By Dennis E. Powell
The war ended, it is said, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It didn’t, really, but more about that in a minute. Due to a ceasefire agreement — an armistice — the warring sides in World War I were to stop shooting each other at 11 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918. One of the deadliest, most destructive, and most pointless wars, in many ways the first war of the modern era, was to come to an end.
Better that we say it was when a continuing war took a breather. Over the next few years agreements, rulings, and treaties were arrived at that made World War II almost a certainty. The partitioning of the old Ottoman Empire was designed not to bring about Mideast peace but to prevent Mideast peace — the idea was that if that part of the world were made up of small nations constantly at war with each other, they’d be too busy to bother anyone else. The part about perpetual warfare worked out, but the other part didn’t.
The lasting good effect of Nov. 11, 1918 is that it was the day chosen for Armistice Day, now known in the U.S. as Veterans Day. It was first observed in 1919 and was called Armistice Day for more than three decades. In 1954, Congress decided that the holiday should honor all those who had served in the military and renamed it Veterans Day.
Though the celebrations resemble each other, there’s a distinct difference between Veterans Day — today — and Memorial Day, May 30 or a nearby Monday. Memorial Day is specifically set aside to remember those who died in our country’s wars. Veterans Day honors all who served.
It is also Ernest Midkiff’s birthday.
I haven’t seen Ernie for a while — this year, practically no one has seen anyone else — so I have to send my greetings this way. But there’s reason to write about him today beyond the coincidence of his birth. He’s a remarkable guy.
My first encounter with gentle, smiling Ernie and his sweet, tiny wife Mary Catherine came at church more than a decade ago. They were the kind of people one hopes to grow up to be. Mary Catherine took ill and in April 2013 she died. I’d hoped to visit her, but it was a bad flu season and I didn’t want to risk making her sicker. They had been married 66 years and had three children.
“I met her at a dance — she was still in high school — and from that moment I knew she was the only one for me.” Their families have been in the area a long time.
I didn’t know any of this until a different November day, All Souls Day, in I suppose, 2014, at St. John’s, a little Catholic church in Coolville. There were chairs along one wall, and I chose one next to Ernie. He spent the next little while delighting me by describing the relationships among the dozens of people gathered together — it was almost a family reunion.
There’s a cemetery by the church. “My wife is there,” he said. “When the time comes, I’ll be beside her.”
Father Mark Moore stopped to greet Ernie and noticed that he was wearing an ankle brace. “That’s new, isn’t it?” Fr. Mark asked.
“An old war injury acting up a little,” Ernie replied. After Fr. Mark had gone on to greet others, I asked Ernie how he’d gotten injured.
“Somebody didn’t want me riding on a tank,” he replied, matter-of-factly and smiling as always, clearly content to leave it at that. I wanted to know more.
Toward the end of 1943, Corporal Ernest Midkiff was serving with the 836 Engineering Battalion in New Guinea, where he was helping build an airport, often while under fire. He had enlisted despite a leaking heart valve — the souvenir of a childhood bout of rheumatic fever — that would have exempted him from the draft. “I wanted to go,” he said.
His duties often included finding Japanese mines and rendering them inert. He especially hated the multi-triggered “spider web” mines, and the crockery “clay” mines which couldn’t be revealed by a metal detector – you had to poke for them with your bayonet, hoping that when you found one it was at a non-sensitive spot – though the “yardstick”mines with their six pounds of TNT were no walk in the park, either. That jungle-covered, malaria-infested island was the site of intense fighting for nearly the entire war. Like most GIs, Ernie was happy to ride when he could rather than walk, so he had climbed onto a tank headed in the direction that he, too, was headed.
Then something happened — to this day, he’s not sure entirely what. The best guess is that the tank hit a mine or that it was struck by a Japanese aerial bomb. What Ernie remembered was regaining consciousness some distance from where the now-gone tank had been. And his ankle “had something wrong with it. My hip hurt — I thought I’d landed on a rock. I looked down at my legs and I could see only one leg.” That’s because his right leg had gotten broken and his knee dislocated. It was no rock — he had landed on his own right foot. Soon, his captain approached and offered help. Another member of his outfit made a crutch from a forked stick, padded with his shirt.
“They finally took me to a hospital tent and bandaged it up,” he said. “I was there for a couple of weeks. Then I heard the doctors say they wanted to x-ray my leg and re-break it.” Ernie wanted none of that, so as soon as he could he slipped under the flap of the tent and, using his stick crutch, made it back to his unit just as it received orders to head to the beach, 30 miles away, and be there by 5 p.m. that day. “Captain asked me what I was going to do,” Ernie remembers. “I said, ‘I’m going with you.’” Ernie managed to catch a ride on a mess vehicle. This time, nobody blew it up.
His ankle got mostly better and he served out the war, going from island to island building airstrips and getting shot at and bombed.
Ernie was discharged in 1945 and he and Mary Catherine married. They moved to Dayton but soon moved back even though his job here, as a letter carrier on a foot route in Athens, paid less. His doctor said his ankle would never hold together for him to make it to the 30 years necessary for post office retirement. “He was right — after 26 years they assigned me to a rural route,” he grinned. On the new route he could deliver the mail without leaving his car.
Today he turns 99. He’s not delivering the mail anymore.
And anyone who knows him should be forgiven for thinking that while today is Veterans Day, it is most especially Ernest Midkiff Day.