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From the Front Lines to the Falls

Idaho Remembers A Forgotten War

Published online: Mar 05, 2018 Articles, Events, Social
Viewed 1103 time(s)

By Linden Bateman

“Idaho Remembers” is the Idaho Day theme for 2018 in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.  

It is believed that worldwide as many as 9.7 million soldiers and 10 million civilians died through combat or disease. Some 4.7 million Americans served in the war with 116,500 deaths. The state of Idaho recorded the loss of 358 service members, a major sacrifice, when considering that Idaho’s population in 1918 was only 400,000.

The last American veteran of World War I was Corporal Frank W. Buckles who died in 2011 at the age of 110 and was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.  As the war fades from memory it is becoming a forgotten war, a designation we must never accept.  We must never forget the American men and women who gave their lives for the highest ideals of western civilization.

Among those soldiers seldom remembered is Thomas Neibaur, Idaho’s most highly decorated veteran and heroic personality of the Great War, as it came to be known.  For his actions against enemy forces on an obscure hill in France on October 16, 1918, Private Neibaur received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the first person born in Idaho to receive America’s highest military decoration.  During the Meuse-Argonne campaign, Neibaur single handedly repulsed a counter attack against his unit led by 50 determined German soldiers and despite being wounded four times and poisoned by mustard gas; he took 11 prisoners using only a pistol.

After months recovering in hospitals, Thomas Neibaur returned to a hero’s welcome attended by 10,000 people on May 27, 1919, in his hometown of Sugar City, Idaho.  He was greeted by speeches and salutations from people of all ages, including Idaho Governor D.W. Davis, National Guard soldiers, business and church leaders, farmers, reporters from throughout Idaho and by marching bands leading a grand parade.

For a few years, Thomas enjoyed a celebrity status; he married Sarah Lois Shepard, a Sugar City girl, attended college briefly, and eventually fathered 9 children.  He was featured in newspapers and magazines and welcomed as a popular speaker by clubs, service organizations and schools.  Gradually, however, he faded from public memory, becoming all but forgotten, and was overwhelmed by sickness and misfortune.  Still suffering from wartime wounds, Neibaur was involved in an industrial accident at the sugar factory in Sugar City and was unable to work for long periods of time.  Living conditions for his family became desperate, during the Great Depression.  Three young sons died in accidents and his wife died at 48.

With the help of Senator William E. Borah, Thomas finally obtained employment in 1939 as a security officer at the Capital building in Boise, but after 2 years was again hospitalized and died in 1943 of tuberculosis, aggravated by the gas poisoning from the war.  Thomas was only 44 years of age when he died, his family dispersed and three sons were placed in orphanages.

Today, few people know anything about Thomas Neibaur, but during this centennial year we honor Thomas and hope that he will be remembered through all generations of time.

Women served during World War I in various capacities on the home front, in munitions factories and in agriculture, where as replacements for farmers off to war, became known as “farmerettes.”  Women volunteered for the Red Cross, other relief agencies and served in Europe as nurses.  One hundred sixty-one American nurses died during World War I, later honored as Gold Star women.  Many of these valiant women died from a deadly flu transmitted from patients in field hospitals.  Among the victims was Genevra Robinson, a nurse from Nampa, Idaho, serving in a London hospital, and the first Idaho woman buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

About half of all U.S. casualties during World War I were from the flu, part of a worldwide epidemic which killed between 50 and 100 million people.

Bonneville County also served valiantly during the Great War with 24 of its soldiers among the war dead.  Their names appear on bronze plaques placed into the ground near the war memorial on Memorial Drive in Idaho Falls.  These plaques will soon be cleaned and restored.

Among other local war memorials are the beautiful stained glass windows in the First Presbyterian Church on Elm Street in Idaho Falls, within which are etched the names of congregation members who served in World War I.

Many prominent residents served in the Great War, including George Edgington, the Mayor of Idaho Falls, who resigned his office to serve as a captain in the war and returned a hero.

The common citizen also served.  Leland Hansen was a farmer living on the Iona Road who joined the army, served in France and then told generations of school children about his experiences.  For many years Leland visited American history classes at Bonneville High School dressed in his original World War I uniform, sharing stories of patriotism, toil and sacrifice, including two near death battlefield experiences. 

As a Mormon, Private Hansen did not drink the coffee delivered to men in the trenches on the front lines where he was serving, but was glad to use the hot drink for shaving.  Once while using coffee and a polished metal mirror to shave, a German artillery attack suddenly commenced and Leland’s hand was struck by a piece of shrapnel which barely missed his head.  As he shared the experience with school children 60 years later, he always showed the scar on his hand left by the hot sliver of steel.

One evening following a long day of combat operations, Private Hansen burrowed into a pile of sawdust and went to sleep, only to wake in the early morning with a dangerously high fever, later diagnosed as the deadly flu which was sweeping through his division.  Leland related to his student audiences that had it not been for the constant care provided by a young French nurse, he would surely have died.  Delusional, and in a dream-like state of semi-consciousness, he could see her image hovering over him day and night, until he began to recover and she was transferred to another area of the battle zone.  Leland never saw the girl again and never learned her name.  It was to be one of the great disappointments of his life that he was never able to thank the nurse who saved his life.  Private Hansen wept often, remembering the woman who saved his life and the comrades who did not survive the war and who now lie buried in the soil of France.

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