Until 1958, Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day, as Nov. 11 marked the day on which the armistice that ended World War I took place. That makes Veterans Day of 2012 particularly significant, as it marks the first time in history that there are no more living veterans alive from World War I. The last surviving veteran, Florence Green of England, died on Feb. 4 of this year. She was 15 days short of being 111. The last American vet of the Great War, Frank Buckles of West Virginia, died in February of 2011. He was also 110 years old.
More than 30 countries fought during the war and more than 70 million men and women were activated for duty. Nearly 4.5 million Americans fought in the Great War, of whom over 60,000 were from Connecticut. Among the more notable American veterans of the war was an aviator from Madison named Paul Pavelka.
Pavelka was the son of Hungarian immigrant parents named Paul and Anna Pavelka. The parents had emigrated to New York City and soon moved to Madison, where they purchased a small farm on Copse Road. Anna Pavelka mysteriously died in 1907 by falling on a pitchfork. Some people believe that her husband murdered her, as he married a beautiful young local woman soon after her death. Young Paul did not get along with his stepmother and left Madison as a teenager.
Paul Pavelka wandered out to the West where he worked as a cowboy and a cook. While there he became an expert horseman. He then worked at a hospital in San Francisco as a nurse. Apparently born with a spirit for adventure, Pavelka then began life as a sailor on the high seas. His numerous seafaring adventures included a shipwreck off the South American coast, after which he had to walk across the entire continent of South America.
Eventually, Paul Pavelka ended up in New York City. Soon, World War I broke out, and his thirst for more adventure took him to France where he joined the French Foreign Legion in the trenches of the Great War. While serving there, he befriended Paul and Kiffin Rockwell, fellow American adventure-seekers from North Carolina; in fact, he probably saved Kiffin Rockwell's life by bandaging him after Rockwell was shot in the leg on May 9, 1915. Pavelka himself later suffered a bayonet wound in the thigh in June of 1915, but continued to fight through the fall of that year until he decided to join the Rockwell brothers in an aviation unit known as the Lafayette Escadrille.
"Escadrille" is French for "little squadron," and the Lafayette Escadrille was named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette who had volunteered his service to help America during the American Revolution. Inspired by Lafayette's volunteerism, young American aviators such as the Rockwell brothers, Wallingford's Raoul Lufbery, and Madison's Paul Pavelka wanted to come to France's aid. They were among the 38 American aviators to join the Lafayette Escadrille. Within eight months, Pavelka began flying missions.
In August of 1917, Pavelka's Nieuport caught fire in flight — the scariest kind of incident that could befall early aviators, since they did not have a parachute. By cleverly "wing-slipping" his plane, thereby minimizing the effect of the flames in the cockpit, Pavelka was able to crash land into a swamp and escape before the plane exploded. The intrepid native of Madison was back on patrol the very next day.
Pavelka later volunteered for duty on the Macedonian front in Greece, where he was decorated for numerous successful missions. On Nov. 11, 1917 — exactly one year before the Great War ended — Paul Pavelka was helping "break" a new shipment of cavalry horses for a British officer stationed nearby in Monastir. When one of the more reluctant horses could not throw Pavelka from his back, it reared up and fell backward on top of him. Pavelka suffered crushing internal injuries from which he died the next day — exactly 95 years ago this week on November 12, 1917.
Initially buried at Saloniki with full military honors, Pavelka's body was later interred in a memorial constructed by a grateful French government for the Lafayette Escadrille on an 11-acre site just outside of Paris. He was just 26 years old.
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