Images from the Great War
World War I was the first war to be extensively documented with photographs. The images below show glimpses into the life Austin led as a Doughboy in the 12th Balloon Company.
Reviews and Media Coverage
Austin featured in Professor Edward Lengel’s “A Storyteller Hiking Through History” blog! In a post titled “An American Balloon Company’s Tempestuous Voyage Home,” Lengel recounts Austin’s trip home from WWI aboard a ‘repurposed’ German ocean liner.
Through Austin’s story, Johnson presents an immersive re-creation of life and death on the Western Front, especially among the seldom-sung balloon squadrons…. The result is both richly textured and moving. A fine evocation of the face of war and the hidden wounds it leaves.
Why I Wrote this Book
“People who go to war movies have never been in a war.”
Austin’s words made me write this book.
I’d asked to see The Sands of Iwo Jima. Austin flinched, grew ashen, grimaced with pain, turned and walked off. He didn’t explain further, just walked away, head down. I didn’t ask to see another war movie, sensing there was a whole encyclopedia of woe buried deep in his soul.
It was 1949 and I was nine. Mom had told me Dad was in World War One—”the Great War” as it was then known—but she said he never talked about it.
It was not until decades later that the memory of Austin’s silent withdrawal drove me to investigate further the “why” of it. Why had my innocent request reopened a wound? Was it that bad “over there?”
After John Steinbeck came back from combat with American troops in WWII, he theorized that the nervous system of a soldier under fire generates some form of anesthesia that dulls the senses and induces a kind of amnesia: “Perhaps all experience which is beyond bearing is that way. The system provides the shield and then removes the memory, so that a woman can have another child and a man can go back into combat again.”
Could it be Austin simply couldn’t remember, rather than wouldn’t? If so, why had he acted as he did?
Probing the issue started me on ten years of research that ended up as Austin in the Great War. In the process of writing it, I learned about the reasons men retreat into themselves after combat, and I learned about kinds of war-wounds medical dictionaries can’t even define. There is a reason authors so often use the word unspeakable in trying to describe a battlefield.
Why had my father spurned my request that sunny day so long ago? Readers will learn what I learned.
But I must disclaim: what I learned is in this book; what I know is not. Research gave me what I learned; Austin’s look gave me what I know.
An “Austin” Chronology
Born on the Johnson Family farm 5 miles west of Butte, Nebraska
Leaves school after fifth grade; works on family farm
October–December: Drafted by Army; sent to Fort Omaha, joins 12th Balloon Company
June: 12th BC embarks for France from Norfolk, Virginia on the USAT America
September 12–November 11: Fights in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne advances
October 1: Narrowly escapes death from balloon explosion caused by artillery shell
October 3–6: Assists with wounded in front-line nursing stations; serves on burial details
October 16–November 11: Company observes for guns of 150th Field Artillery until Armistice
March 9: 12th BC sails for America on board USS Princess Matoika, arrives Norfolk March 20th
April 18: Austin receives Honorable Discharge from Army at Ft. Omaha
April 27: Austin arrives at new home in Colome, SD, returns to farming
July 20: Austin marries Lillian (Wagner) Johnson in Winner, SD
Austin and Lillian farm near Winner, SD; eight children are born there; Great Depression sets in
Austin and Lillian and family move to Idaho; ninth (last) child, Robert, born at Tensed
Austin and Lillian and family move to Yakima Valley of Washington; “Heart’s Rest”
July 10: Austin dies at Veteran’s Hospital in Spokane, Washington
Frequently Asked Questions
Austin in the Great War (AITGW) is about the US Army’s Balloon Service during World War One. The Balloon Service was so small and disappeared so rapidly following WWI that only a handful of authors have treated it, this despite its formidable tactical value in reconnaissance. A search of Amazon listings for “Balloon Service” yields exactly two hits, one of which is for “insignia, uniforms, and equipment” and the other of which is 20 years old: Eileen Lebow’s A Grandstand Seat, which treated only one outfit.
Only 17 balloon companies—about 7,000 men including HQs and support contingents—served while under fire at the front. Of those, at least two arrived just as the Armistice was declared and therefore saw limited combat. Furthermore, although it was at the front, one balloon company (the 44th) never flew because half the company had fallen ill from the influenza epidemic then raging.
The Prologue gives the full answer, but I can outline it here: I always wondered why Austin would never talk about his time in the war. A significant part of the book deals with that question. However, as I researched the book I realized that other important details demanded exposition. Among those were the deplorable conditions of horses and mules in the Great War; the tragic sinking of a merchant vessel struck by Austin’s ship in mid-ocean; the psychic, concussive “shell-shock” wounding that crippled so many; the raping of its countryside that France endured; and the mechanics of the balloons themselves. Grounding those narratives is a treatment of the technical advances that made the war so savage. Moreover, I wanted to remedy the “national amnesia” about the Balloon Service.
Welcome to the amnesia ward. You can read dozens of otherwise authoritative, even scholarly, works on the Great War—I have done it—and find no mention of the Balloon Service. It was hardly known about even in the US Army of the day. Newspapers and magazines were in love with biplanes and largely ignored balloons except when one of them got “flamed”—burned by enemy aircraft—near one of their reporters. Five unpublished memoirs exist that were written by officers—the men in the basket. As far as I can determine, no books exist that were written by common soldiers—the men on the ropes. This book takes their point of view and is therefore, to my knowledge, unique among all extant books (or translations) in English.
You won’t find any. The scant literature of the Balloon Service includes one military history (A Grandstand Seat; 1998; 205 pages) that focused on the Second Balloon Company. A variety of short, sporty, lightweight pieces appeared in magazines like Popular Science, Boy’s Life, and Flying. My work tops out at 50 chapters comprising 530 pages, an average of 10 pages per chapter. Those pages include 350 drawings and photographs plus six appendixes totaling about 20 pages. Therefore it is exhaustive in its treatment of the Balloon Service in general and the 12th Balloon Company in particular. As now written, the shortest chapter is 3 pages and the longest is 22.
They didn’t. WWI balloons used hydrogen, like the dirigible Hindenburg, except they lacked a steel frame, and like the Hindenburg, they were highly flammable. The other difference between observation balloons and hot air balloons was they were not free-flying, they were tethered to the ground.
No, with a steel cable. They were reeled up-and-down like a yo-yo, as high as half-a-mile. A pilot and an observer telephoned information down to the ground over an embedded wire to a switchboard.
We lost 23 to air attacks. Austin’s was destroyed—flamed—on the ground by enemy artillery fired from miles away. Eleven others were lost like that. Our soldiers blew up 50 of the enemy’s balloons.
: I started with two pieces of information and four objects. Here is everything I learned from him:
- Once when I asked him a question (I can’t remember whether it was before or after the Sands of Iwo Jima incident I told of in the Prologue), Dad said that his outfit had left for Europe from Norfolk, Virginia. I could see from his stricken demeanor when he answered that it would be unwise to probe further. The harrowing passage and the tragic drownings in the Atlantic must have still troubled him all those years later.
- Dad would occasionally utter some random phrase in German or French. For instance, he might say Versteht? (“Do you understand?”). He always imparted a jocular or sardonic tang when he delivered that phrase, and over time it became obvious that he had had contact with Germans. Again jocularly, he would sometimes give out with a “Mercy beau-coupe!” in thanks to someone. No French-speaking settlers lived near his family’s Nebraska homestead and the language was not taught in his elementary school. He had to have learned it in France.
Other than those tidbits of information, I had five objects with which to begin my research:
- A photograph of Austin and his fellow Boyd-County US Army inductees at Fort Omaha.
- The Private’s stripe from his uniform.
- The WWI “Victory” Medal with three clasps awarded to veterans who served honorably in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne sectors during the final battles there.
- The battlefield commendation for bravery under fire issued to the Maneuvering Squad of the 12th Balloon Company on October 1st, 1918. (No other balloon company was thus honored.)
- His ID tags (“dog tags”) bearing his serial number.
Using the above information, I was able—slowly, slowly, over ten years—to track down and assemble Austin’s story. One fact led to another, and that one to another, until finally a complete-enough factual net appeared to permit filling in the blanks with reasonable surmissions. The research consumed the better part of ten years. Some fortuitous events occurred midway in the process that hastened it, the most important of which was the discovery that the CO of the 3rd Balloon Company had lived right here in Palo Alto and left a copy of his memoir two miles from my front step at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
After a lot of research, and after talking to my eight siblings about their memories of Austin, and searching my own, I was able to recreate his “voice.”
Certain sections qualify as fiction, but you shouldn’t think of this book that way.
It was never my intention to write a military history, and had Austin chosen to speak about his time in the Army he would not have told it as such. Austin would have just sat you down, pulled out his pipe, and started talking.
Some events are reported exactly as they occurred. On the other hand, some chapters describe events inferred or reconstructed from their context and the known events of the time. In the largest sense, nothing in the book is completely fictive except for some invented names.
So, no, Austin in the Great War is not a true story in the strictest sense. However, it is a truthful story. These things really happened, either to Austin, to members of his balloon company, or to members of the US Army sections to which it was attached. Any man who breasted the same river of blood as Austin would not challenge the veracity of any of the incidents reported inside the covers of my book. Insofar as possible I have tried to restrict the movements of 12th Balloon Company to its exact positions and actions; the front matter contains a highly accurate day-by-day timeline. I relied on it to guide me in constructing the narrative.
Some chapters fall into the realm of “creative nonfiction”—that is, I examined all available relevant information and drew reasonable conclusions based on eyewitness accounts and company records. Many chapters feature imagined dialog; some can thus be called “historical fiction.”
In 2012 and 2013 I took classes in creative nonfiction at Stanford University. Among our texts was Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, William Zinsser, editor. It featured excerpts from the works of nine accomplished writers. Discussing their work, they often referred to how hard it was to deal with questions of blurred memory, dead-on eyewitness recall, and embellished nostalgia among the jumble of characters and events that populate their writings. Directly or circuitously, all the authors concurred that the story subsumes the truth, not the other way around; “if that were the case, we would never have gotten any writing done.”
Because that’s the way he spoke. If he were to tell you his story in person, you would hear it like that.
Austin received only a partial grammar-school education. As happened so often with firstborn country boys in those days, he had to quit school to help his family tend their farm. He was 11 years old in 1905 and had just finished the fifth grade when the needs of the growing Johnson family became so urgent—he had four siblings by then—that he had no other choice. He spoke and wrote what he heard the way he heard it, in the language contemporary farm-country Nebraska boys used. I recall Austin’s speech very clearly and have tried to recreate it the best I can.
Well, yes. I weighed the decision carefully. Members of two Stanford writing classes helped me wrestle with it (their names are listed in the Acknowledgments). Many classmates felt that the combination of bad spelling and nonstandard usage was so distracting that it worked to the detriment of the narrative, so I fixed the spelling but left the usage intact. However, Austin’s speech was full of dropped final “g”s and the writing retains a few for the sake of authenticity. Again, my hope is that not so many occur as to intrude upon the reader’s attention to the narrative.
Using “Austin” in the title was partly from family habit and partly from deliberate decision.
We nine kids—I was the ninth—all addressed him as “Dad,” never “Austin” or “Father.” However, my mother often used “Austin” instead of “my husband” or “Dad” or “your father” when she referred to him in the third person. Something about it just sounded right, a bit genteel, respectful, and old-timey. I have adopted the practice myself when thinking about him in the third person.
I selected the “Great War” phrase in the title partly to remind people that World War One was not called such until more than two decades later, after Pearl Harbor. To Austin and all his contemporaries, WWI was “The Great War.” Also, I wanted a title that would sound a bit more memorable than “My Father in the Great War” or “Dad in the Great War.” Furthermore, I wanted to honor Austin with a mention of his name in the title, together with his induction photograph on the front cover.
No. He might have been a member of the National Association of American Balloon Corps Veterans (NAABCV), which held yearly reunions in cities around the United States, but he never attended them. It’s possible that he kept in touch with a few of them by letter. It’s also possible that he subscribed to Ease Off and Haul Down, the NAABCV’s publication. He might have kept in touch with them that way.
I’m the youngest of Austin’s nine children, born when he was nearing 50, so our two lifespans comprise 124 years (and growing!). Coincidentally, three other men who live nearby are also sons of a balloon soldier. There aren’t many of us first-generation children of the original gasbaggers left.