Armistice Day and Missouri’s greatest hero

November 11, 1918.  “We are wondering what the Hun is going to do about Marshal Foch’s proposition to him.  We don’t care what he does. He’s licked either way he goes,” the soldier from Missouri wrote to his fiancé as he waited for the shooting to stop.

“For my part I’d as soon be provost marshal of Cologne or Metz or Munich or Berlin as have any other job i know of now.  It is a shame we can’t go in and devastate Germany and cut off a few of the Dutch kids’ hands and feet and scalp a few of their old men but I guess it will be better to make them work for France and Belgium for fifty years,” wrote Army Captain Harry Truman of Independence. 

American forces were not easing up as he wrote, “Their time for acceptance will be up in thirty minutes.  There is a great big 155 Battery right behind me across the road that seems to want to get rid of all of its ammunition before the time is up.  It has been banging away almost as fast as a 75 battery for the last two hours.  Every time one of the guns goes off it shakes my house like an earthquake.”   The numbers he referred to were the caliber of cannons firing at the German troops.  

Then, in the middle of the letter, the news came.

“I just got official notice that hostilities would cease at eleven o’clock.  Everyone is about to have a fit.  I fired 164 rounds at him before he quit this morning anyway.  It seems that everyone was just about to blow up wondering if Heinie would come in.  I knew that Germany could not stand the gaff.  For all their preparedness and swashbuckling talk they cannot stand adversity.  France was whipped for four years and never gave up and one good licking suffices for Germany.  What pleases me most is the fact that I was lucky enough to take a battcery through the last drive.  The Battery has shot something over ten thousand rounds at the Hun and I am sure they had a slight effect.”

The Great War did not really end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month 95 years ago.  The Treaty of Versailles was not signed until June 18, 1919.

  “Marshall Foch’s proposition” had been for an armistice, which is why President Wilson in 1919 declared this day Armistice Day and said it was to be “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice  in the councils of nations.” The United States did not agree the war was ended until Congress passed a concurrent resolution on June 4, 1926.  By then, 27states had declared November 11 as Armistice Day.  It became a legal holiday  in 1938.

But there were more wars to come.  World War II brought about the greatest military mobilization in national history.  The Korean War came just six years after World War II ended.  Veterans organizations pressured Congress to change the Armistice Day law so it recognized all veterans, not just those of the first conflict.  President Eisenhower signed the bill renaming the holiday “Veterans Day,” to honor all who had served.   It became a three-day holiday in 1968 with the signing by President Johnson of the Uniform Holiday Act.  That led to some confusion because the first Veterans Day under the new law was celebrated on October 25, 1971, an awkward situation that was corrected when President Ford signed a new law in 1975 that restored Armistice/Veterans day to November 11th, Mondays notwithstanding.

It is appropriate, however, that the Missourinet pauses in this space to remember the war that gave us the holiday.  Perhaps some of the motivation comes from the recent death of Congressman Ike Skelton, whose funeral we covered a week ago today.  Ike, who we had covered from his days as a state senator when the Missourinet went on the air in 1975, was the President of the World War I Centennial Commission when he died. 

Missouri also is home to the National World War I Museum. It’s in Kansas City and it is an incredible experience.   The Great War is too often overlooked in our history.  World War II certainly surpassed it in scope and replaced it in the national consciousness.  But it cannot obscure the service and the sacrifice made by Missourians and other Americans in the 1914-1918 war.  

Eight Missourians won the Medal of Honor in WWI.

Arthur J. Forest, a St. Louis native who joined the army in Hannibal, was an infantry sergeant whose company was pinned down by annihilating fire from a nest of six enemy machine guns.  He managed to make his way to a place about 150 feet from the nest before he launched a one-man charge.  The Germans fled, clearing the way for the advance platoon to continue to advance. Forest lived 46 years after the armistice.  He was 68 years old when he died.  He’s buried in Ralls County. 

M. Waldo Hatler was a native of Bolivar, a lawyer by education but a banker by profession.  He left his father’s bank in Neosho to enlist in the Navy.  After being rejected for medical reasons, he entered the draft, became an Army sergeant.  Three days before the armistice, when his unit stalled near the French village of Poilly, he volunteered to swim cross the Meuse River to learn the German positions and strength. He swam back with the information that helped his unit advance.  Hatler was 73 when he died in 1967.  His widow published his biography a year later.

St. Louisan Alexander Skinker was a Captain whose unit was blocked by machine gun fire coming from Hindenburg Line pill boxes.  He and another soldier who was  armed with an automatic rifle, and a third soldier carrying ammuntion made a three-man attack and when the ammunition carrier was killed, Skinker picked up the ammunition and fed it into the automatic rifle until a German bullet killed him.  He was 34.

Sgt. Michael B. Ellis was known as “Machine Gun Mike,” or the “Sergeant York of St. Louis,” or “The Lone Wolf.”  He had received the Silver Star after being involved in front-line action for 200 days near Soissons, France.  His actions as a supplies carrier and in attacking German positions also earned him the French Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre, and other medals. On October 5, near Exermont, France, he went ahead of his company and singlehandedly attacked several German machine gun positions.  He killed two German machine gunners, silenced eleven machine guns and captured 44 German soldiers, .  He became the only soldier in General Pershing’s 1st Division to win the Medal of Honor, which Pershing presented him in St. Louis in August 1919.   He died in 1937.

Private John L. Barkley was from Kansas City.  He was in an observation post less than a half-mile from the German line near Cunel, France on October 7, 1918, knowing Germans were about to make a push.  He found a caputured German machine gun, repaired it, and mounted it in a disabled French tank.  When a German counterattack began, he waited until the German lines were upon him and opened fire, breaking up the counterattack and killing several of the enemy.  Five minutes after the Germans pulled back, a German artillery piece opened point-blank fire on the bank.  Although one shell hit the tank’s drive wheel, Barkley stayed at his machine gun and broke up a second German counterattack.  His Medal of Honor commendation says his actions enabled allied forces to capture an important hill. Barkley was 70 when he died in 1966.   

Aurora native Harold L. Turner was a corporal when his unit ran into German machine guns that were so deadly that only four members of his unit were alive when they took refuge about 75 feet one the enemy emplacement of four machine guns.   When the fire shfted momentarily, Turner rushed the position with fixed bayonet, and captured one of the machine guns and fifty German soldiers, ending the threat that had blocked the allied advance.  He ws 39 when he died in 1938.

Mount Vernon’s Charles D. Barger and New Hampton’s Jesse Funk  went into no-man’s land to rescue fellow soldiers.  Barger was born Charles Staffelbach.   When he was five years old, his father, mother, and two older brothers were convicted of murdering a customer who had come to the family home, which was a bordello, in Galena, Kansas.  Charles was raised by a couple named Barger  and farmed ner Stotts City until he went into the Army.  Funk was nine yhears older, married with a son, when he joined the Army in 1915.  Barger and Funk were stretcher bearers during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in October, 1918. Two patrols had been sent into no-man’s land and became pinned down by rifle and machine gun fire.  Two officers in charge of the patrols were wounded.  One of their men crawled back to the Allied lines with word of the situation.  Funk and Barger ran 500 yards through German machine gun fire, twice, to rescue the two lieutenants. As they were rescuting the two officers, they noticed a wounded enlisted man.  They made a third dash through the machine gun fire to get him and return him to Allied lines. They became the only Army medical personnel to receive the Medal of Honor in the war.  Funk died at age 44 in 1920.  Barger was hailed as “Missouri’s greatest hero” when he came home. One source says he was the state’s most decorated combat soldier of the war.   

Life that had been a struggle for Barger before the war was a struggle afterwards.  He joined the Kansas City police force in 1922 and stayed with it for 12 years.  Shortly after he joined the force, he and another officer  got into a shootout with a bootlegger and a suspected killer.  Barger was hit five times but still shot one of the assailants three times and mortally wounded the other one.  The police department later cut him loose.  He struggled for a couple of years before moving to a farm near Oak Grove. Police were called to his house on November 23, 1936, sheriff’s officers were called to his home on a domestic disturbance case. They found him with three self-inflicted knife wounds in his burning house.  When he lunged at the deputies with his knife, he was shot in the thigh.  He died two days afterwards from third degree burns.  He was 44, the same age as Funk when he had died.

His supporters argued to no avail that the federal government should have acknowledged that Barger’s mental problems stemmed from his military service.   

The memory of the war that led to this holiday is dim in national memory.  But the story of “Missouri’s greatest hero” of that war sounds all too contemporary.

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