Lt. Joseph Thurston Runyan often told stories about his World War I experiences during visits with grandson Edgar Riddick III, but certain ones stand out more than others, Riddick said.
Runyan served in France as a U.S. Army Air Service rear gunner and observer shortly before the “Great War” ended Nov. 11, 1918. The loss rate for observer planes was “very high,” Riddick said last week.
“The empty chairs at dinner is what I remember,” Riddick recalled of his grandfather telling about the two-man airplane crews that didn’t make it back from their dawn patrols behind German lines. “That was chilling.”
To document his grandfather’s World War I service, Riddick compiled an album of more than 100 pages of photos Runyan took during his war service, letters he wrote home, and magazine clippings and notations that he had in his own postwar scrapbook. Runyan, who went by Thurston, his middle name, died in March 1977 at age 80.
Riddick of Little Rock has donated a copy of the album to the Arkansas State Archives for its collection relating to the World War I Centennial observance. The album includes a prologue that Riddick wrote to summarize his grandfather’s “journey to war.”
The Arkansas World War I Centennial Commemoration Committee created by Gov. Asa Hutchinson has scheduled a Bells of Peace: World War I Remembrance Day for the Armistice anniversary. Bells are to be rung 11 times at 11 a.m. Nov. 11 statewide to remember those who served and to celebrate the anniversary of the war’s ending.
“The donation of items related to World War I to archival institutions was one of the mandates set out in the executive order that created the World War I Committee,” said Mark Christ, the state Department of Arkansas Heritage’s designee on the committee. “These materials provide a ground’s-eye view of these great events that humanize one of the greatest cataclysms that ever befell the world.”
Riddick said recently that he wrote the album’s prologue for his family to “tie it all together.” Friends suggested that he contact the State Archives, he said, to include the personal story of his grandfather’s service for the Arkansas-related history of the war being compiled during the centennial observance.
“I thought about how do I want this to be read 100 years from now,” he said. “That’s how I wrote it. I’m happy to do it, since it is the 100th anniversary of when he was over there. I hope somebody enjoys it.”
After training at Fort Roots in North Little Rock in 1917, first for the Artillery Mounted Cavalry “which he hated,” Riddick said, Runyan volunteered for the Army Air Service and was moved to Fort Sill, Okla. He was then transported to the war front in France in October 1918, one month before Armistice Day ended the war.
His timing was fortunate. The two-man observer planes would fly reconnaissance missions past “no-man’s-land” to document German military movements. The loss rate for observer planes was “very high,” Riddick wrote.
“To my knowledge he never crossed no-man’s-land,” Riddick said recently. “But he did fly on our side of no-man’s-land. A lot of that was for training.
“He was on the front line during wartime for only a matter of weeks,” he said. “When it got to him rotating up, he was literally to be on dawn patrol and a guy burst through the door and said, ‘Don’t go. There’s going to be an armistice signed.'”
The album includes photos of Runyan’s 1917 training at Fort Roots; his voyage across the Atlantic to France; of “Major Brown”; of being on leave in Paris; of his Aerodrome (military airbase) near Tours, France; of a captured German tank; and of Runyan’s 1919 arrival back in the U.S. at New York Harbor and of the Statue of Liberty. The exact date he returned is unclear, Riddick said.
For the album, he said he also relied on the recollections of his mother, June Runyan Riddick. Runyan’s war tales included playing chess with a German prisoner of war and Runyan’s relationship with his pilot, a “Major Brown.”
“The story of him with the prisoner of war and the story of him and Major Brown, the pilot, I’d heard those many times in the ’60s and ’70s,” Riddick said. “And the song he sang [Ballad of the Aerodrome] I heard many times. He sang that all his life, like when he was in the garden.”
It was after Runyan’s wife, Maxie, died, and shortly before Runyan’s death after he was injured in an automobile accident, Riddick said, that his grandfather’s stories became darker.
“He’d been a widower for about six months,” Riddick recalled. “I would go over after school at [Little Rock] Central High to play chess with him.”
“There was this one day in particular when he really let loose, in the spring of 1977, shortly before he died,” he said. “It was some things I’d never heard before. For somebody I knew as a very happy grandfather, who always had a smile on his face, was the life of the party, I do remember that one afternoon he was very somber, and he told me about more of the serious things.
“They [Runyan and Brown] were never ever shot at, but they were terrified,” Riddick said. “From 75 to 80 percent of deaths in World War I were due to artillery shells. They shot millions and millions of rounds on both sides. Because of the railroads, they could ship in more and more rounds overnight then shoot them off the next day. He never mentioned to me if he was ever shelled, but there is a picture of them building a trench just in case of being shelled or for a strafing attack.”
Runyan carried the scars of war with him throughout his life, Riddick said.
When Riddick’s parents took Runyan to the 1966 British war film The Blue Max, starring George Peppard, the action was too realistic for Runyan. In one scene, Peppard’s German fighter pilot attacks a two-man observer plane and shoots the rear gunner.
“That scene so upset my grandfather that he got up and walked out,” Riddick said. “I remembered that story and my mother confirmed it because she was there. He never saw the ending of that movie. It brought back too many memories.”
Metro on 09/30/2018
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