LIMA — Shortly before 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, Americans Henry Gunther and Ernest Powell were moving cautiously through the fog. Although an armistice had been signed several hours earlier calling for the fighting on the Western Front to end at 11 a.m., many advance units had not yet received the news and, in any event, had been ordered to carry on until the very end.
“Two German machine-gun squads manning a roadblock watched, disbelieving, as shapes began emerging from the fog, forcing them to fire in self-defense,” Joseph E. Persico wrote in his 2004 book “11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour.” “Gunther and Sergeant Powell dropped to the ground as bullets sang above their heads. The firing broke off as the Germans assumed the Americans would have the good sense to stop with so little time left.”
Inexplicably, Gunther rose and charged. The Germans waved him back, but he kept advancing and, at 10:59 a.m., Gunther, a German-American from Baltimore, was struck by a bullet in the left temple and died instantly. “General (John J.) Pershing’s order of the day would record Henry Gunther as the last American killed in the war,” Persico wrote. In all, more than 116,000 Americans died in World War I, which claimed more than 17 million lives worldwide.
After one last spasm of artillery fire — and more casualties — the guns on the Western Front fell silent.
As word of the armistice spread across the United States that morning, the noise was just beginning. In Lima, according to the Lima Daily News of Nov. 12, 1918, “The celebration began shortly before 3 o’clock Monday morning with a parade and during every hour of the day until midnight parades of different sorts were in progress. Monday night’s crowd swarming thorofares was probably more hilarious than during the day. From buildings and alleys groups of people in line, with noisemaking devices, appeared every few minutes, proceeding to Main Street to march.”
The News added that “where horns or wooden and tin noisemaking devices were not to be secured, tin cans and galvanized tube took the place. Every automobile was either decorated gaily in red, white and blue bunting or was driven about with a ‘rattler’ of some sort attached.”
There was cause for celebration. More than 150 Allen County residents died in the war, including six men who died when a German submarine sank the Ticonderoga, a horse-transport ship, 1,700 miles off the Atlantic Coast at the end of September. Merle Armstrong, of Lima, who had been serving in France since June of 1918, survived the war, but his wife died celebrating its end. Twenty-year-old Evelyn Forche Armstrong died of internal injuries after falling from a truck during the Lima celebration.
In contrast to the raucous celebration of 1918, the first Armistice Day in 1919 was a subdued affair in Lima. “Other than ceremonies to be held by the local post of the American Legion and simple services by children of various schools Armistice Day will pass unnoticed in Lima,” the Lima Times-Democrat wrote Nov. 10, 1919. “However, parents and others who have loved ones lying in France will remember the day and offer up their thanks that the strife ceased when it did.”
So, while new flags were raised on the courthouse and city hall in Celina, and parades in Spencerville and Ottawa drew thousands, Lima residents spent Nov. 11, 1919, mostly in quiet reflection.
In an editorial, the Times-Democrat reflected on the change a year could make. “Just one year ago this morning,” the newspaper wrote, “you were awakened, if you were a resident of Lima, by the factory whistles blowing for an hour or more and you knew instantly that the war was over — that the armistice was signed at last. And you hurried down to buy an extra of the Lima Times, which confirmed your fondest hope — that your son and your neighbor’s son could now come back home.
“And with what tense anxiety you watched the casualty lists and feared the knock of a telegraph messenger boy at your door, for fear that your son had been killed or badly wounded in the last days of the greatest conflict the world has ever known.
“But most of the boys came home finally and you received them joyfully — and then like the rest of us, apparently forgot, too soon, the awful sacrifices those boys made for you and me.”
In 1926, Congress passed resolution calling for an annual Armistice Day observance, although November 11 was not declared a national holiday until 1938. In 1954, in the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, Armistice Day became Veterans Day, dedicated to American veterans of all wars.