Henry Nicholas Gunther has joined my roster of hallowed historical figures. A U.S. Army private from Baltimore, Gunther was killed at 10:59 a.m. Nov. 11, 1918, a minute before World War I ended. Author Richard Rubin, in a poignant article in the Travel section of the Sunday New York Times, tells about his search for a small monument to Gunther that stands atop a secluded hill where the 23-year-old soldier fell, shot in the head, just before the Armistice 100 years ago. Gunther was the last of millions of young men slaughtered in the war.
Rubin, author of "The Last of the Doughboys, the Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War," talks about visiting battle-scarred sites in the Argonne Forest, where a final offensive by the Americans defeated the Germans at last. In the "Last of the Doughboys," Rubin interviewed surviving American veterans of World War I, men 100 years old.
The American contribution to the allied victory in World War I is often forgotten, as the subtitle of Rubin's book reflects. But their losses were as great as those in the Civil War and World War II - 20,000 "doughboys" were killed in the Meuse-Argonne offensive from Sept. 26, to Nov. 11, 1918.
The troops were efficiently mobilized by George C. Marshall, who later led the U.S. military effort in World War II. During his subsequent years as secretary of state, he set up the Marshall Plan to revive war-devastated Europe. The Meuse-Argonne campaign was an early showing of that organizational genius.
Rubin's article is illustrated with color photographs that show remaining German trenches and bomb craters, a now silent testimony to that battle-torn autumn. Once the American forces were in place, they engaged in horrible battle against the formidable German army, as Rubin details.
Rubin, recalling the superiority of the German forces, asked French residents why the Germans lost. Their constant answer: "Les Americains."