Lost Generation

05.26.13

The World War I Veteran Who Wasn’t

For more than two years, Richard Rubin had been tracking down all the American World War I veterans still living for his book, The Last of the Doughboys. But when he started talking to a man named Merlyn Krueger, something didn’t seem right.

On October 15, 2005, I warily knocked on a door at a seedy motel in Pasco, Washington, an industrial town in the desert about 200 miles southeast of Seattle. Pasco looked about right for that motel, as did the man who answered the door: tall and rangy with shaggy white hair and a matching beard, his T-shirt, jeans, and bare feet were all caked with dirt. His name was Merlyn Krueger; a few weeks earlier he’d been mentioned, briefly, by a local newspaper in a short item which noted—and this is why I was there—that he was 110 years old and a veteran of the First World War.

For more than two years, I’d been tracking down and interviewing living American World War I veterans, every old doughboy I could find and get to. It had proven much more challenging than I had imagined at the outset, especially the tracking down part, but by now I was pretty comfortable with the process and confident in my ability to handle whatever the interview might present: spotty memories, deafness, confused names and dates, the intimidating awe that attended being in the presence of a centenarian. I’d become something of a studied hand regarding the superannuated, felt I had a good sense of what to expect. Like the rest of them, Merlyn Krueger didn’t look his age. Unlike the rest, though, he didn’t look that much younger.

His little room was well past cluttered, so full of old newspapers and magazines and junk that it took me several minutes to find a spot to sit and set up my video camera. He was a good interview subject, though, articulate, utterly devoid of reticence, clear on details like the date and place of his birth (April 8, 1895; Westwood, California), the town where he’d grown up (Akeley, Minnesota), his parents’ and siblings’ names (Herman and Anna; Mary, Dorothy, and Edmund). He’d left home at 14, he told me, and rode the rails around the Midwest and Great Plains, doing farm work and odd jobs. He enlisted in 1918 in Minnesota, he explained, and was sent east to Camp Dix for basic training. He never made it overseas, he said; just spent his time “drilling, firing the rifle, getting accustomed to shooting.” He described his uniform, and the camp, in vivid detail.

Video screenshot
Merlyn Krueger wanted to be remembered.

Still, he couldn’t recall the name of his unit. This was not the case for the Second World War, which he was careful to distinguish from the First, and during which he had served in Alaska with the 250th Coastal Artillery. He changed the subject to that second war, too, every chance he got, despite my repeated questions about the first. Concerned, I went online the next day, looked through census records, and quickly determined that Merlyn Krueger had, indeed, been born in Westwood, California, to Herman and Anna Krueger.

But not in 1895.

In 1918.

Now, I didn’t travel all the way to the Pacific Northwest just to meet Merlyn Krueger; I had other interviews scheduled that trip, with men who actually had served in World War I. So I wasn’t particularly angry to learn that he’d made the whole thing up, that he’d claimed to have served in a war that ended when he was an infant. The only thing about it that bothered me, truly, was, why? Why had he done it? He wasn’t delusional, didn’t have dementia, wasn’t trying to score a second pension or anything like that. I don’t even think he was looking for attention; he hadn’t sought me out and must have known that World War I veterans weren’t garnering much notice in 2005. So, why?

The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin
“The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War.” By Richard Rubin. $28; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 528 pages. ()

For years, all I had was the question. Then, far too gradually to call it an epiphany, I came to understand that the answer was the simplest, most obvious, most universal because of all: Merlyn Krueger wanted to be remembered. By someone. But who? His marriage hadn’t lasted long. He was so estranged from his three daughters that it took him several awkward moments to summon their names. For 70 years he’d flitted around life’s penumbral margins, existing but leaving little behind to show for it. Eighty-seven, an age that should find one ensconced in comfortable quarters surrounded by loving family and friends and mementoes of a lifetime’s accomplishments, found him consigned to a shabby motel room filled with garbage and old news. Who?

And then, an outlandish plan. Not even a plan: just a wild lashing out, really, against oblivion. He must have known, as he waited for a knock on his door, how unlikely it was to succeed.

Yet, for the past seven years, on the final Monday in May, an occasion reserved for memory, I have remembered, among others, the late Merlyn Krueger.

And now, maybe, you will, too.