It's now almost six years ago that I left New York and settled here in Ypres. I came here for the museum, among other things. I was intrigued by WWI. I wanted to know everything about it. After retiring from my job as a forensic scientist I wanted to come to Europe, to Flanders Fields. I then met the people from the museum. There is a fabulous library here. I could read numerous books here to better understand the events. I am not really interested in the battle action, but more in the poetry, by Siegfried Sassoon among others.
People often ask me how I, as an American, became so intrigued by the First World War. As a Vietnam veteran I experienced war close-up and people think everyone was a hippy in 60s America. Well, I was anything but a hippy. I was not really very academic and joined the Navy aged 17. That was in April 1965, just at the start of the Vietnam war. Like everyone in the army in those days I knew I would be sent to Vietnam. And sure enough, I was. I was there from August 1968 to late June 1969. That war has torn our country apart and we have still not recovered from it to this day. As a young man you go to war without knowing why you leave and as soon as you're back you want to know why you ever went. After the Vietnam war I read everything about war to find out why it could come to that. And you can't but establish that everything started with WWI.
And then I chanced upon Sassoon's poetry and if you have experienced almost the same as he has, he touches you. There was hardly any poetry at all in Vietnam and it's surprising to find there was so much poetry in WWI. 100 to 200 000 poems were published in the papers in the UK at the time. Many of those young men were the first literate generation. They could read and write and poetry was a real part of their life.
What Sassoon wrote during and about the First World War we felt in Vietnam too. What he wrote about life and death, about the damned army... It was not an easy task. There are many similarities. When I see the trenches around Ypres here, it makes me think about our time in Vietnam. You only eat from tins, you never can have a wash, there are lots of pests and it's much too hot, there are mosquitoes... and at the same time people trying to kill you. Well, that was exactly the situation here in summer, I guess.
I first came to Ypres for a “Battle Tour” in 1988. I already knew the city then and when I retired, I was a member of the Great War Society in America. In 2004 several seminars were organised on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of WWI. During one of those seminars, about gas attacks, I met people of the museum here. And then I thought I could live here. I am also not planning to return. I like the European way of life. I feel more European now.
When I just got here, I became a member of the In Flanders Fields Friends. I worked as a volunteer and as I don't speak French or Dutch I started by copying British war diaries. I then also started scanning aerial photos and with my military background I also cleaned weapons for the museum.
I am curious by nature. And what I particularly like here in Ypres and Belgium and the museum is that I learned so much more about the war here than I ever could in the States. And that was partially possible by learning the language, by walking on the soil where everything happened. Everything is different here. The birds are different, the trees are different...everything really. I learn something new every day. That keeps you mentally fit. When I visit a nice place in France, the moss is older than America itself! The culture is at an incredibly high level here too. This is a fantastic place for someone who is curious.
Anyone who walks into the museum here, sees the war and forgets peace. They look at the uniforms, the weapons etc. But all those boys, all those who fought, all those who survived, only wanted peace. And that is what they got, even if it didn't really last long. It is a shame to see, but when people leave the museum they don't immediately think ' we now must honour peace'. But if we want to truly honour them - victims and survivors - this must never happen again. And if enough people think the same, it maybe will never happen again. This is what I want to say to the visitors: 'those people were in mortal fear because they wanted peace. And they continued to fight until it was over. They finally had their peace and could live in it. And we have to do that too.' That's why I live here. America is at war, Belgium lives in peace, and I want peace.