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Veterans Day: Van Buren memorial honors first fallen in World War I

Times Record - 11/11/2018

Nov. 11--Van Buren is home to many historical points of interest, but one of them holds a special meaning today on Veterans Day.

The first memorial in Arkansas to honor the first U.S. servicemen to die in World War I is at the Crawford County Courthouse, 300 Main St. Today marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.

The engraved stone memorializes Merle D. Hay of Iowa, Indiana native Thomas Enwright and James B. Gresham of Pittsburgh, the first American soldiers to be killed in the war. It was just over seven months after the nation entered the bloody European conflict which resulted in over 9 million soldiers killed, and new boundaries throughout the world.

"They were the first members of the expeditionary army of the United States in France to die that we might live stricken on the field of glory November 3, 1917, Dulse et decorium est pro patria mori," the Van Buren WWI memorial reads.

Originally erected by Sam Chew in November 1917, the Van Buren memorial includes a Latin phrase from the Roman lyrical poet Horace's Odes (III.2.13) which is usually translated as: "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country."

Hay has become a folk hero in Iowa, with many places named in his honor, including a mall in Des Moines. Hay was born July 20, 1896, in Carroll County, Iowa and became a private in the 1st Infantry Division, 16th Infantry Regiment, Company F.

According to the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, the unit with Gresham, Enright and Hay would be among the first American forces to land with General Pershing in Europe at the port of Saint Nazaire, France, on June 26, 1917.

On the Fourth of July, 1917, the men were a part of the Battalion of the 16th Infantry paraded through the streets of Paris to help bolster the morale of France's war-weary population. From there, the division moved on to a training area in Gondrecourt, where they conducted training in modern trench warfare under the French 47th Regiment of Alpine Chasseurs. On Oct. 29, 1917, the Second Battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment received orders to relieve the First Battalion occupying the trenches near the small village Bathelemont, near Nancy.

On the night of Nov. 2, the second battalion entered the trenches a mile from Bathelemont, "with light-hearted enthusiasm, laughing and listening to the exaggerated stories of the First Battalion as they took over their positions in the trenches," the commission entry at WWICentennial.org states.

"Cpl. Gresham commanded a fire team of the First Platoon of Company F in a trench salient that was reported to be one of the closest to enemy forces, estimated by one witness as merely 500 yards away," the entry adds. "Sometime between the hours of two and three o'clock in the morning, German artillery began a barrage of artillery fire that gradually moved over Gresham's salient of the trenches, effectively cutting off him and his comrades off from the rest of the American forces. Under the cover of this barrage, German soldiers then began a trench raid with the intent to take as many supplies and prisoners as possible ... Accounts of the fighting that took place during the raid vary, but all indicate that it was done in extremely close-quarters, quickly becoming hand to hand, and in nearly complete darkness, artillery and gunfire providing only brief moments for one to take account of his surroundings before being plunged back into the darkness."

After a period of short but extremely intense fighting, the German forces withdrew with their casualties. They took American supplies and 11 American prisoners with them. After the raid ended and the barrage later lifted, American forces were able to pour into the trench to find five soldiers wounded and three dead.


(c)2018 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.)

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