A century later, the ‘war to end all wars’ needs some explaining

Burial of first three American doughboys killed in action.

At the time, William Dugan had no idea who he was helping bury beneath French soil.

He had no idea that the young man with the cut throat and a half-dozen bayonet wounds grew up just 30 miles from where he grew up, proving that even in the midst of a world war, it could still be a small world.

A Rippey man who was pushing 40 when he enlisted less than a month after America’s entry into World War I, Dugan would spend almost 27 months in all overseas, receiving the Silver Star.

He’s said to have once endured 77 straight days of trench warfare and on two occasions was
“slightly gassed.”

At war’s end, Dugan came back home to Greene County and became Rippey’s longtime barber.

But in November 1917, he helped lower a casket containing 21-year-old Merle Hay into the ground a long ways from Hay’s hometown of Glidden.

Hay was among the first three Americans killed in World War I, the war whose end at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month would eventually lead to the creation of Armistice Day.

Armistice Day would later be renamed Veterans Day, which we commemorated on Tuesday.

This Veterans Day came during World War I’s centennial year.

It’s been 100 years since the world went to war for the first time — following the June 28, 1914, assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne — although the U.S. wouldn’t get involved until 1917.

Like any good west-central Iowan, I’ve long known that Merle Hay isn’t just the name of a mall in Des Moines.

Private Hay was killed on Nov. 3, 1917, in hand-to-hand combat during a nighttime raid in which 54 Americans tried to hold their own against several hundred Germans.

In his last letter home from France, Hay wrote to his folks back in Glidden that they needn’t worry — they were a ways away yet from seeing battle in the trenches, he assured them.

Dugan was called on to help bury those first three Americans killed during the war, and he later reported that all three were buried in good wooden caskets.

By comparison, when one-time Scranton resident Joy Dillavou — a comrade of Hay’s — was killed later on in the war, he was buried in a shell hole with 15 others.

When I think of World War I, I think of machine guns nestled behind barbed wire cutting down men in eerie gas masks by the dozens.

I only sort of know what they were killing and dying for — which, a century after the fact, makes you feel kind of bad for the many millions who lost their lives.

America’s last-living World War I veteran died in 2011.

Growing up on South Olive Street here in town, I was always told that Lester Shadle, the elderly gentleman who lived nearby and regularly walked around the block, was a veteran of World War I.

He died in 1996 at age 96 (meaning he was born in 1899).

I now wonder, often, what he did.

There’s still no national World War I memorial in Washington, D.C., although the World War One Commission, created in 2013 by Congress to commemorate the war’s centennial, hopes to rectify that.

Of course, it honestly makes you wonder — who would visit?

Even Bob Dylan has admitted to having trouble comprehending the war which came to bear the misnomer “the war to end all wars.”

In his song “With God on Our Side” — one of his best offerings from his early ’60s protest phase — Dylan sings, “Oh the First World War, boys/It closed out its fate/The reason for fighting/I never got straight.”

“But I learned to accept it. Accept it with pride,” he continues, "For you don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.”

I felt I owed it to myself — and to the 9 million soldiers who perished — to try to learn a little more earlier this week about World War I.

The digitized newspaper archives on the Jefferson Public Library’s website once again proved to be incredibly useful, telling the story of World War I from Greene County’s viewpoint.

The bit about Dugan helping bury Merle Hay — and not knowing at the time that they were practically neighbors — blew me away.

Dugan eventually died in 1957 at age 78 and is buried in the Rippey Cemetery.

Hay was exhumed, like many other soldiers, and brought home to Glidden in 1921, where he rests in the cemetery that now bears his name along U.S. 30.

Jefferson funeral director Clyde Slininger was entrusted with the remains, and also those of Floyd Brown, Jefferson’s only World War I casualty.

Their funerals were originally planned for the same day.

Brown had been killed less than 24 hours before the armistice was signed, coming very close to nearly being the last American killed in World War I.

Hay’s funeral in July 1921 unbelievably drew an estimated 10,000 people to Glidden — more than half of them from Greene County, the paper reported.

Polk County Sheriff Winifred E. Robb was paid $50 to give the sermon, which outraged some.

The Carroll Herald notably called Sheriff Robb a “thrifty servant of the Lord,” made worse by the fact that he delivered a “canned sermon” at the service of America’s most well-known war casualty.

But, I can’t help but wonder if William Dugan was there, too, watching his brother in arms be lowered into the ground for a second time.

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