Night fell too soon upon the marble-like monument as I stood facing the nose of a huge granite marker in the center of the median.
There was a light drizzle of rain. I was worried that the dampness might cause the cigar-box size GE tape recorder to fail me.
Glancing back to the parked car, where my wife, Rachael, and daughter, Laura, waited, I indulged myself with the thought that this spot has not changed since the first time I stood beneath the mute, tropical palm trees; they were still here, stately, lining the blocked-off patches of green grass interlaced with azaleas.
That was back then, about 1940, maybe 1941; we'd just moved to Savannah. The palms look the same now as then, solemnly peaceful in the cool mist, as the dim sunlight fingered its way through their sheltering arms. They offered a soothing moment of silence. Time stood still. Nothing else mattered, as I began to read the words on the monument:
"ROLL OF HONOR 1914 1918. These palmetto trees were planted and the table erected by the Savannah Women's Federation in living honor of the soldiers, sailors, and marines, of Chatham County who died in the Great War for the cause of world Liberty."
The monument lists regular soldiers, beginning with David Gordon Allen and ending with Daniel M. Van Sicke and then a list of black soldiers, beginning with David Atkin and ending with Michael Zisker.
Appearing at a prominent place on the granite are these simple words:
"They do not die who serve humanity."
The base of the table was given by the Chatham Post Number 36, American Legion, April 26, 1929, in memory of their comrades who fell during World War I.
How delighted I was to record these words. Later I learned that Victory Drive, the street where I stood, was actually constructed as a permanent memorial to Savannah's soldiers who served in World War I. It leads all the way to Thunderbolt and stretches out to Tybee Island.
It is the world's longest palm drive.
My eyes rested on the imposing scene, so full of memories about my home: trips to the beach, guided by thousands of palm trees standing at attention like soldiers along a pathway guarding the entourage of a king.
I must confess I was like almost everyone else; I took these beautiful Borassus palms for granted. Not this time.
My mind flashed back to Daffin Park, and the old skating rink that stood there. I could hear the laughter of children in the carefree abandon of youth. Music played undisturbed by the grinding rhythm of the skates. Louder it vibrated.
Then I realized the sound I was hearing was the noise of cars going past me on Victory Drive. Shadows had fallen; it was now dark, and my task was done. On my recorder were the facts I'm sharing with you now.
Now about that war - it was the first great conflict to involve practically all the industrialized world. It began in the summer of 1914 when all the great powers of Europe could not settle their disputes peacefully.
The spark that ignited the war was the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on June 14, 1914, in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The Serbian government had leveled a propaganda attack against the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and a group of Serbian conspirators conceived a plan to kill the heir to the throne. Events finally led to opportunity and Gavrilo Princip, one of the plotters, finally pulled it off.
Officials of the Serbian regime were well aware of the scheme to kill Ferdinand but did nothing to stop it. A crisis erupted.
The assassination nudged Russia to come to the aid of her ally Serbia. Then Germany, with treaty obligations to Austria, called for a showdown, which finally came to a German declaration of war on Russia on August 1, upon France two days later, then a full scale invasion of Belgium on August 4. This action prompted Great Britain to declare war on Germany the same day.
Before long, two giant world forces were fighting: the Central Powers, which included German, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria, and the Allies comprised the British Empire, Russia, France, Italy, Belgium, China, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Greece, Portugal, Japan, and finally, the United States.
America's entry into the conflict came late. At the outset, President Woodrow Wilson took the position of neutrality, but public sentiment started turning in favor of involvement after the sinking of the ships by German submarines.
The date was April 22, 1915. The place was The Imperial German Embassy in Washington D.C. The warning was stern and unmistakable to all who walked nearby: "Travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies."
Then injury was added to insult. On March 17, 1915, a German submarine sank the British ship Lusitania, with 1,200 passengers, 128 of which were Americans. This act of murder on the seas inflamed the American people. The provocation caused Wilson eventually to break diplomatic relations with Germany. Soon the United Stated joined Great Britain and the other allies in the War to End All Wars.
In June 1917, ill-prepared, angry and desperate, an army which numbered around 200,000 was alerted, and General John J. Pershing took command of the American Expeditionary Force and entered combat on the Western Front, where the French had just lost nearly an eighth of a million men in five days, with nearly 21,000 captured.
Disheartened, thousands of French troops deserted; mutinies followed.
Technically, the American expeditionary force was a separate and distinct component of the combined armies, but time tilted the scales. Pershing and his Americans became reinforcements which, with the 2nd and 3rd divisions flung themselves against the stone chest of the German offensive.
On May 20, 1918, terms of an agreement were accepted, and an armistice was signed which ended the war.
The American role was the vital factor in the Allied victory. A hideous war with 65 million men mobilized, 8.5 million killed and over 21 million wounded was now history.
When you drive down Victory Drive, try to remember the price of liberty.