This column originally was published by the Idaho Statesman on Oct. 31, 2010. We are running it again today on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.
The Medal of Honor, this country’s highest award for bravery, was awarded to only one Idahoan in World War I, but it was far from the only prestigious recognition bestowed upon Idahoans who fought and even died on the battlefields of Europe in the early 20th century.
Thomas Croft Neibaur, born in Sharon, Idaho, in 1898, was serving with Company M, 167th Infantry, 42nd Division, on Oct. 16, 1918, when he was sent out on patrol with his Browning Automatic Rifle squad to find and attack German machine gun nests. He had just set up his B.A.R. on its tripod rest when he was wounded in both legs by enemy machine gun fire. The citation for his Medal of Honor describes what happened next:
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“Although practically cut off and surrounded, the remainder of his detachment being killed or wounded, this gallant soldier kept his automatic rifle in operation to such effect that by his own efforts and by fire from the skirmish line of his company, at least 100 yards in his rear, the German attack was checked. The enemy wave being halted and lying prone, four of the enemy attacked Private Neibaur at close quarters. These he killed. He then moved alone among the enemy lying on the ground around him, in the midst of the fire from his own lines, and by coolness and gallantry captured 11 prisoners at the point of his pistol and, although painfully wounded, brought them back to our lines.”
General John Pershing himself presented the medal to Neibaur on Feb. 2, 1919.
After the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross is the next highest recognition in the military, and the Navy Cross is the equivalent for the U.S. Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.
Several Idaho soldiers who died in World War I received the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously, a memorial to their sacrifice treasured by their families. John M. Regan, of Boise, for whom a local American Legion post is named, was killed in action near Cierges, France, on Aug. 1, 1918. On June 1, 1919, he was mentioned in a New York Times article as one of those who had been awarded the medal by General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe.
Other Idaho men killed in action in 1918 who received the Distinguished Service Cross were John V. Folsom, of Cedar Hill; William Pierce, of Malta; Raymond Hill, of Lewiston; and Howard Van Voris, of Stites.
2nd Lt. Van Voris was cited for extraordinary heroism in action. As an intelligence officer, he made repeated reconnaissance of the front lines in the face of heavy artillery and machine gun fire until he was killed on Oct. 31, 1918, near Waereghem, Belgium, only 11 days before the war ended.
Fred B. Gruver, a United States Marine, is one of 19 Idaho men buried or memorialized in the Aisne-Marne American Military Cemetery at Belleau, France. All were killed in action in the summer of 1918. His service record indicates that he received the French Croix de Guerre for bravery, and that he was missing in action. Gruver, and other men whose bodies were never found, are memorialized with plaques. The Idahoans buried there have cross-shaped headstones.
(The headstones of Jewish soldiers buried in American military cemeteries are marked with the six-pointed Star of David, but we have found no record of Idahoans of that faith buried in Europe from World War I. We have seen the graves of many Jews from other states who are buried in military cemeteries. A few of them received the Medal of Honor).
The Navy Cross and the Distinguished Service Cross were awarded to U.S. Marines and Navy personnel for unusual acts of heroism. Marine Pvt. Lambert Bos, of Granite, received both medals and the Silver Star for his actions on Oct. 3, 1918, when he outflanked and captured 14 men and two machine guns. In a second sortie he took prisoner 40 more Germans who were holed up in a dugout.
It takes nothing away from Bos’ accomplishment to note that by October 1918, Germany knew the war was lost. In many sectors, old men and boys now replaced young men killed in action on the Western and Russian Fronts. The German army had lost more than 2 million men; France, 1.3 million men and 300,000 civilians; and England, more than 800,000 men. The United States lost 116,708 men killed in action between June 1917 and Armistice Day, which was Nov. 11, 1918. Thousands more were wounded, gassed or permanently disabled. My father-in-law, Chester E. Cochran, survived the war and lived to be 96.
The allied victory in 1918 was hailed as “the war to end all wars,” and a world drained by a conflict that had lasted for more than four years looked for ways to ensure it could never happen again. The League of Nations and a series of international conferences to limit armaments continued through the 1920s and ’30s to seek a formula for permanent peace.
On Sept. 1, 1939, World War II began when Adolf Hitler’s German armies invaded Poland. Millions more soldiers would die in battle, and this time millions of civilians would die from aerial bombardments, both day and night, that pulverized great cities.