The Last American Killed in World War I Didn’t Have to Die
The French wanted World War I to end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, so they extended the peace treaty a few hours—and in that time, Henry Gunther lost his life.
But the time has long since passed when much of the country paused for a solemn moment of silence at this hour of this annual observance, which began as Armistice Day commemorating the end of World War I and evolved into Veterans Day, honoring all who served.
Save for at other modest ceremonies scattered across the country, the rest of us just continued on Wednesday as if there were no particular significance to this particular moment.
And it seemed all the more criminal that back in 1918 the French extended World War I another five hours and fifty minutes so the moment would be marked by those nifty triple 11’s.
When the Armistice was signed at 5:10 a.m. on Nov. 11 of that year, the Germans pleaded for an immediate end of hostilities so as to avoid the further loss of life. The French commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, insisted on holding off until 11 a.m.
As a result, 2,738 more soldiers were killed. The last American to die was Henry Gunther, a 23-year-old bank clerk turned soldier from Baltimore.
Gunther had recently been demoted from sergeant to private after a letter he had written to a friend back home complaining of misery in the trenches came to the attention of army censors.
As the son of German immigrants, Gunther was fearful that the incident would also cause his loyalty to be questioned. He is said to have been desperate to get himself reinstated. He seems to have discerned the opportunity he had been looking for on the foggy morning of Nov. 11, 1918, when his unit encountered a pair of German machine guns in the village of Chaumont-devant-Damillers.
Afterwards, war correspondent James M. Cain—future author of such noire novels as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice —interviewed members of Gunther’s unit and fielded a report.
“According to his comrades, Gunther brooded a great deal over his reduction in rank, and became obsessed with a determination to make good before his officers and fellow soldiers,” Cain wrote.
“Particularly he was worried because he thought himself suspected of being a German sympathizer. The regiment went into action a few days after he was reduced and from the start he displayed the most unusual willingness to expose himself to all sorts of risks.”
Upon encountering the enemy’s machine guns shortly before 11 a.m., the rest of the unit took cover. Gunther rose despite orders from the squad’s new sergeant to keep down. Gunther charged toward the Germans, his bayonet fixed.
“Gunther still must have been fired by a desire to demonstrate, even at the last minute, that he was courageous and all-American,” Cain reported. “When the Germans saw him coming they waved at him and called out, in such broken English as they could, to go back, that the war was over. He paid no heed to them, however, and kept on firing a shot or two… After several vain efforts to make him turn back, the Germans turned their machine gun on him.”
At 10:59 a.m., the 59th minute of the 10th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Gunther fell dead.
As the village clock ticked on to 11, 11, 11, the Germans carried his corpse back to his unit.
Likely as a result of Cain’s report in The Baltimore Sun, Gunther was reinstated as a sergeant posthumously. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross as an all-American hero.
At the next Armistice Day, the nation came to a stop at the official time of the war’s end. The triple 11’s had such power that some might have argued that the French commander-in-chief was not entirely monstrous.
But as the years passed, the moment of silence was largely abandoned. Many states began marking what had become Veterans Day on various dates in October.
In 1971, the federal government moved to establish a single date for the observance. The appointed day somehow became Oct. 25.
Four years later, Congress again set the date as Nov. 11, effective in 1978.
When 10:59 of the 11th day of the 11th month comes around next year, give a thought to Sergeant Gunther and the love for their new country so many immigrants have brought to America.
Then, as the minute brings us to that 11th hour, pause for just a moment of silent reflection to remember all those who have served.