Having already won two Golden Globe Awards and nominated for 10 Oscars, the critically acclaimed feature-length movie “1917” is the tale of a pair of British soldiers who were sent across the battlefields of World War I to bring vital, life-saving information to an isolated regiment of British soldiers. That story is fictitious, but the job of runners was real.
The tale of one such runner is part of the family history for David Ullery of Freeman.
Ullery’s great-uncle and one-time Cass County resident, Herman G. Paustian, served in the United States Army with Company D, 316th Regiment, 79th Division A.E.F. during World War I.
Born Jan. 11, 1891, in Durant, Iowa, Paustian was 27 when he was drafted July 3, 1918, and was sent to Waco, Texas, for basic training. On Aug. 18, he boarded the ship Caronia in New York and sailed for Southampton, England. From there, on Sept. 5, 1918, he crossed the English Channel to France.
Paustian told a Kansas City Times reporter in July 1971 that “the word got out that my family had been employed by the Prussian royal family” and some of his Army buddies did not take this too well, Paustian said he felt he had “to prove he was an American.” And, in spite of his German heritage, he earned their respect and admiration for his bravery under fire.
Just days before the Armistice was signed, Paustian’s courage and valor earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second-highest honor, second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. The certificate that accompanied the medal summarized his mission near Verdun, France, on Nov. 7, 1918: “He advanced ahead of his battalion during a heavy barrage, trying to locate a small group of Americans who had become lost. For two days and nights he carried messages from one shell hole to another, having no food or water during that period. His work was carried on under intense bombardment at all times, but with great courage he remained at his task, killing at least two enemy snipers.”
Ullery was trained as a communications wireman when he entered the Army in the 1960s, and the advancements in communications technology in the last century are not lost on him.
“They didn’t have radios or walkie-talkies, certainly no cell phones like we have today. The only way to get a message from one group to another was to send a man, a runner, across the battlefield.”
Paustian’s Distinguished Service Cross was presented Dec. 7, 1918, by Gen. John Pershing.
Paustian was also the recipient of the French Croix de Guerre and the Italian Croce Di Guerra, both awarded for valor.
Paustian died March 30, 1978, at the veterans’ hospital in Leavenworth, Kansas, and is buried at Memorial Park Cemetery, Kansas City. Ullery has deep roots in Cass County, descended from families who have been here for at least four generations. He still lives in the family home in Freeman. Among his family mementoes is a shadow box that his mother created, containing a clipping from the Kansas City Star in November 1918 about Paustian’s military service.
Ullery has plans to see “1917” with his cousin, Glendon Ullery, Lee’s Summit.
“I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie, but I’m going to see this one as soon as it gets close enough.”
The little shadow box contains two other items prized by Ullery. His great-great-grandfather, Joachim Paustian, served in the Prussian Revolution from 1848 to 1850 for Frederick William IV, King of Prussia.
Afterward, he was personally selected by the emperor to be a member of his bodyguard. He even had the high honor of shaving the emperor and the straight razor he used is on display in the shadowbox.
Ullery said he accompanied the Prussian leader on a tour of the world, including the United States, then decided to emigrate to America. A family legend says the old man’s greatest regret was not using the razor to slit the emperor’s throat when he had the opportunity.
Also displayed in the shadowbox is a simple iron key, which Ullery explained his father brought home from Germany at the end of World War II.
The older Ullery served with the 103rd Combat Engineers who were ordered to destroy the Alpine chalets of Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering following the Allied victory. The key was used to enter the Goering estate. “