Glidden, Iowa: bookend to two world wars

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April 6 marked the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I. From another perspective, that date marks the centennial of America’s initial involvement in two world wars — cataclysmic, tragic events that shook humanity, resulting in the deaths of millions of combatants and innocents alike — with America’s role in World War II ending in 1945.

Few Iowans know, however, that in a real and poetic sense the beginning and ending of the United States’ involvement in two global wars is linked to a single, small town in the Hawkeye State.

The town is Glidden, Iowa.

With a current population of around 1,150, Glidden is located along Highway 30 in eastern Carroll County in west central Iowa. On normal days, it’s a relatively peaceful community, hardly the sort of town that conjures up images of the violent cataclysm of two world wars. But Glidden is clearly connected to the two American entry and exit points in these worldwide struggles.

The first connection is well-known, mostly because a major Des Moines street and shopping mall are named in the honor of this link — Merle Hay.

On May 3, 1917, 21-year-old Merle Hay of rural Glidden, along with eight other young men from the town, volunteered for military service a month after President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war and enter the brutal conflict on the side of the Allied Powers. After training in Colorado and Texas, Hay found himself in late June among the first American troops in France as part of the American Expeditionary Force. He and others moved into the trenches on the front lines near the French town of Artois.

There, these American soldiers waited, posed to take part in the first significant U.S. military battle on European soil. And they waited nervously. By this time, 20th-century technology had sharpened organized killing into sophisticated mass butchery through automated machine guns, deadly aerial attacks, poisonous mustard gas and lethal bombs.

As Nov. 5 dawned, forces from the German army attacked Hay’s unit. After only an hour of fighting, Merle Hay was killed along with two other soldiers. He was among the first Americans to die in what was then known as the Great War, later as World War I.

A monument commissioned by the Iowa Legislature serves as his grave in Glidden and a 16-ton boulder at Merle Hay Road and Aurora Avenue in Des Moines honors him, as does the name of a street and shopping mall.

Time marched forward, but not so the peaceful ends of man.

While the bloody First World War ended in 1918 and the Europeans and others tried to turn away from military conflicts, the savagery of global war again reared its ugliness in the late 1930s and 1940s. German Nazis and Japanese militarists wanted more land and conquests — and much of the rest of the world resisted, initiating the conflict known as World War II.

Twentieth-century technology moved on with still more sophisticated weaponry. One specifically developed for use in this war was the atomic bomb. And the Allied powers intended to use it to end the war.

On Aug. 6, 1945, U.S. Colonel Paul Tibbetts took off in a modified B-29 from the Pacific island of Tinian with a 9,000-pound atomic bomb named Little Boy and dropped it over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Exploding 2,000 feet over the city, the blast destroyed five square miles of the populated area with a force equal to 12,000 to 15,000 tons of TNT. Some 70,000 to 80,000 people were killed by the weapon and 70,000 were injured.

Days later, the U.S. dropped another equally destructive bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Shortly afterward, Japan surrendered and World War II ended.

The bomber that Colonel Tibbetts flew to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, marking the beginning of the end of World War II, was called “Enola Gay,” named after his mother.

Enola Gay Tibbetts grew up in Glidden, Iowa.

Merle Hay and Enola Gay Tibbetts place Glidden, Iowa, at the alpha and the omega of America’s involvement in two world wars. They represent the paired Iowa bookends of our nation’s role in these horrendous struggles.

But if there is a meaning in this complete circle connecting peaceful Glidden to these global conflicts, it may be this: Our links to worldwide warfare are solid and real. They all involve actual people, people who are close to us, just like those living and growing up in Glidden, with loved ones and families who all have hopes and dreams and desires that can be absolutely shattered and destroyed by the hell of war. These people are not statistics, they are flesh and blood, and they are us.

The destruction of war with its mass killing, the forced movement of refugees, the wailing of parents for their children are not suffering of “others.” It is never far off, it touches us all and it is directly connected to ourselves — even within such small towns as Glidden.

Remember this as you contemplate the world today.

• Jerry Harrington, of Iowa City, who writes frequently on Iowa history, is the recent author of “Crusading Iowa Journalist Verne Marshall.”

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