By Dave Woods
KANSAS CITY, Mo. —
When most people drive past the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, I suspect they have no idea what lies beneath the massive, granite structures. I didn’t until a recent K.C. trip. It’s hard to miss the 200-plus tall granite tower perched atop one of the city’s highest hills. A pair of large stone Sphinx, wings covering their eyes from the horrors of war, anchor the tower to the site erected almost a century ago. The museum and memorial overlook downtown, Union Station and much of the city. It honors veterans of the Great War.
Spending a few hours at a museum dedicated to a war I knew little about was, at first, a hard sell for me. But, I was lucky. I had David Holmquist to guide me through the museum. He volunteers there and helps tell the tale of “The War to End all Wars.”
While I was riffling through a box of old military memorabilia a few weeks later my interest in World War I changed.
Following my grandfather‘s death, I ended up with a stack of his military memorabilia.
For almost a year it had been setting on my catch-all kitchen counter unopened. For some reason I opted to dig into the mound of medals, uniform buttons and military papers and manuals from World War II. It was seemingly worthless stuff to me. Little real value to collectors, but it meant something to him. Inside were keepsakes important to my grandfather.
In 1944, and at a very young age, he leapt from a perfectly good airplane into the Battle of the Bulge. He took enemy fire, lost much of his parachute, took shrapnel in his leg and lived to tell about. He went on to be the best Pop a guy – that me, my brothers and great grandkids — could ever have.
I knew of his service to our country, but he never mentioned his father’s service during the Great War, at least, not to me. What could be in that box that meant enough for him to him to keep it all of those years?
I spotted a little, plastic flip-top box with a small note inside in the pile.
It was a U.S. Army pin, insignia or uniform button of some sort — it’s hard to tell. I was intrigued. The single, small metal pin carries a company number and a pair of crossed cannons. It was accompanied by a note written in my Papa’s shaky script.
The small piece of paper simply said: “Daddy ‘343 Artillery, 90th Div. WW1 ‘Battery F’.”
Francis Earl Woods, my great grandfather, was a very old man when I was a kid. I have few memories of him other than that he was a very big man with large hands. He was always there for my grandparents as they raised four grandkids on a postman’s salary.
I knew of my pop’s military service in World War II and his Purple Heart, but never even considered his father’s sacrifice. To me and my younger brothers, the old white-haired man with huge hands was just “Granddad.” I knew nothing of his contribution to the war effort. He died when I was about 10. What impact might he and his fellow artillerymen made during his time with the 343rd? Later in my search, I uncovered a World War I artillery manual dated 1916 that must have been granddad’s, too.
Now, given my new relationship with Dave Holmquist, my guide at the World War Museum and Liberty Memorial, and Jonathan Casey, the museum’s archivist, maybe I can get a few questions about my great-grandfather’s service answered. Maybe many of us can. Both Holmquist and Casey helped me with information when I worked on a July 4 Globe story commemorating the site’s importance to our country’s history and servicemen and servicewomen. When I toured the memorial and the museum with Holmquist, I ran into a family searching for answers, too.
Searching for answers
Rosemarie Naepp, 78, from Venezuela, told me her family was German, although she calls South America home. Her father was German and fought for the “central powers” (Austria-Hungary, Italy and Germany) during the Great War. Christian Naepp, 71, her younger brother, calls Spain home today. The pair trekked to the Kansas City shrine to learn more about their father’s World War I service. Something pushed me to talk to them. It was a short, but interesting exchange.
I asked the siblings why they wanted to know more about their father’s service?
“Because it is very interesting to know the roots of where our father was in the war,” Rosemarie said. “It’s very much interesting. I want to come again.”
Her brother Christian chimed in.
“It‘s a very good museum,” he said. “There are a lot of things to see. I find it very good to see and to look for our father’s information,” he added in a German accent, thick with Spanish flare.
He was a little lost for words, it seemed.
“How can I say the words,” he asked. “You cannot see it all in a few hours. So many things are here. There are stories to talk about. This is amazing. It’s a work and a lot to see and to for us to talk about as a family.”
The pair told me how their father used to tell them war stories, of dangerous gases used, the never ending assaults and the pain of war.
“To have the smell from the gas,” Christian said his father shared. “It was horrific for him.”
Feeling a little more comfortable with the siblings, I asked a final question.
Are you proud of your father’s service, I asked?
“Not really proud,” Christian said, unashamed. “You can’t blame him. He was so young; just 16-years-old, but I find it very interesting that he was part of this history. Like it or not, it’s our heritage.”
Now, like the Naepps, I have a good reason to return to the archives to find out a little more about my connection to the Great War. We all should. It’s our heritage, too.
Dave Woods is market development manager at The Joplin Globe