ROCK SPRINGS — The War to End All Wars failed in its most important goal, as evidenced by it becoming known as World War I, but the generation that emerged from that crucible did not stop fighting for the betterment of their fellow comrade in arms and those on the homefront.
Residents and military and historical groups marked the end of the Great War and the centennial celebration of the American Legion this past Saturday. The June 29 commemoration recognized the sacrifice of the patriots who never returned home and the legacy created by those who dedicated their postwar passions to making America a better place.
While the armistice wasn’t signed until the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war between the Central and Allied Powers, wasn’t signed until June 28, 1919. The peace arrived too late for millions of fatalities and even more casualties. About 461 Wyoming men died in service during World War I. Thirty-three men from Rock Springs and the surrounding mine camps have their names engraved at the base of the “The Spirit of the American Doughboy” sculpture, which now resides in Bunning Park. At least four more gave their all in WWI, and their stories live on. Throughout the ceremony, speakers shared biographies of the men lost in the war.
Twenty-two soldiers from Sweetwater County died in the Meuse-Argonne offensive during the final 47 days of the war. Fourteen still reside in France, buried in the 130-acre Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. More than 1 million Americans fought in what was then the largest battle involving U.S. troops. More than 26,000 Americans died. This included Sgt. Archibald “Archie” Hay, the namesake of American Legion Post 24 in Rock Springs. He was killed by gunfire from a German plane.
Other speakers recognized those such as Gus Johnson, one of three Rock Springs soldiers buried in a national cemetery. His company was transferred from the Philippines to Siberia during the Russian Civil War to defend the allied White Russians from the Communist Red Russians. He died when his 75-member platoon was attacked by 400 Red Russians. Outnumbered, the soldiers still repelled the attackers with reinforcements, but suffered the largest single loss of American lives in Siberia.
John Martin Angelovich, the son of Slovakian immigrants, was aboard the coal-hauling USS Cyclops when it vanished after departing Barbados in March 1918. The ship’s disappearance marked the largest noncombat loss of life in the history of the U.S. Navy.
Charley S. Park is believed to have emigrated from Seoul, Korea, to San Francisco. He later moved to Superior, which was host of one of five Korean youth military schools in the nation. It taught Koreans tactics to overthrow the Japanese occupying their country. However, the military never used these men to fight against the Japanese, and their independence had to wait.
William Bates listed his occupation as “cow puncher” when filling out his draft registration. He died far away from the sheep and cattle ranches he worked for his uncle on the Wyoming and Colorado border.
Brendan Blackwell stood out at Saturday’s event. He was dressed as WWI solider, complete with a wool coat, helmet and boots. While he said he felt bad for those who had to wear the uncomfortable uniform in the heat, he said it was better than what service members must wear today in combat.
Separate from the impact on his body, Blackwell said wearing the uniform pushed him to think and behave like a doughboy from a century ago.
“It sends me into that kind of mode,” he said. “I need to act like a Marine.”
He said his family’s military tradition stretches back across generations, “so I know how to do that.”
Speakers recounted the lead-up to the war, where the entanglements of international alliances brought the world powers into conflict. Later unrestricted submarine warfare and the Central Powers’ attempted enticement of Mexico drew American into the war. Following the previously unseen level of destruction and death, the survivors hoped the chastened powers would never resort to large-scale war again.
“We all know how that turned out,” Wyoming Veterans Commission Doug Uhrig said.
As the men on the monument were recognized, a bell chimed after each name was read. Blackwell placed a wreath by the column and saluted. Trumpeter Nina Dodd played taps and a 21-gun salute punctuated the silence that followed.
VETERANS STILL SERVING THEIR COUNTRY
Of course the story of the American Expeditionary Force didn’t conclude when the fighters were able to put down their weapons. Many languished an ocean away from home for months as the U.S. was slow to return its troops. Twenty officers are credited with the gathering that led to the creation of the American Legion. Deciding that the best way to improve morale was an organization for veterans, they hosted a meeting in Paris on March 15-17, 1919. Starting with about 1,000 officers and enlisted men, the movement spread when they returned stateside.
The preamble of the American Legion constitution lists the group’s priorities. Uhrig said the promise “to consecrate and sanctify our comradeship by our devotion to mutual helpfulness” is the most important clause. He noted it marked a new concept in the nation, which led to the betterment of everyone in the country.
Uhrig said when veterans came marching home, they found the nation unprepared to care for the combat casualties, such as the shell-shocked and the sick, the broken and the widowed. When combining efforts with groups like the Legion Auxiliary and Veterans of Foreign Wars, that generation helped draft and pass the laws that led to Social Security’s retirement benefits, old age assistance, Veteran Affairs support, and temporary emergency aid for children, in addition to the building of hospitals and creation of youth programs.
“This is how we can hail the American Legion today as an unparallel force in these United States for social betterment. American Legion concepts and its ideal of devotion to mutual helpfulness warmed up the whole social climate of America,” Uhrig said. “It all came about because the veterans of World War I came home enriched with the wonderful ties of friendship and gave those ties a meaning by consecrating them to the ideal of mutual helpfulness.”
Participants involved in the commemoration included the High Desert Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, American Legion, American Legion Auxiliary, VFW, Wyoming Army National Guard, Marine Corps League, Sweetwater County Historical Museum, and city of Rock Springs.