By Jim Dresbach, Pentagram Staff Writer May 31, 2013
JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON, HALL, Va. - On Oct. 18, 1917, the United States was six months into its official involvement in World War I. That autumn day, national newspapers reported German torpedoes were sinking American vessels in the Atlantic Ocean. Advertisements prompted those on the home front to purchase war bonds. The Chicago White Sox had just been crowned World Champions after defeating the New York Giants in the 1917 World Series. Imported Italian chocolates sold for 39 cents per pound in eastern seaboard cities.
Also on that date, Anthony "Tony" J. Vernille was born. From that point forward to the present, the world would soon witness some real storytelling.
Vernille, of Altoona, Pa., is a Third Calvary veteran. He is 95 years young. He continues to display a fiery gumption to play Bocce and exercise on a tread mill three times a week. He can stay step-for-step with an able-bodied man 40 years his junior. His mind is as sharp as a bayonet, and his tongue is quick with one-liners full of understated humor.
Vernille's stories are encyclopedic - he recalled his interactions with George S. Patton, who was the Third Calvary Commander at Fort Myer from 1938 to 1940, and again under then Gen. Patton as the two converged on the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge. He remembered blowing taps in Arlington National Cemetery and assembling for funerals outside the Old Post Chapel. He told of a time when Summerall Field was 100 yards of football gridiron.
When Vernille walked into the JBM-HH headquarters building May 22 with three scrapbooks of rare, irreplaceable photos, maps, memos and newspaper articles, those stories were now documented by a Fort Myer anthology that dates back to the late 1930s.
The vet served at Fort Myer from 1937 to 1940 as a part of the cavalry's Battery C; he re-enlisted in 1941, served in the Fourth Armored Division during the World War II surge through France and was discharged in 1946. But he detailed moments of his military time in photos - many which have become historical documents.
One Washington Times-Herald article and photograph from 1939 details Patton readying to fight a Fort Myer fire. Former JBM-HH historian Kim Holien noted that this article/photo combo is a rare find. Also among Vernille's collection are a 1919 occupation map of the Rhineland, Fort Myer horse show photos and snapshots from the Third Calvary's participation in war exercises at a fabled Northern Virginia Civil War location.
"That [Fort Myer fire] picture has never been reproduced anywhere else because nobody else has a copy of it. It literally is one of a kind, just like the pictures of war maneuvers down at the Manassas battlefield," Holien explained to Vernille. "There are pictures in your large album that have been lost to history. The battlefield doesn't have them; the [Prince William] County Historical Society doesn't have them; you're the only person that I know of - and I've been researching the battle for 20 years - that has those photos."
As Vernille and Holien traded Patton and Fort Myer stories, Vernille told what he remembered of the Patton-led fire fight.
"He [Patton] was the first one there holding the hose," Vernille remembered. "He was right there fighting the fire. The whole post turned out. We were in our underwear waiting in line [to help]. We were told to get out there the way we were. The whole outfit was out in front of the barracks in case they needed help."
Like a top 40 disc jockey, Vernille kept the hits coming. With the conference table encircled with captive ears, the adventures of the famed World War II general continued to roll off Vernille's near century-old tongue. One anecdote dealt with Patton's tobacco preference.
"When you sat in headquarters all day long, you ran errands for the commander, so one time, I was sitting down looking at a newspaper, and he threw a 10-dollar bill down on the table and told me to go over to the PX and get him a can of Edgewood tobacco. He smoked a pipe," Vernille said.
"Someone [an enlisted man] once made the mistake of passing him by, and he said 'Hey, don't you know an officer when you see one?' He was tough, but he wanted you to soldier. When he laid it out to you, that's the way it had to be. And that was it."
Vernille, along with countless other GIs, served under Patton in Europe as The U.S. Third Army liberated European villages, towns and aided the encircled burg known as Bastogne. On a fateful December day in 1944, Vernille again encountered Patton, and the Keystone State native used his old base as a battle cry.
"When we were on the roll to get up to the Ardennes [during the Battle of the Bulge], we saw Patton and I yelled 'Fort Myer!' and he went like that [gives the up-and-down horn-blowing gesture with arm]," he said of the no-nonsense general. "The only time we stopped was to put gas in the tank."
According to the veteran's memory, the Myer football team played on Summerall Field, and he has a photo to prove that fact. In that photo, Vernille posed while in a three-point stance with Bldg. 59 in the background.
"We played the Quantico Marines [out there], and I ran 92 yards for a touchdown," the former halfback said. "When I ran, I got down low; I didn't stand erect. I hit that line, and I cut to the right, so I barreled down. When a Marine was coming in and boom, I stiff-armed him, and I kept on going."
Following the Bldg. 59 meeting, Vernille and his entourage visited the caisson stables, the old post theater and Conmy Hall. Inside Conmy, he recalled the Fort Myer horse shows, which performed for the likes of the King and Queen of England and movie actor Errol Flynn.
"I remember the VIPs would sit in the front row; the floor was dirt in those days," the former horse Soldier said of Conmy. "The first time the horses and carriages rolled by and turned, the first row would get a lapful of dirt."
At the stables, Vernille schmoozed with the equine help. He continued to display an expert bond with horses. He shared his secret for extraordinary relations with his caisson co-workers - a lump of sugar was the key to gaining a horse's friendship.
"I did that, and my horse never bit me once," he said.
To finish his day, Vernille visited the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, and was a guest at the May 22 Twilight Tattoo held on Whipple Field. While walking the cemetery, he rested briefly, but rarely missed a step.
Leading up to the tattoo, Vernille was briefed on which units would be performing at the Army show. When informed that The U.S. Army Band's Voices would begin the pre-show and that Voices included female singers, his reaction was typical of a calm and cool cavalry man.
"There's nothing wrong with that," he said of the opportunity of listening to the female members of "Pershing's Own" singing group.