Column: WWI veteran Carl Vail believed in something larger than himself

Carl Vail was an American story. He was born Aug. 12, 1895, on his father’s farm in Peconic. His father was Floyd Vail, and he farmed land that ran from the North Road nearly to the Sound, where he also maintained cabins on the bluffs that he rented to tourists. The Vail name appears on Southold Town records from the 1600s.

Growing up a farm boy on the North Fork, Mr. Vail no doubt dreamed of what the world looked like beyond the horizon. So when he was 22 in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, he volunteered for the Army. After a period of training at Camp Upton in Yaphank he found himself in France, where he was gassed and where he earned a Purple Heart.

He told stories to people over the years about his experiences and made an oral history of his life that is today the foundation of an exhibit called “The Homefront” at Southold Historical Society, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into the war. Reading Carl Vail’s oral history is a lesson in how a small-town man, a descendant of a long line of farmers, believed in something larger than himself, volunteered to go to Europe to help end the war and returned home to begin over again.

Upon his return, Mr. Vail married a woman named Inez Robinson. They were married for 71 1/2 years.

It is not hard to imagine the horrors he saw in World War I; tens of thousands died in a matter of days in some of the major offensives after America entered the war. He was gassed, which no doubt affected his health and his life for the rest of his days. However, this did not stop him from serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. It seems Mr. Vail was up for anything.

When Carl Vail died on March 12, 1998, he was 102 years old, and was surely one of the last World War I veterans on Long Island and one of very few who served in different capacities in both world wars.

“Carl was my mother’s brother,” recalled Allan Dickerson of Mattituck. “He had three brothers and four sisters. They lived in the house that still sits by the side of the road in Peconic. As kids we would go up there to see everyone and walk through the woods up to the Sound.”

When Mr. Dickerson got out of the Army in the 1950s and returned home, he worked briefly in his uncle’s car dealership, which began in a barn in Peconic and later moved to Main Road. Vail Motors was a long-running business in Southold. It is safe to say most people who bought cars from Mr. Vail did not know what he had experienced in France in the final year of the Great War.

The rich archive at Southold Historical Society shows that Mr. Vail saw and experienced a lot. It seems remarkable he could push those experiences out of his mind and come home, get married and run successful businesses. Here are some excerpts from his oral history to give a sense of what he went through:

“Night attack – Argonne Forest. 2nd Batl. Pitch black. Fetched up against a wire fence which the Germans had covered with machine gun fire. Captain did not know the way back so, being brought up in the country and knowing my directions, plus looking out for my own skin, volunteered to lead the battalion out of the trap and Captain Dodge gladly accepted. The next day I volunteered to help bury the too numerous dead from this foolhardy attack.”

“On patrol in the Argonne Forest four of our men were wounded before we got into position to dig in. The next morning Sgt. Koch asked for volunteers … Shortly we spotted … a line of Germans … at various machine gun positions. Without orders Herries opened fire so the rest of us followed suit. I emptied my clip into a group of Germans with results. Then they opened up on us. An explosive bullet hit Buriokas in the head … another explosive bullet hit Herries in the back.”

Mr. Vail saw a lot. He lived a big life. He is an American story.

The author is the executive editor of the Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at 631-354 8048 or [email protected].