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Iowa History Daily: May 25 - The Death of Merle Hay

Iowa History Daily: On May 25, 1930, thousands of Iowans thronged to West Lawn Cemetery in Glidden to celebrate the sacrifice of 21 year-old Merle David Hay, killed in action during World War I. The Iowa General Assembly commissioned an eight-foot tall granite monument to commemorate Hay, the first Iowan killed in the Great War (and, perhaps, the first American serviceman killed in the conflict).

Born in rural Carroll County during 1896, Hay’s family moved to a farm in rural Glidden in 1909. A farm implement mechanic by trade, Hay answered the call to arms of the “Glidden Graphic” during the spring of 1917. “Up to the present time, to the best of our knowledge, no young man from Glidden has enlisted. Every town and community will be expected to furnish its share of young men for army and navy service so that our enemy across the seas may be brought to terms as speedily as possible,” wrote the local paper.

Hundreds of citizens saw Hay and others off at the local train station as Private Hay embarked for training in Fort Bliss, Texas, before heading to a ship on the east coast bound for the front in France. Arriving in time for his July birthday, Hay inscribed “21 years old today--somewhere in France” inside his Bible. Stationed alongside French regulars, by November Hay’s regiment rumbled closer to the fighting on the Western Front. 500 yards from German lines, Hay and Company F settled in for a long night of German artillery fire. Around 2:30 a.m., the German’s detonated charges placed along the Franco-American line and swarmed Company F’s position. Pinned down by heavy artillery fire to the rear and confronted with 240 charging Germans, Hay grabbed a bayonet and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with two of the advancing soldiers.

Fifteen minutes later when the barrage ended reinforcements found Hay, as well as two others, dead on the battlefield. Buried initially in France, the news reached Glidden several days later. The following summer workers exhumed Hay’s remains and sent him back stateside where locals laid his body in state at the local American Legion. Thousands of mourners flocked to Glidden’s cemetery first on July 24 for Hay’s funeral service, and again on May 25 when the large monument was dedicated in his honor. The tall granite marker still signals Hay’s sacrifice to passing motorists on Iowa’s Highway 30. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryCalendar


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