Andy Rieger

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Organizers of my Honor Flight carrying veterans to see the memorial built to honor their World War II service had one goal that August day a few years back: Keep ‘em hydrated.

That meant pushing water on the 80- and 90-year-olds who were taken on the one-day pilgrimage to see the World War II memorial, Korean War memorial and the Vietnam wall.

We did our best, and by day’s end, the veterans were exhausted by the time the chartered plane headed back to Oklahoma City.

After consuming that much water, they understandably had to use the plane’s restrooms. The line extended through most of the cabin.

After cleaning the restrooms numerous times, the lone flight attendant took to the microphone and made an announcement.

“I am sure glad you guys were better shots in the war than you have been in the bathroom,” she said. “Try a little harder.”

That brought smiles and laughs for the remainder of the flight. Potty humor still bonded them 70 years after wearing uniforms.

• • •

Those flights were discontinued a few years back. Fewer veterans, and the ones that were eligible were often too frail to travel.

That won’t be a problem with the new World War I memorial that opened in Pershing Park near the White House earlier this month. There are no living veterans to transport. We waited too long to honor them.

The $42 million park makeover will feature the sculpture, “A Soldier’s Journey.” The 2017 groundbreaking brought a slew of critics who believed the memorial will detract from the urban park, which had fallen into disarray in the past few years.

There’s also a national World War I memorial in Kansas City.

Some critics also said it was unneeded, since so many of the memorials in the capital depict warfare while overlooking other significant national causes.

• • •

World War I was big news on the local front. America officially entered the war in April 1917. By May, the draft began and more than 1,500 young men from the county registered; 10% were taken in the first draft wave.

A temporary “War Savings Bank” opened on Main Street. Individuals were persuaded to buy war bonds. A “slackers pen” nearby helped close the sales. Prospective investors were encouraged to buy or spend time in the pen.

Norman’s school superintendent hosted daily drills for male high school students. German language classes were discontinued. Some OU faculty members of German heritage reportedly changed their last names.

Butchers closed up shops one day a week, and locals knitted socks and rolled bandages.

• • •

On campus, students formed the Student Army Training Corps and drilled from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Tuesdays and Thursdays were reserved for military tactical lectures. The leader was professor Guy Williams, joined by football coach Bennie Owen as the regiment’s lieutenant colonel, according to OU historian David Levy, writing in “The University of Oklahoma, A History, Volume 2.”

A troop train arrived in Norman in September 1917, and 15 local men climbed aboard. Local well-wishers handed out watermelon slices to all on the train.

Fletcher Pledger was the first Cleveland County soldier to die in the war. His body was returned in September 1920. The local American Legion Post added his name to its sign.

Sixteen Cleveland County soldiers died during World War I. The American Legion hospital, which opened in 1925 and closed in 1943, was built as a memorial to the fallen soldiers.

That hospital was replaced by Norman Municipal Hospital in 1946, and the original American Legion Hospital was torn down in 1954.


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