If you want to know what a war was really like, ask an enlisted man, not a general or admiral. In this case, we hear from Clyde resident, Russel F. Coash (1895-1959). He enlisted in the Navy on May 2, 1917, and was honorably discharged two years later with the rank of Chief Petty Officer. “Restoring History! My Navy Cross” tells the story of the last year of World War I from his point of view.
Although World War I began in 1914, and the U.S. did not enter it until April 6, 1917, it was ill-prepared. For example, Coash and the other American aviators had to train with American planes in Florida, but did not have any American built airplanes to fly when they got to France. They had to be re-trained by French and Italian pilots to fly their European-made float planes.
In those early days of military aviation, enlisted men were aviators. Russel served as a pilot and an observer at Dunkerque (Dunkirk) where his principal duty was to bomb and sink the German submarines that lay in waiting for Allied supply ships in the English Channel. He also did a lot of construction work at the base, operated rescue motor launches, repaired planes, bombed and strafed the Germans in the field, and did various other things as required. The narrative tells of other places and events, so that the reader gains an overall view of the course of the war.
The German shore batteries shot Coash down over the Channel as he attacked a sub and he barely made it to shore. He received severe back and thigh injuries that pained and handicapped him for the rest of his life. Because of his heroic acts, the Navy awarded him its highest honor, the Distinguished Navy Cross, which is just below the Congressional Medal of Honor in prestige.
He told his son, Ron, that he was not proud of his award, because he had had to kill a number of helpless Germans. In one instance he shot submariners who had barely escaped from a sub that he had just bombed and sunk. They had no chance of survival in the pool of flaming oil that surrounded the sub, and he viewed his killing them as an act of mercy.
After his honorable discharge, he worked as a mechanic in various places, and eventually established a garage in Clifton.
Ron listened to his father’s tales of the war over the years and discovered his medal and documents stored in a trunk, all of which piqued his curiosity. After he graduated from Clifton High School in 1958, Ron decided to determine the truth of these wild tales.
He spent many hours over the rest of his life doing research into government documents, which were sometimes quite difficult to find and access, as well as many secondary sources.
In all, he spent over $50,000 in the effort and accumulated more than 100,000 pages of documents—an impressive research effort.
He discovered that his father’s stories were actually true.
People encouraged Ron to write a book about his father’s life and experiences. ”Restoring History!” is the result. He writes in his father’s sometimes bombastic speaking style rather than the usual, scholarly style of history.
“Restoring History!” despite its impressiveness as a piece of research is clearly an amateur effort at writing. The self-publisher that Ron used apparently supplied little editorial supervision.
While it is legitimate for him to try to imitate his father’s style of story-telling, Ron’s use of capitals, bold-face, italics, underlining, punctuation, and the like, is distracting and makes reading difficult.
Ron includes photocopies of some documents that are so dark that they are hard to read. He also includes many photos and other illustrations, but their captions sometimes are not clearly associated with them, and the page layouts could be improved. He does not have a list of illustrations in the front with the table of contents, so it is impossible to look up a particular item.
Ron does not use footnotes or endnotes. Instead, he gives citations, sometimes cryptic, in the text. The 216 bibliographic entries in the back are not in standard form, nor are they in any discernable order, so it is difficult to try to find a particular reference or associate it with a given passage of text. Style manuals and scholarly apparatus exist for a reason. Too bad he did not use them.
“Restoring History!” is an impressive piece of research which tells the story of one Kansan’s involvement in World War I, of the last year of the War, and of the War’s effect on his life afterwards. If you can get past its idiosyncratic style, it can be interesting.
Christopher Banner is emeritus senior specialist in music at KSU, and is a Manhattan resident.