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First world war's last casualty

Al Pugh was the last known living combat- wounded vet from WWI. But friends remember him for so much more.

By TOM ZUCCO
Published January 9, 2004

photo
[Times photo (1998)]
Al Pugh, who lived at Bay Pines since 1996, will be missed for the almost 109 years worth of stories he told his friends.

ST. PETERSBURG - An hour before Thursday's memorial service, the elderly vets approached one by one in their wheelchairs, slowly circling the display laid out on the pool table. This was their last visit with Al.

They didn't say much, except that it was amazing how much recent photos of Al at 108 resembled the grinning young infantryman in the faded photograph.

The nursing home staff at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center also had put Al's FSU baseball cap and his box of Old Dominion Peanut Brittle on display in the Section G recreation room.

But most important was the blue notebook. The one Barb Owen kept. The one that told Al Pugh's story better than anyone.

Until his death Wednesday from pneumonia, 10 days short of his 109th birthday, Alfred R. Pugh was the last known surviving combat-wounded veteran from World War I.

Of the nearly 4.5-million Americans who served in World War I, the Veterans Administration estimates fewer than 300 remain.

"What we're seeing," said Larry Christman, director of public affairs for Bay Pines, "is the end of an era."

Al Pugh's life spanned three centuries.

He taught himself to play the organ. But he only used the black keys.

He organized the first Boy Scout troop in Maine, and he met Teddy Roosevelt. "He was shorter than I expected," Mr. Pugh said years later. "No more than 5 feet 6. Maybe."

He watched a young Boston Red Sox pitcher named Babe Ruth toss a shutout against the New York Yankees.

He served in the U.S. infantry in France in World War I, had his lungs seared by mustard gas during the Argonne Forest offensive, and in 1999 was named a chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honor, the highest honor France bestows.

He got married after the war and worked most of his life as a telegraph operator and a letter carrier in Westbrook, Maine, the town where he grew up. He outlived his six brothers and five sisters, and Irene, his wife. And although the couple had no children, he had a hand in bringing up 18 nieces and nephews.

He had lived at Bay Pines since 1996.

Those are the highlights. What Al Pugh did.

The notebook tells the story of the little things. It tells who Al Pugh was.

Owen, a staff nurse, said she started to write down his memories several years ago as part of a project set up by the hospital. But her interviews with Mr. Pugh soon became more than a duty.

She noted that he was most proud of talking one of his nephews out of leaving school. The nephew went on to college and was an admiral in the Navy. "He is retired now," he told Owen. "And my heart is filled with great pride."

He recalled how his mail route was 12 miles long, and that inside his leather pouch, he always carried biscuits for troublesome dogs and hard candy for the children.

"One year the children were asked who they wanted to speak to them in the auditorium at the end of the school year. They were asked if they wanted the police chief, the fire chief or the mayor.

"Much to the surprise of their teachers, they chose me."

And she wrote how excited Mr. Pugh was to wake up one Christmas morning and find an orange in his stocking.

"That had such a profound effect on me," said Owen, 53. "So this Christmas and last, I downsized and focused on my family. It finally sunk in to me, the true meaning of Christmas.

"That was Al's gift to me."

Under the electronic Bingo board and the papier-mache White House, a resident is playing a piano and another an accordion. They're trying to do the same version of Danny Boy, and they're not quite succeeding.

It's almost 3 p.m., and Al Pugh's memorial will start soon. The room is filling with staff, residents, friends and family.

John Booker, 83, a World War II veteran who lost his voice and now uses a touch-pad attached to his wheelchair to communicate, is nearby. He was Al's roommate.

John can't speak and Al was blind. But the touch-pad has a speaker, and with that and the staff's help, the two got to know each other well.

HE WAS A GOOD MAN ANDF NEVER COMPLAAINED, John wrote. LOTS OF STOORIES

When John was asked if he will miss his friend, his lips quivered, he lowered his head, and tears tumbled onto his terry cloth bib.

WE LISTEND TO BASEBAAAL MOST OF THE TIME ON RADIO HE IS BOSTON RED SOX MINE IS ATLANTA BRAVES

He stopped for several moments, and then tapped on the keyboard again.

I MISS MY FRIEND

[Last modified January 9, 2004, 01:46:07]


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