Iowa's Soldier Dead In 1917

Merle D. Hay

Iowa's first martyr to the cause of liberty and democracy was Merle D. Hay, a private in Company F, Thirteenth Infantry, American Expeditionary Force, part of General Pershing's army. He was twenty-one years old. a farmer by occupation and a young man of sterling worth. He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. H. D. Hay, of Glidden, Carroll County, Iowa. He and his friend, and later his comrade in arms, Dewey D. Kern, of Collins, Iowa, came together to Des Moines and on the 10th day of May they enlisted in the same company. Within a month they were on their way to France. In the first trench encounter with the Germans, November 3, 1917, one was taken and the other left. Young Hay died fighting for the cause which had claimed his assistance. His younger comrade was wounded, but, fortunately, not unto death.

In the dispatches from the front in France on the 17th of November, General Pershing especially cited Corporal James Gresham and Privates Merle D. Hay and Thomas F. Enright as having "died bravely in hand-to-hand fighting with the enemy."

Our government paid the three heroes an unusual degree of respect in giving out for publication General Pershing's official record of the burial honors paid them. A Washington correspondent remarks that "no general officers who may fall in future engagements in France will receive the signal honors paid this Iowan and his two comrades who were first to fall."

The record was forwarded from Pershing's headquarters with the recommendation—which was favorably acted upon—"that the request of General Bordeaux to have the remains of the men left at Bethelemont be granted."

The official record states that "the bodies of Corporal Gresham, Private Enright and Private Hay .... were interred with religious and military ceremony at Bethelemont on the afternoon of November 4.

"An altar was improvised and elaborately decorated in the village and the chaplain of a French regiment conducted the church services in the presence of the following detachment of troops: One company of French infantry, one section of French artillery, one section of French engineers, one detachment of French sailors, one company of United States infantry, one section of United States field artillery, one squad of engineers. A major of French artillery commanded the troops.

"Following the church ceremony the cortege proceeded to a field adjacent to the village and formed on three sides of a square, the bodies being placed in front of the graves on the fourth side. An American flag, provided by the French, had been placed over the caskets.

"At 2 o'clock General Bordeaux, accompanied by his full staff, his infantry, artillery and engineer chiefs and a representative of the French corps commander, arrived and took position.

"The troops presented arms and the French field music and band played a funeral march. The chaplain performed the religious ceremony at the graves. Then General Bordeaux advanced to the center of the square and addressed the troops and then the dead.

"The company of United States infantry fired three volleys and its trumpeter sounded taps. All the troops were then marched by the graves, saluting as they passed. General Bordeaux and his staff advanced to the graves, saluted and departed.

"Throughout the ceremony at the graves the French batteries, from their positions, fired minute guns over the village at the German trenches. The entire ceremony was most impressive."

The address of General Bordeaux at the funeral of the first American soldiers to fall on the French front was as follows:

"In the name of the Eighteenth Division, in the name of the French Army and in the name of France, I bid farewell to Corporal Gresham, Private Enright and Private Hay of the Thirteenth Infantry, American Army.

"Of their own free will they left their happy and prosperous country to come over here. They knew that the war continued in Europe; they knew that the forces fighting for honor, love, justice, civilization, were still checked by the long-prepared forces which are serving the powers of brutal domination, oppression, barbarity. They knew that an effort was still necessary. They wished to give us their help; and also their generous hearts did not forget old historical memories, while others forget more recent ones.

"They ignored nothing of the circumstances. Nothing had been concealed from them—neither the length nor hardships of this war, nor the violence of the battle, nor the dreadfulness of the new weapons, nor the perfidy of the foe. Nothing stopped them.

"They had accepted to lead a hard and strenuous life; they had crossed the ocean despite great peril; they had taken their place on the front by our side; they have fallen facing the foe in a hard and desperate hand to hand fight. Honor to them! Their families, their friends and their fellow citizens will be proud when they learn of their death.

"Men, these graves, the first to be dug in national soil at but a short distance from the enemy, are as a mark of the mighty hand of our allies, firmly clinging to the common task, confirming the will of the people and army of the United States to fight with us to a finish; ready to sacrifice as long as it will be necessary, until final victory for the noblest of causes—that of liberty of nations, the weak as well, as the mighty.

"Thus the death of this humble corporal and of these two private soldiers appears to us with extraordinary grandeur.

"We will, therefore, ask that the mortal remains of these young men be left here, be left to us forever. We will inscribe on their tombs:

"Here lie the first soldiers of the United States Republic to fall on the soil of France for justice and liberty.”

"The passerby will stop and uncover his head. The travelers of France, of the allied countries, of America, the men of heart who will come to visit our battlefield of Lorraine, will go out of their way to come here—to bring to these graves the tribute of their respect and of their gratefulness.”

"Corporal Gresham—Private Enright, Private Hay! In the name of France, I thank you. God receive your souls. Farewell!"

On Monday, November 5, the family at their home in Glidden, received a telegram announcing the death of their son. On the Friday following, Mrs. Hay penned this touching and memorable letter, illustrating the martyr spirit of Iowa mothers in the terrible crisis:*

Glidden, Ia., Nov. 9

Editor Capital, [Des Moines]—After walking the floor constantly and crying, '”Oh, why did it have to be my boy out of the many thousands over there,” and asking constantly for some message or assurance from him that 'all was well' and to comfort my poor aching heart.

"On Thursday afternoon while alone at home and sending up my unending plea, the answer came and it was this:

"Mother tell the world what I told you about the Y. M. C. A. and what it means to us boys here in France.”And Oh, I was comforted and all tears have ceased, also his unceasing calling for mother. I have received his message and am only waiting to be shown the way to obey.

"Mrs. H. D. Hay."

A tribute to the brave young Iowan who was first of our troops to be killed in action on the French frontier was paid by the Council of the City of Des Moines in November, 1917, when that body voted that Fifty-eighth Street, the principal thoroughfare between Camp Dodge and Des Moines, newly paved by the city and county, should be named "Merle Hay Road." In this action the supervisors of Polk County heartily concurred. Mayor MacVicar, in offering the resolution to that effect well said: "His [Merle Hay's] name will ever stand at the head of Iowa's [new] roll of honor," and he was sure that in so naming our municipal-military thoroughfare, the public would deem it, "but modest recognition of his valor."


Earl E. Coons

The first Iowa guardsman to succumb to disease and die in France was Private Earl E. Coons, aged twenty, son of Mr. and Mrs. A. F. Coons, of Prescott, Iowa. He was a high school graduate of 1917. His early enlistment did not deprive him of his well-earned diploma. Early in April, following the President's declaration of war, with two schoolmates he enlisted in Company K, the Corning company, of the Third Iowa, later the 168th U. S. Infantry. On the first day of December, 1917, he was attacked by that scourge of the camp, scarlet fever. After a brief illness, he passed away. He was buried with military honors in the soil he strove to protect from its, ruthless invaders.


Ralph Raymond Miller

The second Iowa soldier to meet death in a French hospital was Ralph Raymond Miller, of Orient, Iowa, also a member of Company K, 168th Infantry. He also died of scarlet fever. A brief notice of his death was given on the 18th of December.


George E. Truax

Another young Iowan whose name belongs in the list—fortunately a brief list—of the State's 1917 contribution to the cause of liberty and democracy was George E. Truax, son of Mr. and Mrs. B. F. Truax, of Des Moines, whose death occurred in France on the 24th day of December, the result of an attack of scarlet fever, followed by pneumonia. Private Truax had passed his twenty-second birthday in September. He was born in Yorkshire, Iowa, and was a graduate of Keosauqua high school. He enlisted in the Engineer Corps, June 21. He was soon transferred to the Medical Corps, and was detailed to serve as secretary to Major Conkling, surgeon-in-chief of the 168th U. S. Infantry. Memorial services in his honor were held in the Asbury M. E. Church, of Des Moines, on the 13th of the following January. Chaplain H. B. Boyd, of Camp Dodge, and Pastor S. K. Bowers delivered feeling eulogies, and the singing was led by a quartet of soldiers from the camp. Resolutions passed by the M. E. Sunday School, of Keosauqua, were read. An American flag was presented the parents by Lafayette Young, chairman of the Iowa Council of Defense, with the request that it be draped in their son's bedroom in the home of his boyhood and young manhood. The announcement of the young soldier's death and burial in France came while the fond mother was reading to neighbors parts of her son's recent letters. The scene which followed the announcement cannot be described. As an intimate friend turned for a moment from the distracted mother to the reporter who had brought the sad news, with enforced calmness she remarked: "George was their only child and they thought the world of him.''


Leo B. Murphy

Word was received from Rear Admiral Sims on Christmas Day that Leo B. Murphy, formerly a linotype operator in the Register and Tribune office, Des Moines, but with no kinfolks at the state capital, lost his life by falling overboard from a transport on his way to France.


George L. Clark

An Iowa guardsman whose heroic purpose to serve his country abroad, as he had served it on the Mexican border, was thwarted by death in 1917 was Sergeant George L. Clark, of Company D, 133d H. S. Infantry. He died in hospital at Camp Cody, Deming, N. M., within a few days of his twenty-seventh birthday, which was the 31st of December, 1917. He was survived by his widowed mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Clark, of Cedar Rapids, a sister, Mrs. G. L. Andrews, of Brandon, and four brothers, R. F. and C. A. Clark of Robins, Iowa, and Thomas and S. A. Clark of Waterloo.

He saw service on the border with the Iowa National Guard and, shortly after being discharged, enlisted for oversea service and returned south. He entered the service as a private and was rapidly advanced to corporal and then to sergeant.


Herbert Schroeder

There remains to be mentioned one more Iowa victim of war's tragedy in the year 1917. In General Pershing's last list of casualties in that year appeared the name of Herbert Schroeder, a member of Company A of the 168th U. S. Infantry. The year went out in gloom for, on the last day of December, the boy's mother, a resident of Dubuque, received a telegram conveying the sad news. Though only twenty-one at the time of his death, Herbert Schroeder was a veteran of the Mexican border campaign of 1916. He died of Company 13, One Hundred and Sixty-eighth United States Infantry, the first commissioned officer to lose his life in France. An acute attack of pneumonia sustained while on duty at the front. He left a mother, two sisters and two brothers.

As we close the record, of America's first year of war against principalities and powers, "against the rulers of the darkness of this world," Iowans in arms gave every evidence that they were holding fast to their belief in the resurrection of liberty and democracy and the ultimate triumph of peace.


Harrison Cummins McHenry

Other losses followed,—and, the pity of it is, the end is not yet. Though this history closes with the end of the year 1917, supplemental mention may well be made of Iowa's first commissioned officer to meet death in France, Captain Harrison Cummins McHenry, of Company B, 168th U. S. Infantry.

Though still young in the twenties he was a veteran of the Mexican border, and, by merit had won his way to the captaincy of his company and to the hearts of his men. He was an ideal soldier, physically, mentally and morally. Skilled in military science, alert, vigorous, active; no task, either self-imposed or put upon him by his superiors, was too difficult or dangerous to command his instant response; a devoted son and husband, the comrade and friend of every man in his company. Captain McHenry's untimely death was deeply mourned by all who knew him and was a positive loss to the service.

A letter published in The Capital, Des Moines, April 3, tells briefly the story of the trench raid of March 5, 1918:

"March 5, the enemy raided our trenches at 4:30 o 'clock in the morning, after laying down a barrage fire on our trenches, partially destroying them and killing and wounding a number of men.

"After the barrage lifted, the men jumped out of their dugouts to the trenches and drove the boche off without losing any prisoners. We lost Capt. Harry McHenry and eighteen men dead and twenty-two wounded. This was our first experience, and was certainly a baptism of fire."

From a letter written March 6 by Lieut. F. L. Williams, brother-in-law of Harry McHenry, are extracted these paragraphs vividly portraying in few words the burial of the first officer from Iowa to meet death from an enemy attack on the French line:

". . . . No mutilation occurred. A shock was the cause of death and unconsciousness occurred immediately. Unconsciousness lasted but ten or fifteen minutes. I saw him immediately after the injury, but there was no hope.

"Today I followed him to his resting place on a little hillside just outside of a quaint village in a picturesque valley.

"His coffin was enfolded in an American flag, and a great procession followed in his wake. A famous French general spoke at the grave. The chaplain held the ceremonies. .... He was buried in full uniform and looked happy and content. The regimental band was there. His resting place was decorated with flowers and I have ordered a nice emblem made to be placed over it, which will be permanent.

"I am taking one rosebud and am pressing it, to mail to you when it is dry. The French general praised him most highly."

The first definite announcement, following earlier reports of his death came in a brief cablegram to Mrs. McHenry, from the captain's brother-in-law, Lieutenant Williams. Using the appellation which had clung to him from his early schoolboy days, the message read: "Mick's work is heroically over."

The fond mother, Mrs. Lou McHenry (a sister of Senator Cummins), received the news with remarkable composure, doubtless in a measure prepared for the worst by previous reports of her son's death. With tears in her eyes, she said:

"He was the best son a mother ever had. I cannot realize that he is gone; but, if he had to go, I am glad he died fighting. Why, only a few days ago I received my last letter from him. 'Dear old pal,' he wrote, 'don't worry about me. The shell has not been made that will end my life; and, anyway, you know, you never see or hear the shell that gets you .”

Mrs. McHenry then produced the letter he had written her just before sailing for France. It is so typical of the ideal relation existing between mother and son, and such a fine revelation of the manly and heroic quality of our ideal soldier, that it deserves a place in the history of Iowa's part in the World War. He wrote:

"Mother dear, as we are all ready to go, just waiting for the word to set us in motion, your old pal wants to say adios to you all alone.”

"We've been good pals, and have liked the same things, and now for the time being we are separated, but, mother dear, it will only be for a little while and I will be back with you again.”

"I will try to be a credit to you, I will never be a coward to bring disgrace to you.”

"Good-by, mother. God keep you safe."

A cablegram to the same effect as the one first sent was received by the captain's brave young wife of a year, to whom he was married while a lieutenant in Company B, of the Third Iowa, when stationed in Brownsville, Texas. In letters written only a short time before his death the fond husband had mapped out a six-months honeymoon the two would take after the war, full of pleasure trips which should in part make up for their long separation.

Thus, in the flush of youthful hope and courage, and with a heart full of love for family and home and with an exalted devotion to the cause which commanded his services and to which he gave his life, this ideal Iowa guardsman and typical American officer passed into history.

Iowa, Its History & Its Citizens, Volume 2, 1918
Submitted by Cathy Danielson


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