynne, was from Cleveland and he named the dog “Smokey.” He was also known as Yorky Doodle. “Smokey” was allegedly a reference to the then very much polluted skies of Cleveland. Wynne brought the dog back to Cleveland and wrote a popular book about the creature. The dog was so famous that there is a memorial to it at the Cleveland Metroparks in Lakewood.
If you listen to the elderly patients, even through their dementia, at times they will connect you to a past that is still vivid in their memories, memories accurate in spite of loss of cognitive ability and the passage of three quarters of a century. These will often relate to the most vivid, perhaps horrid, perhaps exciting times of their youth. They engender in me at times a respect—for bravery or diligence or the simple will to survive and be able to testify. I have heard the stories of old African Americans who lived through the Jim Crow south, of soldiers who as mere boys stumbled on a German concentration camp and weep at what they saw, of steel workers who endured the strikes of the depression era and emerged bloodied but victorious.
This patient was soon discharged and I was left to wonder if she had gone from Tunis to the Pacific theater, if she had worked with the owner of Smokey. What had she been trying to say? Certainly the important roles that women played in the war have gone relatively untold compared to those of the men and I wish that I had been able to expand her story.
Certainly, and virtually on her deathbed, she was stripping her sleeve and showing her scars. Her military days must have been fraught with the dangers of war zones but also the excitement and wonder of a military and international experience. She engaged in world travel in an era when that was virtually impossible for most Americans and included the exhilaration of transAtlantic crossings and air travel that probably in her most fantastic dreams she would not have contemplated as a girl before the war.
She had lived the day and seen old age. Women from “The Great Generation” are dying off. Few remain to tell us as living historians of their own St. Crispian’s Day.