- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 23, 2001

BARNARD, Vt. Leon Davis is a vanishing jewel of American history.
At 105, the retired farmer and land surveyor is one of the last World War I veterans alive in Vermont and the nation.
He was one of about 2 million men, known as "doughboys," who walked ashore in France in 1917 and 1918 and changed history.
"The United States came in at the time to save England from Germany," Mr. Davis said recently, his voice strong, but his memory cloudy. "England was about trollopped. We got over there and changed the situation around a little."
At the end of World War I in 1918, the United States had almost 5 million soldiers, about 2 million of them in France. Today, there are an estimated eight doughboys alive in Vermont, about 2,200 across the country.
No one knows the exact number or where they are. The figures are actuarial calculations based on the 1990 census.
There is much debate about the origin of the term doughboys. The first apparent use of the term to refer to U.S. Army infantrymen came during the Mexican American War of 1846-1847. The name could come from cooks' helpers who had to prepare concoctions of flour and rice for their comrades, or from how dusty soldiers got while marching in the American Southwest.
Much attention has been paid to the vanishing World War II generation, most of whom are now in their 80s. The accomplishments of their fathers, however, have been largely overlooked.
There are no blockbuster movies about the Battle of Belleau Wood, and how many schoolboys can describe the American-led Muese-Argonne offensive that helped win the war?
Yet hidden in nursing homes, old farmhouses and city apartments across the country are the surviving men who went "over there" to make the world safe for democracy.
"They not only warm your heart but open your eyes to a world that is so long gone. You appreciate every single day you have with them," said Kerri Childress, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Before going to work at the VA, Miss Childress worked for the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Washington. Occasionally, she would take active duty military personnel to the home to meet World War I vets.
"If you have an opportunity to talk with a World War I vet, don't pass it up," she said. "It's part of our culture and society that we'll never see again. It is absolutely critical to see these men and hear these stories firsthand."
Mr. Davis never slogged in the trenches or experienced a German gas attack. He was a trumpeter with the headquarters band of the 53rd Artillery Regiment. But that doesn't lessen his contribution to the war effort or his place in history.
Mr. Davis still has the instrument he played in 1918. "The trumpet is all shot because it hasn't been used," he said.
A faded photograph shows him holding that same trumpet, sitting ramrod straight, staring right into the camera.
Jon Davis, 62, said his father never talked much about his war service when he was growing up. And his father can't quite understand why, after decades of silence, people would be interested now in the war that has been all but forgotten.
The only story Jon Davis remembers his father telling was how seasick the soldiers got on their trip across the Atlantic.
Mr. Davis was born in Berwick, Maine, in 1896, and was living there in the summer of 1917 when he enlisted. It was three months after the United States declared war on Germany and the nation was raising an army of 5 million from its prewar strength of 135,000.
Mr. Davis' discharge papers say his ship left for France March 22, 1918. He still has some of the papers distributed to the soldiers on the ship, whose name is undecipherable, telling them where to sleep. He was discharged in March 1919.
After the war, Mr. Davis graduated from Northeastern University. He worked for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as a surveyor until the 1940s when he moved his family to Vermont in search of the quiet country life.
He farmed until the early 1950s when the advent of the expensive bulk tank for milk put him out of business.
He worked as a surveyor and did other jobs until he was 85. A few years before, in 1973, his wife died.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing for the time when the last doughboy will take his place in history. The last Spanish American war veteran died in 1992, the last Civil War veteran in 1958.
By VA calculations, 2,212 World War I vets were alive on Sept. 30. By 2008, the number is expected to drop significantly, to 110. In 2018, there will be one.


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