Private Merle D. Hay Gives His Life
Joining the allies in their fight against Germany on April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I with the ideals of making the world safe for democracy. In factories and on farms across the country the nation’s energies were directed toward speedily defeating the German army.
Glidden Asks for Fighters
In April of 1917 the small town of Glidden, Iowa, began its work to aid the war effort. The local weekly newspaper, the Glidden Graphic, printed an editorial stating:
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 that our enemy across the seas may be brought to terms as speedily as possible.
Twenty-year-old Merle D. Hay enlisted in the U.S. Army in May 1917. Several hundred people gathered at the train station to see Hay and other volunteers off. The newspaper described it: “Tears mingled with cheers as Glidden’s contingent left to make their sacrifice for their country.”
Hay Goes to France
Hay was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, and then to the East coast where he embarked by ship for France. In France his regiment trained alongside French veterans. In July Hay wrote on the inside leaf of his bible: “21 years old today--somewhere in France.”
A week later he wrote home to his parents:
I got the picture of Basil [Merle Hay’s brother] and think it is very good. I would like to be there wearing clothes like them. We sure do get tired of wearing the same kind all the time. Same old clothes, same old thing every day. But then we will not have to do it all our lives. Some day we can do as we please and say as we please, you can bet.
Goodbye from your loving son. Merle Hay
An Uneventful Night Turns Deadly
On November 1 Hay's company moved by truck closer to the front. The next night at 10 p.m. they took up positions. They were 500 yards from the German lines. Company F settled in for what they thought would be an uneventful night.
At about 2:30 a.m. the Germans began an artillery barrage. The men scrambled for cover. The German soldiers, taking advantage of the bombardment noise, blasted holes in the barbed wire between the American and German trenches with explosive charges. The shelling was then concentrated on the area behind the American position, cutting them off from reinforcements. At the same time 240 German infantrymen swarmed through the wire to make their assault.
The outnumbered Americans were caught by surprise as they emerged from their wood and earth shelters to engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat amid darkness and confusion. Private Hoyt Decker saw Merle Hay battling two German soldiers with a bayonet in the dim, twinkling light of flares. After 15 minutes the Germans withdrew and the barrage ended. Reinforcements reached the beleaguered Americans soon after to discover five wounded, twelve captured, and three killed.
Merle Hay was among the three killed and thus became the first Iowa soldier to die in combat. His body was found face down in the mud, a .45 caliber pistol in his hand. The cause of death was a single 9 millimeter bullet wound to the head. His throat was deeply cut. The three fallen comrades were buried together in France. A marker was later placed near the graves.
Dad is Proud
Although the deaths occurred on November 3, 1917, news did not reach the United States until November 5th. That morning Harvey Hay received news of his son’s death through an unexpected phone call from an Omaha newspaper reporter. Later in the day, as the town flag flew at half staff, official notification by telegram of his son’s death arrived. It read:
Harvey D. Hay
Deeply regret to inform you that Pvt. Merle D Hay company F sixteenth infantry is reported killed in action.
(Signed) McCain, The Adjutant General, US Army
The Glidden Graphic on November 8 devoted the entire front page to Hay’s death. The headline read: “Glidden Boy First American Killed in France.” When asked about his son’s death, Harvey Hay responded, “If it has been necessary that he lay down his life for his country, I’m proud of the boy.”
A few days later a letter arrived from Company F’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Willis E. Comfort. He wrote,
He was a faithful soldier, one we could trust. At all times his work was of high quality but especially at the time of his death did he prove his true worth. He stayed at his post of duty and fought to the last. We are proud of the true American spirit shown by him and his comrades.
A Mother Says Goodbye to Her "Little Boy"
The bodies of Hay, Enright and Gresham were exhumed from the French cemetery during the summer of 1921 and transported back to the United States. General John Pershing attended the ceremonies, placing wreathes on each coffin. Merle Hay’s body was transported by train to Glidden to be interned in the cemetery outside of town. His body lay in state at the American Legion building for friends and relatives to pay their respects.
The funeral took place on July 24. Before Hay’s coffin was removed his mother asked to be allowed to remain in private. After 15 minutes she emerged and quietly remarked, “I have had my last farewell with my little boy.” In the “largest funeral” in Iowa the body of Merle D. Hay was committed to the ground. On May 25, 1930, six to ten-thousand people filled the area as a large granite monument was dedicated at the West Lawn cemetery. The monument is still visible when traveling through Glidden on Highway 30.
- American Battle Monuments Commission.1st Division Summary of Operations in the World War. Washington D. C.: 1944.
- Glidden Graphic, 12 April, 10 May, 8 November, 22 November 1917, 28 July 1921, 13 July 1967.
- Hoeling, Adolph A. The Fierce Lambs. New York, New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1960.
- Kerwin, James F. Word Pictures of Early Carroll County. Glidden, Iowa: Ferguson Publications, 1982.
- Ray Murray. “Merle D. Hay.” The Palimpsest, (May 1943).
- Joan Muyskens. “Merle Hay and His Town.” Annals of Iowa 39 (Summer 1967) 27-31.
- Swisher, Jacob A. Iowa in Time of War. Iowa City, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1943.
- Vogt, Michael. "Remembering Iowa's Son, Merle Hay." Des Moines Register, 3 November 1992.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Michael W. Vogt.