By Khalida Sarwari
Inside his bright and tidy first-floor apartment at the Saratoga Retirement Community, Lawrence “Larry” Hawkinson sifts through relics like a belt buckle that once adorned the waist of a German soldier in the First World War and the commendatory note King George V sent to his father.
As the country prepares to observe Veterans Day — originally known as Armistice Day — the 94-year-old shared vivid memories of his father, who served in World War I.
Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the peace agreement known as the Armistice that effectively marked the end of the war and one of the deadliest conflicts in history.
Encircling a royal crown, the bronze and wooden buckle bears the inscription “Gott Mitt Uns.” “It means ‘God is with us,’” Hawkinson explained. His father found it during the war. Funny thing, he quipped, the Americans thought God was on their side.
His father, also named Lawrence, was one of them. The senior Hawkinson served as a field medic in the war alongside dozens of other men from the Valley. In creased, but meticulously maintained notes and records, his father chronicled his journey from the South Bay to San Diego for training and departure to Europe, where he eventually landed near Metz — a fortified city that exchanged hands between the Germans and French a few times in the 20th century before it finally became French territory.
“My dad was a teacher in Linden near Stockton,” Hawkinson said, peering through silver-framed glasses at a small collection of black and white and sepia-toned photos sprawled on his dining room table. “He taught there and then went into Stockton schools. Then WWI started and all these guys were going to get drafted. Somebody thought it was a great idea to set up a medical team of guys that would be trained and doctors, dentists and nurses from Santa Clara Valley organized it.”
Near Metz, the medical volunteers were stationed right behind the front lines and treated wounded soldiers every day for months until the opposing armies ceased fighting “at 11 minutes after 11 o’clock in the morning on the 11th day of the 11th month,” said Hawkinson.
In one of his father’s letters, dated Oct. 1, 1918, he writes: “We hear about things at the front thru officers who come from there directly. They all say that the spirit of the Americans is wonderful, and that nobody up there expects the war to last longer than a few months. Their slogan up there is ‘Hell, Heaven or Hoboken by Christmas.’”
But there would be no early return for the senior Hawkinson. He stayed for months to help American troops confiscate ammunition from the Germans.
That’s the short story of how a 23-year-old educator with roots in the South Bay ended up playing an unlikely role in one of the most consequential wars of our time. His son now proudly shows off an assortment of documents and photos — a glimpse into his father’s wartime experience.
With the fighting over, the senior Hawkinson eventually came home to the South Bay, began a family and returned to teaching.
Over the years, the 40-strong band of medical volunteers reconvened every year at someone’s house. Many of those reunions took place in a ranch house in Morgan Hill owned by Hawkinson’s tent-mate, Edwin Acton. His son, a retired chemist, now resides at the Saratoga Retirement Community where he and the younger Hawkinson rekindled their friendship in their later years.
The elder Hawkinson died of a heart attack at 68. But he passed on the love of teaching and the importance of service to his son, who’d go on to have a storied career in his own right during World War II and later in the Bay Area academic scene. The younger Hawkinson put in 31 years in the U.S. Navy, climbing to the rank of commander before retiring.
These days, he spends his time a little differently. He remains active in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics — he says he hasn’t missed a single one of their 60 conferences — and always has a book he’s reading.
At 94, he can still drive and feels spry enough to play golf — far removed in both time and space from the artillery shells, mine explosions and poison gas attacks familiar to all those that served in the wars past.