The April 2017 centennial of America’s entry into what would become known as the First World War has come and gone with surprisingly little fanfare.
To be sure, museums around the country have created WWI exhibits, media outlets have had the occasional local interest story, and individual communities have held commemorations to mark the apocalypse that was WWI. However, with the events of today’s world taking center stage, promotion of these activities have perhaps gotten a bit lost in the fray.
Regardless of the reason, the WWI Centennial has not sparked the general interest to the degree one might expect, especially given that the outcome of the War created far-reaching geopolitical changes as no other historical event has since.
Although we did meet, I do not remember my Grandfather; he passed away when I was about five months old. All I ever really knew of him were the family photos, a few home 8mm movie snippets from the late 1950s, and the grave we would visit on those Sundays throughout the year when we would swing by the cemetery after church, or on Decoration Day.
My Father did recount a few stories of Grandpa’s WWI service, but like all the other stories he told from his childhood, details were either sparse or more likely, I was too young to understand them fully.
Beyond that, the only real information I considered to be without question was the few lines found on the bronze veteran’s marker placed at the foot of his grave:
ADAM O BRIGNER
PVT CO A 7 INFANTRY
WORLD WAR I PH
MARCH 22 1894 MARCH 25 1960
I was surprised that a fair amount of detail had been there in plain sight, just waiting to be discovered. At times, a single piece of information led to several other items of interest, as I began
Information was found regarding his transport from the New York Port of Embarkation to England, the battles in which he participated, his combat injury, and where he was posted during the occupation of Germany, following the Armistice. Finally, information turned up regarding his trip home and final discharge from service. I even discovered the cousin he had met while in Germany.
A year after the Armistice, the 83rd Ohio General Assembly authorized the production of a full roster of all Ohioans who had served in the War. It was a 23 volume set based on information derived directly from the Federal Government’s records. I was able to locate the small entry on my Grandfather within its pages, which ultimately provided a wealth of information that I previously had not known. It was the detail in this short paragraph that became the basis for much of my research.
To my knowledge, this Ohio publication would be the only surviving indication of his service record, as tragically, approximately 18 million personnel files would be destroyed in a disastrous fire that swept through the National Personnel Records Center of the National Archives in St. Louis, in 1973. I was told by an NPRC staffer that the section of the archive that housed the majority of WWI records, and most probably my Grandfather’s, was also the area most heavily damaged.
Through all of this research, I learned what American attitudes were toward the War, and what it meant to be a German-American during this period. I had, of course, heard of the anti-German sentiment that erupted across the world during this time. The British royalty had even changed their name to Windsor to distance themselves from their German ties, after all. To modern ears, the House of Windsor sounds innately more British that the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha ever could…
As it turns out, the substantial Ohio German population in areas such as Cincinnati was not immune to the widespread anti-German sentiment that became prevalent across the country. Many German-language newspapers and social clubs were shut down, and streets were renamed with more “fitting” Anglo names.
Cincinnati was heavily steeped in her German roots, yet an example of how prevalent this anti-German group-think became is illustrated in the story of Ernst Kunwald, the Austrian-born conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony. In early 1918, he and his wife were hauled in under the Alien Enemies Act, and spent the remainder of the War in a Georgia internment camp, before finally being deported. Even the poor little dachshund was not immune from this hysteria, as propaganda artists churned out images of the little dog wearing the Iron Cross and a spiked helmet, suggesting they were not a breed to be embraced by patriotic Americans.
It is no surprise then, that many German-Americans “over-compensated” to prove their allegiance to the United States. Take for example one of Ohio’s native sons from this period, who changed his name from the German “Richenbacher,” to the more American-friendly “Rickenbacker.” Already well known for having competed in the Indianapolis 500 several times before the War, his name change drew quite a bit of press. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker would be the most successful pilot in the War and become a predominant figure in military and commercial aviation. As a side note for those music fans among you, his cousin Adolf would also capitalize upon the family name, and develop the iconic Rickenbacker guitar, made famous by George Harrison of the Beatles.
A photo surfaced during my research that cleared up this generations-old mystery. The cousin in question was not an enemy soldier or German citizen, but another Doughboy who also hailed from Pike County, Ohio. Charles Brigner was with the 2nd Division and stationed just a stone’s throw up the Rhine from my Grandfather during the German Occupation. A fascinating find, indeed.
since been contacted by another individual whose grandfather’s draft and subsequent training mirrors that of my own Grandfather’s. I hope the website serves as a vehicle to elicit additional histories and shared experiences from other Ohio families.
Through all of this, the span of time since his death seems to have fallen away, and I somehow feel as if I finally have gotten to know a part of him.