Last-minute death leaves last­ing image

City sol­dier was killed mo­ments be­fore World War I ended

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Christina Tkacik

At 10:59 a.m. Sun­day, the bells at the Most Holy Redeemer Ceme­tery off Be­lair Road in East Bal­ti­more will ring for Henry Gun­ther, a Bal­ti­morean re­mem­bered as the last U.S. sol­dier killed in com­bat in World War I.

His­to­ri­ans re­cently dis­cov­ered he died a minute ear­lier, at 10:58 a.m., two min­utes be­fore the Ar­mistice went into ef­fect, end­ing the con­flict 100 A plaque honors Henry Gun­ther at the Most Holy Redeemer Ceme­tery, where bells will ring in his honor Sun­day, the 100th an­niver­sary of World War I’s end. years ago, on Nov. 11, 1918.

Gun­ther was sta­tioned in France, and ac­cord­ing to pub­lished ac­counts he charged the Ger­man line, his bay­o­net fixed. The sol­diers knew the war was about to end — word of the Ar­mistice had swept through the ranks — and yet Gun­ther ig­nored the shouts of his com­rades who urged him to turn back.

He died in a bar­rage of ma­chine gun fire. For his fam­ily, Gun­ther’s death “was noth­ing that we cel­e­brated,” said Carol Aik­man, a great niece who lives in Edge­mere.

She calls the cir­cum­stances of his death sad and per­plex­ing, and ques­tions what frame of mind the 23-year-old sol­dier was in when he charged the en­emy line mo­ments be­fore peace.

Gun­ther was born to Ger­man-Amer­i­can par­ents; his grand­par­ents had em­i­grated in the mid-1800s, ac­cord­ing to a bi­og­ra­phy from the Ger­man So­ci­ety of Mary­land.

To the Rev. Siegfried Otto and other mem­bers of the Ger­man So­ci­ety, Gun­ther is a hero pure and sim­ple — and a re­minder of the strug­gles Ger­man-Amer­i­cans faced to prove their loy­alty to the United States.

“He was a pa­triot,” said Otto, who will give the bless­ing at a memo­rial hon­or­ing the 100th an­niver­sary of the war’s end.

With the on­set of the Great War, Ger­man cul­ture came un­der at­tack in Bal­ti­more and ci­ties across Amer­ica, and Ger­manic in­flu­ences were purged from daily life. The ef­fect was felt by many like Gun­ther, who grew up in a Ger­man- and English-speak­ing house on Eastern Av­enue and at­tended Ger­man Mass at Sa­cred Heart of Je­sus Catholic Church.

“A lot of ‘Sch­midts’ be­came ‘Smith,’ and that sort of thing,” said Theodore J. Pot­thast Jr., an­other mem­ber of the Ger­man So­ci­ety.

While treat­ment of Ger­man-Amer­i­cans dur­ing World War I was not as dra­co­nian as dis­crim­i­na­tion faced by other mi­nor­ity groups — for ex­am­ple Ja­panese-Amer­i­cans dur­ing World War II — it has­tened the as­sim­i­la­tion of once-proud Ger­mans.

Some be­lieve it might have con­tributed to Gun­ther’s demise.

“It may have been that he was try­ing to prove his loy­alty when he made the charge,” Pot­thast said.

The Bal­ti­more Sun’s cov­er­age from the era at­tests to the sus­pi­cions and hos­til­ity that many di­rected to Ger­mans, pe­jo­ra­tively called “huns” in head­lines. The slur didn’t make sense, fac­tu­ally speak­ing, but stuck any­way, said Bill Fis­cher, a Port­land, Ore., aca­demic who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively about Ger­man-Amer­i­can iden­tity.

“The no­tion was, they’re bar­bar­ians, they’re war­like, they come from the east, let’s call them ‘huns,’ ” he said.

Bal­ti­more was home to a sig­nif­i­cant Ger­man im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion, and sev­eral city pub­lic schools taught pri­mar­ily in Ger­man. Sud­denly, though, cit­i­zens protested teach­ing the “hun” lan­guage.

Many Ger­man-lan­guage news­pa­pers ceased pub­li­ca­tion. Down­town’s Ger­man Street — then home to a num­ber of bank­ing in­sti­tu­tions — was re­named Red­wood Henry N. Gun­ther (right side ar­row) of Bal­ti­more was killed by ma­chine gun fire just two min­utes be­fore the of­fi­cial end of World War I. Ernest F. Pow­ell (left side ar­row) dis­cussed Gun­ther’s un­timely death in The Sun Mag­a­zine in 1968. Street af­ter bankers com­plained to City Coun­cil. The new name was a trib­ute to Lt. Ge­orge Buchanan Red­wood, the first Bal­ti­more of­fi­cer to lose his life in the con­flict.

Sauer­kraut was reimag­ined as “lib­erty cab­bage.” The dachs­hund be­came the “lib­erty hound.”

“There is no room in this coun­try for hy­phen­ated Amer­i­can­ism,” for­mer Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt said in a 1915 speech in New York. “The only man who is a good Amer­i­can is the man who is an Amer­i­can and noth­ing else.”

There were, in fact, Ger­man agents and sabo­teurs in Bal­ti­more. The in­fa­mous “Black Tom” ex­plo­sion, which killed four peo­ple and de­stroyed stores of am­mu­ni­tion in New Jersey in 1916, was plot­ted by Ger­man agents in the third-floor at­tic room of Hansa Haus, a build­ing that still stands at Charles and Red­wood streets.

Per­haps as a re­sult of such in­ci­dents, many peo­ple of Ger­man de­scent were un­justly ac­cused of be­ing traitors. A 1918 ar­ti­cle in The Sun sug­gested that de­spite the large num­ber of Ger­man-Amer­i­can ca­su­al­ties in the war, and the fact that many Ger­man-Amer­i­cans served in the U.S. mil­i­tary, “the aver­age man in the street” was sus­pi­cious of nearly ev­ery per­son of Ger- man ex­trac­tion.

“The anti-Ger­man sen­ti­ment was re­ally not valid be­cause you had Ger­man-Amer­i­cans fight­ing for Amer­ica against Ger­many, yet they were still per­se­cuted,” Pot­thast said.

Ha­tred had its lim­its. Mary J. Man­ning, who has re­searched the is­sue of Ger­man treat­ment dur­ing the first world war, said that al­though in­di­vid­ual Ger­mans were locked up or watched by po­lice dur­ing the con­flict, there were too many Ger­manAmer­i­cans to be in­terned on a large scale as Ja­panese-Amer­i­cans were 25 years later.

Plus, Ger­man-Amer­i­cans weren’t nec­es­sar­ily iden­ti­fi­able on looks alone. “If you can point to some­one who looks dif­fer­ent, you can be more prej­u­diced,” Man­ning said.

The ef­fect was more sub­tle. Places where Ger­man im­mi­grants gath­ered for pic­nics and so­cial events “fell un­der a cloud,” Man­ning said.

Weeks be­fore he died, Gun­ther was de­moted to pri­vate from sergeant af­ter a let­ter he wrote com­plain­ing about poor con­di­tions on the front was in­ter­cepted by Army of­fi­cials. Af­ter his death, his com­rades in the 313th In­fantry told a Sun cor­re­spon­dent that Gun­ther felt “he was un­der a cloud” since his de­mo­tion.

“Par­tic­u­larly he was wor­ried be­cause he thought him­self sus­pected a Ger­man sym­pa­thizer,” ac­cord­ing to the ar­ti­cle, pub­lished in 1919.

“[Gun­ther’s] fi­ancee even broke up with him,” said Aik­man, his de­scen­dant.

Gun­ther’s peers re­ported that he be­gan tak­ing on risky as­sign­ments, in­clud­ing de­liv­er­ing mes­sages to the front lines as a run­ner. On one mis­sion he was shot in the wrist by Ger­man fire — he ban­daged the wound him­self and kept re­port­ing for duty.

Bob Wisch, di­rec­tor of the Ger­man So­ci­ety of Mary­land, be­lieves at least part of Gun­ther’s mo­ti­va­tion for run­ning into the line of fire on Ar­mistice Day was to prove to the Army his loy­alty to the United States.

“I would say that’s a large per­cent­age of why he did do it,” said Wisch, who wrote a brief his­tory of Gun­ther’s life. “He wanted to say that he loved the Army.”

If it was a quest for re­demp­tion, paid for in blood, the ges­ture is still re­mem­bered100 years later.

In France, near the Bel­gian bor­der, a mon­u­ment marks the spot where Gun­ther died. Afew years ago, the Ger­man So­ci­ety of Mary­land erected a new marker at his grave.

His home coun­try also hon­ored the last man killed in the Great War. Gun­ther was posthu­mously re­stored to the rank of sergeant, and was awarded a medal for brav­ery.

JED KIRSCHBAUM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

UN­KNOWN/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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