Veterans Day 2017. Since 1954 it has been a day to honor those who have served in the United States military, and I have many in my family that I honor: my husband, my brother, my father-in-law, a paternal uncle, both of my husband’s grandfathers and on and on and on. I am grateful for each one of them and their service to our country.
However, before it was called Veterans Day, the eleventh of November was known as Armistice Day, a day to remember the formal end World War I, which began at the eleventh hour of the aforesaid date. Regardless of the name change, which was spearheaded by Raymond Weeks, a Birmingham, Alabama World War II veteran, I still think of it as a day to remember and reflect on those who served and died in the Great War, the War to end all Wars, the war that didn’t.
Henry Alonzo ” Lon” Onderdonk was one of these soldiers. The brother of my paternal great-grandfather, he was born in Rutan, Alabama on June 13, 1893. The son of Benjamin Henry Onderdonk and Orra Rebecca Richardson he was educated at the Healing Springs Academy and Chatom High School. In April of 1917, heeding the call of his nation, he volunteered for service in the Army.
While stationed at Camp Mills, New York, Lon visited his sister Eleanor Onderdonk Penn and her renowned composer husband Arthur Penn at their summer home on Block Island, Rhode Island around which time the below photograph was taken of the siblings.
His leaving at dawn to return to Camp Mills in Long Island, New York inspired Arthur to later write the song “Sunrise and You.” He penned:
“Dull gray shadows, then a flaming sky, such was the picture when we said goodbye.”
Thereafter, Lon shipped to France as part of the 167thRegiment, Rainbow Division.
BUT Lon never returned home. On July 27, 1918 he was killed in action at the Battle of the Marne and laid to eternal rest in the newly-established Aisne-Marne Cemetery near Chateau Thierry, France having given his life on foreign soil to secure what the world hoped would be a lasting peace.
As a child on trips to the Richardson Cemetery in Rutan where Benjamin and Orra are buried, I was shown a marker that the Woodmen of the World had erected in memory of Lon, but I was made to know that he was not interred there, his resting place being “across the pond.” So whilst living in Germany a few years back, I made it a point to take my children to walk the ground where Lon and so many others, on both sides of the conflict, fought and died and to personally pay our respects at his graveside, to thank him for his service and sacrifice.
Today, on Armistice Day, ninety-nine years removed from his death, I am still grateful to my great-great-uncle for choosing to don the uniform and for fighting the valiant fight.