Vancouver lost its last living link to World War I eight years ago when Willis Earl died at the age of 103. Or, according to some U.S. Army records, maybe at the age of 106.
Now all the voices that could share first-hand memories of America in the Great War have been stilled, and it’s up to collectors, museums and history enthusiasts to tell the stories.
That happens Saturday when the “Honoring Our History” tour visits Pearson Air Museum, 1115 E. Fifth St. The exhibit was put together by curators at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
Local displays will supplement the exhibit. Airplane collector Patrick Garrison has provided the world’s oldest replica of a Fokker Dr.1 three-wing German airplane.
It was built in 1966 for the filming of “The Blue Max,” a movie about aerial combat in World War I, and was flown in several other films set in that era.
“It was built with original Fokker plans,” Garrison said. The only modification was a small platform where a movie camera could be mounted.
“It belonged to MGM for a while,” Garrison said, before the triplane eventually was acquired by his late father, Lynn Garrison.
The mobile museum gallery contains dozens of artifacts from the 1914-1918 conflict. They include a .30-caliber machine gun, a knife with a built-in set of brass knuckles and something with more day-to-day application: a wristwatch.
According to an interpretive panel, the need for synchronizing troop movements and other military operations meant officers couldn’t keep yanking on chains to pull watches out of their uniform pockets, so they wore wristwatches. American officers brought the practice back home and popularized it after the war.
There also are interpretive panels that discuss the U.S. role in the fighting. That started when the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) arrived in Europe in 1917 — a bit late in the game, some of our allies felt.
According to a panel, a British soldier interpreted AEF as “After Everything’s Finished.”
No, countered an American soldier: AEF actually stands for “After England Failed.”
The 75-city, yearlong “Honoring our History” tour is supported by Waddell & Reed, a financial planning company founded by World War I veterans.
While the mobile museum is designed to share WWI history, sometimes visitors walk in with stories of their own.
“One guy told me his great-uncle had come here from Germany,” tour manager Jim Bodle said Friday.
“He was here for four months when he wound up in the Army and was sent back (to Europe) to fight his family,” Bodle said.
Willis Earl, the Vancouver WWI veteran, signed up to fight the Kaiser when he was only 16.
“I was just being patriotic, I guess. I told them I was 19, and I don’t recall ever having to show anything,” Earl told The Columbian before his death in 2003.
His commanding officer eventually learned about the under-age recruit but wasn’t concerned.
“The CO said, ‘This thing will be over in six months, and he’ll never get to France,’” Earl recalled. “In three months, I was in France.”
He wound up building what at the time was the world’s largest airport. But long after the war was over, Earl continued to experience some consequences of his enlistment.
“After lying about my age,” said Earl— who was 101 at the time — “the Army still lists me as 104.”