As a child, Bill Barto felt he stood out: All the other kids he knew had dads who served in World War II; his dad fought in the Great War — World War I.
Barto, 69, of Bay Shore, can recall countless stories of his dad’s wartime escapades serving in the U.S. Army’s 16th Cavalry Division.
“As soon as I found out he was a horse soldier, I was hooked for life,” Barto said. “I was constantly asking him questions, and he was always telling me stories.”
The younger Barto will be among those commemorating the centennial of the end of the Great War on Sunday at the Museum of American Armor in Bethpage. Veterans Day, which is meant to honor all who have served in the U.S. military, was originally known as Armistice Day and marked the end of the fighting in World War I on Nov. 11, 1918; the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended the war, was signed June 28, 1919.
By his own account, Barto is on a personal mission to tell his dad's story, a part of the war he said is often overlooked in discussions of the Great War. Born in Bay Shore in 1893, William Willet Barto enlisted in the Army’s cavalry division on May 1, 1917, Barto said.
“He wanted to be in the cavalry because he was an old farm boy and he loved horses,” Barto said about his father.
Assigned to the Texas-Mexico border, Barto and the other members of his division were charged with protecting it from raiding Mexicans, many of whom were directed by Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the legendary Mexican Revolutionary general.
“Since Mexico was loosely aligned with Germany in World War I, they were allowing German spies, saboteurs to cross at the Rio Grande,” Barto explained. Through a British intelligence intercept of the Zimmerman telegram, penned by Germany’s ambassador to Mexico in January 1917, the United States got wind of Germany’s proposition that if it won the war, it would reward Mexico for its help with a gift of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
“President [Woodrow] Wilson wasn’t going to have any of that, so he that’s why he sent the Army there to secure the borders,” Barto said.
Instructed not to cross the Mexican border, the patrols galloped across the Rio Grande, often in areas so shallow you could walk across, Barto said.
“But my dad gave me a wink and said, ‘Sometimes we went after them,’ ” Barto recalled. “From 1917 to 1919, they went on almost daily patrols looking for these guys and often found German saboteurs and spies trying to get into the U.S.”
The Army’s 2nd Cavalry Division, the sole cavalry sent to Europe, quickly proved ineffective against the machine-gun fire taking out its horses. “I always used to ask my dad why he never went to France,” Barto said. “ ‘Warfare got too modern, and it was not made for horses,’ ” he said his father replied.
Following in Dad’s footsteps
At his father’s suggestion, Barto enlisted in the U.S. Army in February 1968. There he learned drafting and was assigned to a military intelligence unit in the Army Security Agency and served for a year in Vietnam.
His dad counseled that he’d learn useful skills in the Army Corps of Engineers.
“ ‘You’ll apply it while you’re in the service and when you get out, you’ll get a job,’ ” he recalled his dad saying. “And he was right.”
Barto worked at Grumman Aerospace for 20 years and is currently a senior technical illustrator for Honeywell.
William Barto instilled a sense of service in him and Ashbel, his brother from his dad’s first marriage, who enlisted after the Pearl Harbor attack, serving in the South Pacific in the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II.
“Nobody in my family was ever drafted, “Barto said. “They didn’t have to come looking for us: We went.”
Returning to civilian life, Barto became an active member of VFW Post 433 in Sayville.
“When we came back from Vietnam, nobody wanted to know us,” Barto said. “We got name-called and spat at. The only solace you could find was a fellow veteran you could tell your troubles to and he could tell his troubles to you,” he continued. “They confused the war with the warrior. We were asked to do something and we went.”
Though the cavalry is a largely overlooked aspect of World War I, Barto said, he makes sure his son and daughter and five grandchildren are well versed in its lore.
“If they didn’t protect the borders, saboteurs could have disrupted factories and seaports, communications. You get enough of that disruption and you could put the whole country in turmoil,” he said.
After the war, his father went into his family’s carpentry business until 1933, when business fell precipitously because of the Great Depression, and he became a police officer for the newly created Islip Police Department.
His dad also served as a volunteer firefighter and spent many hours with other firefighters talking about the war.
“Though some went to Europe, they all had the same thing in common. You had a terrific camaraderie,” Barto said.
To this day, Barto proudly recognizes his father’s heroism.
“If he wasn’t serving his country, he was serving his community,” he said.
The United States marked the end of World War I with Armistice Day, which two decades later was renamed Veterans Day.
“People have to remember this,” said Barto, adding that whenever he can, he enlightens others about the call to duty.
“I never ever wanted to see any soldiers that are fighting today get mistreated like I was,” Barto said, adding, “And if had to do it over again, I would.”
Legacy of the Great War
World War I profoundly altered the world and introduced the American century, said historian Libby O’Connell, who serves as a commissioner for the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission.
“If you think of history as change over time, war accelerates that change,” said O’Connell, 64, who lives in the Town of Huntington. “It’s World War I that transformed the world into the modern age we know today.”
One hundred years later, the war still resonates, said O’Connell, noting that Britain and France divvied up the Middle East in that period.
“And these conflicts continue and are a source of great instability in the world today. Prior to World War I, all of the Middle East was governed by the Ottoman Empire. It dissolved in WWI.”
The Middle East, Russia, aviation, women’s rights, civil rights, agriculture, finance and telecommunications were dramatically impacted during that time.
“It was a watershed in American history,” remarked O’Connell, adding that if we want to understand the world today, "start at World War I.”
Commenting on the importance of the holiday first named Armistice Day, Museum of American Armor president Lawrence Kadish said, "Veterans Day is a day of reflection, but it is also a day for educating a new generation about the legacy left to them by those who have served."
Of the veterans who fought in World War I, Kadish added, "Their voices still speak to us one hundred years later. It is up to us to listen."
Likewise, Barto continues his commitment to tell their story. "I just want folks to know that securing the southern border during World War I was equally important as the campaigns in Europe," he said, adding, "My father was very modest about all this. But, I'm sure he'd be proud of what I'm doing for him."