Tulsan's poetry recounts World War I memories
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Sunday, November 06, 2011
11/06/11 at 4:41 AM
Read George Overmyer’s poem “Reprieved Mounted Runner”
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Ninety-three years after the armistice, only a handful can remember World War I. None who fought in the blood-soaked trenches of the Western Front remain.
More than 70 million men fought over the course of more than four years. Some nine million combatants died. If the Spanish Influenza and other related horrors are counted, the death toll mounts to more than 65 million.It was the worst conflagration the western world had known, although time and worse horrors have largely erased it from the collective conscience.
Friday - Veterans Day - marks the anniversary of the largely forgotten war's end.
Although he died 21 years ago, George Overmyer's memories have not disappeared.
To right and left as far as the eye could see
Sun flashes on the bayonets of advancing infantry.
One could see, but not hear at all, for the blast
Of shrieking, exploding shells - could a mortal last?
Overmyer - a Tulsa businessman - remembered his experiences in a set of 22 poems, putting him in the great tradition of World War I trench poets, who include Rupert Brooks, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and John McRae.
Overmyer's family gathered up the faint carbon copies of his poems last year and published them privately under the title "Rhymes of a Runner."
The poems are a testament to the nightmares of a war that failed to live up to its promise to end all wars.
"The Rolling Barrage" tells the story of a July 18, 1918, bayonet charge of U.S. soldiers into German trenches with cover from American artillery.
When the unit's leader is hit, Overmyer tries to warn the ranking officer to slow down the advance because some of the American artillery is off target.
The captain was hit - this was his last - a ghastly sunrise.
I had to shout in the din - hand cupped to the lieutenant's ear.
"Sir, there's one gun firing too short. I have to advise
That we slow down this part of the line along here."
It was all I got said, for with a deafening blast and roar
A shell lit and burst - a flame geyser - just by his side.
I couldn't hear now - the lieutenant - he was no more.
Our shell - the short gun - his body saved me as he died.
The lieutenant's body had absorbed the shell's fury and protected Overmyer from death, a fact that leads him to wonder "Were our destinies decided at fate's own direction?"
Overmyer believed he had been protected by a guardian angel - his mother, who died when he was 6 days old.
Were those who survived born under a favorable sign?
I cannot say - this I know - I had an angel's protection.
When Overmyer signed up for the American Expeditionary Force, he was 17 years old.
"I believe his whole class of high school buddies went at the same time," said Jean Essley, Overmyer's daughter. "I suppose they got their heads together. Did they know what they were getting into? I don't know."
The youngster was assigned to be a runner - a messenger who would take information back and forth from the front lines to artillery units and commanders in the rear.
Overmyer would see some of the worst moments the war had to offer.
One of Overmyer's most chilling poems is "Reprieved Mounted Runner," in which he is ordered by Capt. Oliver Cunningham to take a plea for covering artillery fire from a front-line unit to a battalion commander.
Amid heavy fire, Overmyer discovers a German officer's horse, which he rides to the battalion office.
After delivering his message, Overmyer is sent back to the unit.
Seeking my German horse, I salvaged just a bridle and bit
Since the body was mangled from an almost direct hit.
Blaming myself for tethering it in that exposed spot,
I started afoot for the infantry to again cast my lot.
When he gets back to his unit, he finds different soldiers and a commander he doesn't recognize.
He said that right after I left came the shelling holocaust.
They went in the railroad station where all were lost.
Thus detected; fire concentrated there brought trouble.
Your Captain Cunningham and his staff are in that rubble.
As a runner, Overmyer was armed only with a .45-caliber handgun. When he was trapped in combat situations, he would find arms wherever he could.
In "The Deacon's Dilemma," he tells of taking a Springfield rifle off a badly mangled body while he was with a unit that was being pounded by a Whiz Bang, a cannon that shot a high-speed shell with an ominous noise. When he went to fire the rifle, Overmyer discovered it didn't have a cartridge in its chamber or its magazine.
Another corporal realized the gun must have belonged to a fellow soldier known as "the Deacon" because he used his spare time in the trenches to preach the Christian gospel. The Deacon kept his rifle unloaded because "he wasn't no killer."
When the unit hears that the Deacon has died, it responds with a violent attack on the German troops, who retreat hastily.
In minutes with horses galloping, it started over a hill.
Then with horses down the cannoneers plainly had their fill.
With hands uprised they came our way, all begging "Kamrad."
The corporal spat. "Forgive your enemies sayeth the deacon and God."
Overmyer left the Army with the nation's second-highest military decorations for gallantry in combat - the Distinguished Service Cross - and two Silver Stars. He also was awarded the Purple Heart and two Croix de Guerres.
Following the armistice, Overmyer served on Gen. John Pershing's honor guard and carried the U.S. flag during the victory parade in Paris. He was the most decorated soldier to return to his home state of Indiana.
Later, he and his wife, Brenda, moved to Oklahoma, seeking their fortunes in the oil fields and later the glass business.
Growing up, Essley said she knew her father was a hero because of his case of medals, but he rarely talked about the details that he would relate in the poems he started writing in his 50s or 60s.
"They were probably the first we knew about them, reading them in the poetry," she said. "I think he kept it pretty much to himself."
"I guess you don't forget those things."
Original Print Headline: Tulsan's poetry recounts WWI incidents
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308
World War I soldier Cpl. George Overmyer, author of "Rhymes of a Runner," acted as part of an honor guard that was reviewed by Gen. John Pershing. Courtesy photo
World War I soldier Cpl. George Overmyer Courtesy photo