"If you can live until 11 o'clock tomorrow morning, you can go back home."
That was the heavy rumor spreading among the doughboys of the 4th Infantry Division in the cold mud and trenches in the Meuse-Argo-ne, France, on Nov. 10, 1918.
Arthur T. Barry, 83, of Worcester, Mass. was telling his story at the 61st annual convention of the 4th Infantry ("Ivy") Division (Regular Army) held at the Capital Hilton all last week. There were many stories, all told well from practice.
"We were about 50 yards away from each other," Barry said. "Both sides had heard the rumor, and we were firing all the ammunition that we had at each other, but I think we were firing it in the air." He laughed. "We didn't want to carry it back.
"But then about 6 a.m. on Nov. 11 they sent us over the top to straighten out a bulge in the line." He shook his white-topped head and added, sadly, "Quite a few were killed"
The experience seemed to Barry as vivid as yesterday. He continued in the crowded courtesy suite as he sipped a beer.
"There never seemed to be so much noise; we were shooting everything we had. And then along about 11:10, there was silence. Guys couldn't believe it. We were cupping our hands to our ears to listen to silence.
"We got out of the trenches and just sort of walked toward each other," he said. and exchanging of cigarettes. It was all over."
That night after weeks of dangerous fighting, a thousand bonfires burned in the Argonne Forest.
Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, Utah Beach, Normandy, Rhineland, Ardennes, Central Europ,e Quinhon, Pleiku, Dragon Mountain...These were some other familiar places to the veterans of the 4th Division in World Wars I and II and Vietnam. (During Korea, the division was stationed in Europe.)
Louis Minsky, 84, from Pittsfield, Mass., recalled the second battle of the Marne. He held his arm around Barry and said, "If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be here"
Barry and Minsky were attached to the medics as stretcher bearers, were close friends, slept in pup tents side-by-side and parted company when Minsky was badly wounded on July 29, 1918.
"We were in the wheat field dragging out the wounded," Minsky said. "The Germans were from here to across the street. A plane came in low and we got mowed down. I got hit in both thighs, right leg and both arms."
The two had told the story a lot and it was Barry's turn.
"I looked down and yelled, "Hey, they got one of our guys." He was covered with blood.
"We took him off the field and to a makeshift hospital in an old barn. I thought he was a goner and never knew what happened to him."
It was 58 years later, at a 1976 convention in Boston, that the two met again.
Barry still had the gift of the wisecracking doughboy who maybe once stood on a Paris street corner wearing his round hat, buttoned-up tunic and wrap-around leggings. Spotting an older woman perched on a chair in the lobby, the 83-year-old said, "She looks like she was a waitress at the Last Supper."
Andrew "Jiggs" Smith, 89, from Coalinga, Calif., said, "The last time I was in Washington was in 1918 at the war college."
Smith served as a cook with the 4th Division in France, and from the looks of his round frame, he may have tasted everything he ever fixed.
"I still make my own breakfast every morning," he said. "Its easier than cooking for an army."
Asked whether they sang all those romantic songs they sing in old World War I movies, Smith said, "I remember only one they kept singing to me: "Soupy, soupy, soupy, without a single bean.""
"They used gas on us, but they cut that out in the other wars," said Barry, almost bragging.
"Yeah, Minsky remembered. "We had to go down to Calais to learn how to use gas masks. When we were there we had hardtack and marmalade. You needed a hammer to break it up."
They talked of "cooties" (body lice) as if they were household pets.
"The place was loaded with them," Barry said. "When we sent a letter back home, we would catch one, place it on the corner of the paper and drop candle wax on it and mail it."
The division remained in Germany as an occupation force for a year before returning to the states.
Barry replied this with a little bitterness and said, "The ones that got all the glory and got to march up Fifth Avenue in New York were the ones who were half way over when it ended and turned around and went back.
"The only marching we did was from the Argonne Forest to follow the German Army back to Germany."
Viola Norton looked prim in her early 80s, sitting at a round table in a corner being greeted by everyone who passed.
A native of Fall River, Mass., she had the distinction of having been married to two veterans of the 4th Division.
"My first husband joined when he was 16, and when he returned we married. He passed away and I married Robert Norton. He was my first husband's captain. He passed away last October."
To ease away from the thought, Viola said, "My first husband was Lizzie Borden's paperboy, and he thought she was one of the loveliest persons he ever met.
"She used to invite him for coffee and cake when he came by with the paper."
Several beer drinkers were hoping Elliot Richardson would show up, and one said, "He was with the 4th medics. I think he got a battle field commission and ended up a captain."
Actually, Richardson got out of OCS in 1942 and became a liter bearer platoon leader with the 4th. He landed on Normandy on D-Day and served overseas for 18 months. Discharged in 1945 as a first lieutenant, he was awarded the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
Richardson did not make it to the convention but not because he would not have wanted to come, he said later by telephone. It's just that invitations have a way of getting lost in the winter of white envelopes that can collect when one is off attending a "Law of the Sea" conference in New York.
Richardson was asked why it was that men gather to savor the tales of such searing times. "It was the most extraordinary, intense experience," he said from the relative peace of McLean.
"All the more so in terms of evoking the most total kind of commitment to your buddies and your comrades. Your life literally depends on it. We were in the medical unit trying to save lives - it's hard to imagine a more directly rewarding experience, something that is more totally worthwhile." CAPTION: Picture, Louis Minsky, left, and Arthur T. Barry, by Douglas Chevalier