When Walter Williams, America's last living Civil War veteran, died on December 19, 1959, the city of Houston gave him a funeral procession the likes of which the town had never before seen. A week of official mourning was declared, and more than 100,000 people lined the streets to salute the passing of the last link to a war that had torn America apart.
There was just one problem. Williams had never served in the Civil War. He was a fraud, as writer William Marvel discovered when he began researching a story for Blue & Gray magazine a few years ago. Although Williams had passed himself off as a Confederate soldier for 27 years, records proved he had actually been just five years old when hostilities broke out — too young even to serve as a drummer boy.
Amusingly, the man from whom Williams inherited the "Oldest Living Confederate" title, John Salling, was another phony. In fact, a dismayed Marvel wrote, "Every one of the last dozen recognized Confederates was bogus" — including all three attendees at the last United Confederate Veterans' reunion, where, one imagines, they shared made-up stories of how they whipped the Yankees at Bull Run, witnessed the burning of Atlanta, and gave Scarlet O'Hara directions to Tara.
These sham soldiers have a lot of company. Over the years thousands of men have claimed to come marching home again from the Old South, the trenches of France, the halls of Montezuma, Pork Chop Hill, and 'Nam. And now, they are marching home from Iraq, their chests covered with medals they didn't earn for gallantry they never modeled. Some of these frauds never saw military service; those that did — dissatisfied with their actual deeds — invent spectacular feats of derring-do that put Sergeant York and Audie Murphy to shame.
What drives men to pretend they answered duty's call when they were, in reality, otherwise engaged? For some fakers, it's a matter of money — the price of a drink, a handful of change, or a government check. Vietnam veteran B.G. Burkett, who has over the years exposed more than 1,000 phony vets, writes in his book, "Stolen Valor," that in 1932, the federal government began offering pensions to Civil War veterans. Their numbers immediately jumped. (It was the Depression, after all.)
Others lie for glory. Like the last Confederate veteran, one of the last Great War vets was also a fraud. For years, James Harris Reed entertained his nursing home pals with memories of his days as a flying ace, shooting down 13 German planes and battling the legendary Red Baron. Following his 1995 death, investigation revealed that Reed had been an 11-year-old school boy at the end of the Great War. (The Navy's only WWI ace, with five kills, was Lt.(j.g.) David Ingalls.)
Many frauds claim veteran status in order to boost their careers. Phonies abound in Hollywood, on Wall Street, in politics, in academia, and in journalism. For instance, silent screen star Tom Mix claimed to have charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. In reality, Mix never saw combat — unless one counts the time his wife shot him. Military records list Mix as a deserter.
Actor Brian Dennehy claimed for years that he served a five-year tour as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was wounded in action. In reality, Dennehy's only Vietnam "action" was on-screen in "A Rumor of War", in which he portrayed a Marine gunnery sergeant. While Dennehy did serve in the Marines, it was not in Vietnam; his only "combat duty" was playing football in Okinawa in 1962.
Then there are the political "veterans" whose war records are even more dubious than their campaign promises. In 1984, Robert Sorensen was a Connecticut state representative running for reelection. When challenged on his opposition to opening legislative sessions with the Pledge of Allegiance, Sorensen huffily replied: "My patriotism should not be questioned by anyone because . . . when my country called me into service, I fought in Vietnam."
Except that he didn't, as his opponent quickly discovered. Even then, Sorensen brazened it out, employing an excuse that, for sheer audacity, can't be beat. "For the first time ever, the American public had before them a war in their living rooms," he explained. "Every single person in this United States fought in that war in Vietnam. We all felt the anguish that those people felt. So in a sense I was there."