Guest Columnist

Iowa in WWI: First in war, first in the hearts of their countrymen

Soldiers from the The Civil War, Spanish American War, and the First World War are depicted in a portion Grant Wood’s 24-foot high Veterans Memorial Window, located in Veterans’ Memorial on the 2nd Avenue Bridge in downtown Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Soldiers from the The Civil War, Spanish American War, and the First World War are depicted in a portion Grant Wood’s 24-foot high Veterans Memorial Window, located in Veterans’ Memorial on the 2nd Avenue Bridge in downtown Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

November 3 and December 7 are two dates that forever remain ensconced in American military history.

It was on April 6, 1917 that Congress declared war against the expansionist German Empire of Kaiser Wilhelm. Five million Americans were mobilized for service in what was called by President Woodrow Wilson, “the war to end all wars.”

The conflict, and its devastating toll, was soon brought home to Iowa when, on Nov. 3, just four months after U.S. troops arrived in Europe, 21-year-old Merle David Hay of Glidden was struck in the head by a bullet near a defensive trench at Artois, France. Although a fellow soldier died beside him in the German assault that day, Hay was acknowledged as the first American Expeditionary Forces fatality in World War I.

Hay was laid to rest with honors at Bathelemont Cemetery close to the Luxemburg border, and later was brought home for formal burial at Westlawn Cemetery in Glidden. A gray granite monument carved in relief with an image of a brave young private paying the price of freedom was erected near the entrance to the hallowed burial ground to remember its hometown hero.

In 1921, a bronze plaque was placed upon a massive boulder on Merle Hay Road near the shopping mall in Des Moines that today bears his name.

Just five weeks after the death of Hay, black ribbons were hung in the windows of Washington, Iowa, when, on Dec. 7, Lt. (jg) Stanton Kalk, whose grandfather was General Thaddeus Stanton of the community’s pioneer Conger family, was announced as the first U.S. Naval fatality of the war.

Kalk had been Officer on the Deck on board the destroyer U.S.S. Jacob Jones (DD-61) when the German submarine U-53 plunged a torpedo through the forward starboard hull, sinking in 20 minutes the largest destroyer serving in the Navy. Kalk immediately ordered the release of safety rafts and jumped into the waters of the cold Atlantic to assist others into them. Repeatedly, he swam with sailors clinging to his back or grasping his hands until they were securely pulled aboard the remaining dinghies. The frigid winter waves, however, proved too much for him and he died of hypothermia and exhaustion.

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For his valor and self-sacrifice shown in the incident, Kalk was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service medal. His gallantry in the line of duty was commemorated in a United States Naval Art Program painting by F. Luis Mora titled “Loss” and a destroyer, the DD-611, was later named in his honor, gaining eight battle stars for service in World War II.

Today, the medal and harrowing portrait of courage is available for viewing at the Conger House Museum in Washington along with vintage photographs of Lt. Kalk and the distinguished heritage he maintained in the legacy of the city’s most respected military family.

Of the half million who signed up for were pressed into service for duty, four thousand Iowans would ultimately lost their lives in the first world war. Both on the ground and in the water, they served with intrepid bravery and brought to the forefront the honor and patriotism found on the home front in the Hawkeye State.

As we observe another auspicious date in military history, that of Armistice Day (Veterans Day as it is now known) on the 100th anniversary of the end of that conflagration, let us remember the first fatalities of the U.S. Army and Navy in that war and the nearly 117,000 that would follow.

The “war to end all wars” did not end the futility of this form of resolving conflict, but it did demonstrate the continued willingness to sacrifice in upholding the principles for which it is declared.

War is always a last resort. Let us strive to avoid the necessity of any such new firsts in the future.

• David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.

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