“He had been crouched in a funkhole clawed from the earth watching geysers of dirt heaved up by exploding shells. A blast over a nearby company tossed up what looked like a rag doll. Albertine watched the stretcher bearers drag a lifeless form from a shell hole. The 104th had taken its first fatality, Private George G. Clarke, Company E.
“Soon afterward, through the din of artillery fire, Albertine heard the wail of a klaxon. Gas alert.
“He pulled his mask over his face just as shells of mustard gas fell to earth with a seemingly innocent thump. They did not explode, but issued a pinging sound and then a whistle as the fumes escaped.
“Albertine watched the victims being carted from the field, coughing up bits of their lungs, the exposed parts of their bodies blistered, their eyelids swollen shut, blinding them.”
— Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour, by Joseph E. Persico.
Most of us could never imagine the horror of war. There’s just no way for us who’ve never served to truly comprehend what the people we honor this Memorial Day went through in their time of service.
But it is vital that we at least try to get a sense of what it was like.
Few conveyed the truth of combat more accurately and poignantly than author Joseph E. Persico.
Persico grew up in Gloversville and later graduated from New York State College for Teachers (now the University at Albany).
During the Korean War, he served as a lieutenant on a Navy minesweeper and then worked at NATO headquarters in Italy.
His career took him from the U.S. Information Agency in South America to Albany, where he eventually served as a speechwriter for Nelson Rockefeller, both when Rockefeller was governor and later when he served as vice president.
But it was his deep interest in war and military service that led him to a nearly 40-year career writing historical nonfiction, including biographies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the autobiography of Gen. Colin Powell, accounts of the Nuremberg Trials and both World Wars, and stories of the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg.
During an interview on C-SPAN2 on Nov. 11, 2004, Persico described his research for his 2004 World War I book, “Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour.”
He said he would spend hours in the National Archives and war museums poring over numerous firsthand accounts by ordinary soldiers, including diaries, memoirs, journals.
“Reading them takes you into the trenches. You feel the horror of these places. The stench of them. They bring it to life, reading their letters, diaries. They’re extraordinarily articulate in most cases.”
He used his unique ability to combine his technical knowledge of the military with his writing skills to give us all a sense — brief and distant though it may be — of what it was like to fight in war.
Without these accounts, we could not even begin to appreciate and understand the sacrifices of the men and women whose names are etched on so many memorials, or the experiences and sacrifices of the men and women who fought beside them and returned home.
Persico died in August 2014 at the age of 84. He is buried in the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery in Schuylerville — alongside the heroes whose accounts of war he shared with those of us who could never imagine.