The Life of Merle Hay and its Importance 100 Years Later

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DES MOINES, Iowa  --  It's a simple question. "For a lot of visitors that come to the museum, I ask them, 'who is Merle Hay?'" Iowa Gold Star Military Museum Curator Michael Vogt says the question comes with an all too common response these days.  "Most common response is, well he's the guy who built the mall." Vogt believes this is why remembering Merle Hay, the Glidden native, is essential.

"Merle Hay's story begins in May of 1917, when the United States had gone to war with Germany," said Vogt.

Patriotism fueled Hay's decision to join the military at Camp Dodge, where the 21-year-old wasn't even sure he was Army material.

"He's worried about having flat feet and the Army won't accept him. They do, he's assigned to the 1st division, and sees basic training in Texas."

Hay's division was the first to deploy to France that summer and serve on the western front, which stayed relatively calm until a German raid on November 3rd 1917, during which Hay and two other Americans were killed.

"When they recovered his body, he had in his possession a smashed Rockford silver case pocket watch his mother gave him for his birthday and the smashed dial indicated a time of 2:40 a.m.  That might be the time Merle Hay perished," Vogt said.

As word traveled back to the states, the Hay family and his hometown was devastated. But when his body returned at the end of the war in 1921, all of Iowa and America mourned the man who may have been the first American killed in the "War said to end all wars." Vogt described the funeral as a spectacular event, saying, "In the largest funeral of Iowa, an estimated 10,000 people attended the internment of Merle Hay in 1921.  It has been billed as one of the largest funerals west of the Mississippi."

Hay was one of 3,576 Iowans killed in World War I.  While his name has been plastered on the state's first mall and busy roads in Des Moines, historians hope his death and the deaths of thousands of other Iowans can be sobering reminders of the cost of freedom.

"Merle Hay, maybe more than perhaps any Iowan, symbolizes the sacrifices Iowans have made not only in the first world war, but conflicts prior and up to the present day," said Vogt.

On Saturday, the Glidden Public Library will be hosting a ceremony telling Merle Hay's life story at 1 p.m.  Following the ceremony, a wreath will be laid at Merle Hay's grave site at the West Lawn Cemetery in Glidden.