Today being Veterans Day, I want to tell you a little bit about the veteran I am remembering today—someone I never met, but a man who has been an invisible presence for me ever since I visited the National World War I Museum in Kansas City last March (I wrote about the museum here).
Ben Hill was a farmer’s son from northeast Iowa who died on a French battlefield during World War I. If he would have come home from the war, he would have become my grandfather. Instead, Ben’s fiancée married his brother, and because of that twist of fate I am different in some unknown, but perhaps significant, way.
When I toured the museum, it was in a display on trench warfare that Ben came most vividly to my mind. By 1917, 35,000 miles of trenches crisscrossed the Western Front, places of misery for those who lived, fought and died in a half-underground world. Standing in a replica of a narrow trench with the sound of exploding shells above me, I could hear a recording of a letter sent home by a soldier. It was then that I began to glimpse what it must have been like for Ben to go from the quiet of rural Iowa to that twilight world of fear, violence, and disease.
After I returned home I began to do some research, and with the help of several kind officials I learned that Ben had been a member of Company F, 58th Infantry, of the Army’s Fourth Division, and that he was killed in the Battle of the Marne on August 7, 1918. After his death, his body was returned to a quiet country graveyard not far from where he had grown up.
Last month I visited his grave, for I wanted to pay my respects to someone I had never met, but who now lives as a presence—however faint—in my life. Until I visited the National World War I Museum, I had never given a second thought to him. But today I want to tell you about him, to honor his life and his sacrifice.
Perhaps you have someone like Ben you are honoring today too. We should be grateful, should we not?