Serving in the armed forces was a family affair for the McNeal men.

Leigh McNeal of Gothenburg served in Korea. His brother, Mearl, served during World War II. Both joined the U.S. Navy.

But it was their father, Clarence McNeal, a World War I veteran, that Leigh wanted to recall during a recent interview.

Clarence, who grew up in the Brady area, joined the U.S. Army on Feb. 27, 1918. He was assigned to the 4th Infantry and later the 3rd Division. He landed in Europe on April 15, 1918, with little training and even less understanding of the world he was entering.

Leigh recalls several stories his father shared as he was growing up about those years serving in the Army.

Weapons became Clarence’s best friend, and Leigh recalls his dad talking about one in particular.

“He had a pistol that was issued to him right away, and that meant a lot to him. But the Army wouldn’t let him keep it. They wouldn’t discharge him unless he turned over the pistol,” said Clarence. “So he walked up to the big pile of guns and threw it on, then turned around and walked away. That’s the story he told.”

In the fall of 1917, the 4th Infantry formed in North Carolina, just a year before Clarence was assigned to that division. Over the past century, the 4th Infantry has served with distinction. In World War II, the 4th Infantry became known as The Ivy Division, and a popular book, “To War With the 4th,” details the lineage of the division. But to a young Clarence McNeal, it was a brotherhood he counted on for more than a year.

Clarence was part of the division during several offensives in 1918 across France, including the Champagne-Marne Defensive from July 15-18, the Aisne-Marne Offensive from July 18-29, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive between Oct. 5-28. The website historyofwar.org lists the Aisne-Marne Offensive of 1918 as a significant turning point in the fighting on the western front. Historians credit the offensive for ending the series of German victories that had begun four months earlier and opening the way for the Allied offensive.

The battle came at a cost for Clarence. He was wounded on July 27, 1918, in a gas attack. Clarence spent Aug. 2, 1918, until Oct. 2, 1918, in a military hospital.

From Dec. 1, 1918, to June 10, 1919, Clarence served in the Army of Occupation. This was a designation for troops assigned to Germany, Austria and Hungary after hostilities ended.

“He talked a lot about the rats and the cooties in Germany,” Leigh recalled. “He said the cooties would get in under your clothes; I assume he was talking about lice.”

Leigh’s father also shared a different kind of memory of his time in the Army of Occupation.

“He met a German woman whose two sons had been killed by the 3rd Division — his division. He felt sorry for her, so he always took her food and supplies. My dad said there was one phrase she kept repeating when he would visit her -- ‘bad government’ — in her very broken English. He said she was right.”

Clarence was discharged on Jan. 30, 1920. Shortly after, he married Daphna Terrill of Maxwell, his longtime sweetheart.

A few years later, Clarence received a letter from a neighbor girl that touched his heart so much that he kept it until the day he died. That letter and many of his father’s military items are now in possession of Leigh.

An excerpt from the letter reads: “I was a little girl who lived on the next farm who knew that you and Miss Daphna were the most gorgeous, most wonderful, most romantic people who ever were.” She recounted how exciting it was seeing him in uniform when he came home to visit Miss Daphna.

After he left the service, Clarence reconnects with his war-time buddies as often as possible. He was a 50-year member of the American Legion and active in the VFW.

“Those men had a bond from that war,” said Leigh. “It was trench combat, and that’s the worst kind of fighting. I’m sure it was very hard. Dad didn’t talk a whole lot about those things.”

Contact Ellen Mortensen at ellen@gothenburgleader.com or call 308.536.6499