Three Soldier Stories from World War I
We drive on roads and visit buildings that bear their names, but what do we really know about the Iowans who fought and died in World War I?
America joined the Great War in 1917 and helped turn the tide of battle in favor of its British and French allies. By the time Germany surrendered, in 1918, the war had claimed the lives of more than 9 million soldiers— including some 116,000 U.S. troops — and changed the course of history for the next 100 years.
Yet, World War I often seems like the war America left behind. Glossed over in schools, it tends to be overshadowed by the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Second World War and other major events like the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement.
“Some people remember it if they have an affinity for it, but it’s a generational thing,” says Mike Vogt, the curator for the Gold Star Museum at Camp Dodge. “I’ll ask students who Merle Hay was, and they’ll ask if he was the guy who built the mall.”
Vogt says World War I is largely remembered these days through cultural touchstones like Hemingway novels and “The Great Gatsby,” which was set in 1922.
“We don’t name buildings or places after our war heroes anymore,” he says. “We name them after sponsors, such as Wells Fargo Arena or the Community Choice [Credit Union] Convention Center.”
For the record, Merle D. Hay of Glidden was the first Iowan and one of the first three American servicemen killed after the United States plunged into World War I. He is the namesake of Merle Hay Road and Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines.
Here are stories of three other Iowans whose service and sacrifices stand tall among the forgotten soldiers of the Great War.
Edward Fleur of Des Moines
Every day, thousands of people drive up and down Fleur Drive on Des Moines’ southwest side. It’s the main corridor between downtown and the airport.
But many people may not know the namesake of the city’s busiest street is Captain Edward O. Fleur.
Born in Sweden in 1874, Fleur came from a family with a strong military background — his father was an officer in the Swedish Army — and Edward became a U.S. serviceman almost from the time he landed in America in 1892, according to the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette. The paper’s edition from June 6, 1918, says he fought in the Spanish-American War and on the Mexican border before shipping out to France with the 42nd Rainbow Division as a captain in the 30th Iowa Machine Gun Company.
In “The Price of our Heritage,” Winfred E. Robb describes the battles Fleur and his comrades fought in March 1918 near Lorraine, France:
“Three different raids were carried out upon the Boche trenches during the month of March, in which we raided the German lines again and again and drove them out of their trenches, killing most of them and ourselves suffering very small losses.”
After being relieved March 22, 1918, for two days, Fleur and his men returned to their former positions in the trenches where they remained until June 18. But he was not among the lucky ones to survive the month.
“During this time, we suffered a severe gas attack on May 27, when over four hundred men were gassed, forty-seven of them being killed,” according to Robb’s account.
After being attacked, Fleur was taken to the hospital in Baccarat where he died shortly after his arrival. He was buried in Officer’s Row in the Baccarat Cemetery.
Today he rests in Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines, not far from the street that bears his name. His tombstone simply says: Edward O. Fleur, 1874–1918. Capt. Mch. Gun Co. 168th Inf. 42nd Div.
George Hawkins of Red Oak
When America joined World War I, George Hawkins was one of the first Iowans to volunteer for military service.
Eager to fight, he joined Red Oak’s Company M of the 168th Iowa Infantry, which was assigned to the 42nd Rainbow Division. But an illness delayed his trip to the battlefield, and he had to stay behind while his unit shipped out to France.
When he rejoined his unit, he fought in Champagne and Chateau-Thierry as a battalion runner, one of the most dangerous duties on the battlefield. His unit also fought at Belleau Wood, the Argonne Forest and Saint-Mihiel.
On Oct. 19, 1918, the Atlantic News-Telegraph reported that George and his uncle, Sgt. Owen Hawkins, were out of the trenches but still close enough to the front lines to hear the roar of big guns. They were hoping the war would end soon.
Both of them got their wish when Germany surrendered on Nov. 11, 1918. Three days later, George’s unit began a long march through France, Belgium and Luxembourg and into Germany.
In a letter dated Dec. 10, Owen Hawkins recounted how the “army was marching through all kinds of weather and undergoing considerable hardship, including seven straight days of marching in the rain.”
While George survived the ravages of war, he couldn’t escape the grip of disease. One of 20 men in the unit who became sick and exhausted, he went to the hospital on Dec. 9 and died on Christmas Day from pneumonia, according to a News-Telegraph article on Jan. 11.
In Robb’s account, George’s death seemed doubly tragic because he “had passed through the long summer of battle only to fall prey to disease.”
George was born in 1898 and is buried at Evergreen and Red Oak Junction Cemetery in Montgomery County. He is remembered by the George H. Hawkins Memorial Marker in memory of the Rainbow Division World War I in Red Oak.
Oscar Nelson of Ottumwa
By all accounts, Oscar Nelson of Ottumwa lived a life of great adventure.
Born in Sweden in 1880, he enjoyed regatta racing, owned one of the first power boats in town, rubbed elbows with society folks — governors, Swedish-American league officials and such — and represented Iowa at national shooting contests.
When America entered World War I, he jumped headlong into service. After basic training, his company shipped out to France in August 1917.
Nelson’s first act of heroism came in July 1918 at Chateau-Thierry when his company was under attack from heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. With his commander wounded and his second officer killed, Nelson assumed command and led his troops until the attack was over. Although wounded himself, he refused to go to the hospital.
His actions earned him the first of three Distinguished Service Crosses and a Silver Star Citation.
After Chateau-Thierry, new adventures awaited Nelson on the battlefield, but his next acts of heroism would be his last. On Oct. 16, 1918, he carried out two dangerous missions at La Tuilerie Farms. In the first one, he attacked two enemy machine gunners by himself, killing two and capturing 19 other enemies.
In the second mission, he led six soldiers 600 yards through heavy artillery and machine-gun fire to capture two more enemy machine guns and, later, led an attack on Chatillon Hill, where he was killed.
The Bedford Free Press of June 24, 1919, described his last moments:
“As he was advancing he was hit by two or three machine gun bullets, one going thru his stomach and breaking his back. As he lay on the field under heavy fire, his men came to carry him back. He tried to make them leave him there saying: ‘Don’t expose yourselves, boys. I am going to die and can die as well here as anywhere.’ He begged them to leave him, but in spite of his plea they started back with him. He died before he reached the aid station, but his men weary and tired as they were, carried him nearly three kilometers back to our rear grave yard, that his body might be buried where it would not be disturbed by shells.”
Today, Nelson is buried in the Ottumwa Cemetery. Both the American Legion Post No. 3 in Ottumwa and O.B. Nelson Park in Fairfield bear his name.
— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs