Before patriotic fervor moved him to join up at the age of 21, Arza Underwood worked in the developing domestic oil industry, and lived in the blink-and-you-missed-it hamlet of Ralph’s Run, West Virginia.
He went overseas with his unit, leaving a wife pregnant with a daughter he would not meet for over a year. He was wounded; a piece of metal remained lodged, inoperably close to his heart, but he lived. In Ralph’s Run he was one of the guys, but in the fireswept fields, Underwood was a giant. Along with his Purple Heart, he had the Silver Star to show for it.
Historian James Nelson would note that Underwood and his companions, “young hearts pounding faster as the pup-pup-pup of the machine guns grew louder… as they began to see the darting forms [of the enemy]… found …that they did, indeed, have the ability to kill.” Underwood might even have liked it; his company commander wouldn’t name him, but was perhaps thinking of him when he wrote that “New soldiers are bloodthirsty and vindictive.” They did not go to extremes to take prisoners. The enemy had it coming.
Underwood, “a country boy who’d grown up with a rifle in [his] hands,” did more than his share. Of his wounding, his medevac, his treatment and survival, and even of the valor decoration, which must have generated a thick stack of paperwork, Nelson writes not.
There’s just one more telegraphically-described scene, which brings to an end the story of Arza Earl Underwood, West Virginian roustabout turned war hero, a tragedy in three acts. Because Underwood did not adapt well to life after the war. A problem with unlawful substances led to out of control behavior, and 14 years after he enlisted, on the night of September 12, he lost control for the last time. Nelson, again:
[He] tore off all of Audrey Underwood’s clothing “except a brassiere,” and then suffered an attack of loathing and shame and told Audrey to, “Go get the gun and shoot me!”
The shooting was ruled justified, and Arza Underwood was laid to rest, a delayed action casualty of the war. From hero to bum in, what? A dozen years?
Which was his war? Bush’s Iraq adventure? The rear guard of Obama’s cynical bugout? The Southeast Asia War Games?
None of the above. Underwood’s life ended when his daughter Audrey shot him dead with his own gun on September 12, 1931, and the controlled substance he couldn’t control was alcohol, then banned under Prohibition. The President he went to war for was Woodrow Wilson and the one in office when he died was Herbert Hoover. His war, of course, was the First World War with the American Expeditionary Force. Underwood served with D Company, 28th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, fighting in the battles of Cantigny, Soissons and the Argonne.
Since then, we’ve learned everything and nothing about treating the psychological wounds of war. But we keep deluding ourselves that they represent something new.
Nelson, James Carl. The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War. New York: St. Martin’s, 2009. pp. 23, 90, 111.
(Nelson’s paternal grandfather was a member of the unit, although he didn’t begin his research in earnest, to his regret, until after John Nelson passed away in 1993. — Ed).