The “eleventh hour” has become synonymous with Veterans Day — originally called Armistice Day, in recognition of the document signed at the 11th hour, on the 11th day, of the 11th month.
In reality, the armistice ending the war to end all wars was signed around 5 a.m., on Nov. 11. Over the course of the next six hours, nearly 3,000 men would lose their lives in the final hours of a war that had already claimed 20 million military personnel.
The final death of World War I came at 10:59 a.m. — one minute before the guns of war would fall silent.
Pvt. Henry Gunther was a German-American drafted in Fall 1917. Most accounts state that his final actions were motivated by Gunther’s need to demonstrate that he was “courageous and all-American.”
A chaplain from Gunther’s unit recounted, “As 11 a.m. approached, Gunther suddenly rose with his rifle and ran through thick fog. His men shouted for him to stop. So did the Germans. But Gunther kept running and firing. One machine gun blast later, he was dead. His death was recorded at 10:59 a.m.
In every conflict, inevitably a final service member pays the ultimate sacrifice. In World War II, Pvt. Charlie Havlat, the son of Czech immigrants, in the closing days of the war, found himself liberating his parents’ former homeland. Word of the ceasefire reached his position minutes after he was killed.
Officially, the United States has never declared a final casualty in the Korean War. Since the armistice was signed, nearly 100 U.S. soldiers have been killed in combat on the Korean peninsula. On April 29, 1975, Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge were two of a small number of Marines tasked with safeguarding the U.S. embassy in Saigon. They had been deployed for only 11 days when they were killed by a rocket attack.
The United States would complete the process of withdrawing from Saigon the following day.
Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss was the last of the 2,461 service members who died in Afghanistan. He along with 12 of his comrades was killed in a suicide attack during the withdrawal from Kabul.
In every war, there is always one that must fill the dignified but dubious role in history as being the last to give the full measure of devotion. Each year on the 11th day of the 11th month, as a nation, we pause — not only to honor those that have given their lives, but for all those who believed so deeply in American exceptionalism that they were willing to give their lives to defend it.
For most Americans, talking about war is conceptual, something learned through history books, news reports and movies. Those who have served do not have that luxury. Not only should we remember that the democratic principles we hold so dear have been defended by generations of Americans whom we honor on Veterans Day, but more importantly, we should take inspiration from that sacrifice.
Our country, despite all our self-imposed differences, needs to look to our veterans and see there are no divisions in a foxhole — there are only those who stand in defense of democracy, and those who stand against it.
While we may only celebrate Veterans Day with a few moments of silence each year, we have an opportunity to use those moments to find our own way to serve as part of our commitment to living up to the legacy of our veterans. When the armistice was signed in 1918 after the Japanese surrender, and when the last flights departed Kabul and Saigon — these were not simply endings. They were new beginnings.
We honor those who serve by recommitting ourselves to making the sacrifices necessary to preserve our way of life.
As Adlai Stevenson once stated, “Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” Let this Veterans Day be a new beginning. Go forth and find a way to serve our nation, our communities, and each other.
We owe it to our veterans.
The author is the military and veterans outreach director for Wreaths Across America, and served eight years of active duty in the U.S. Army, including two tours to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division