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Merle David Hay (July 20, 1896 – November 3, 1917) was the first Iowa serviceman and perhaps the first American serviceman to die in World War I, along with Corporal James Bethel Gresham of Evansville, Indiana and Thomas Enright of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.[1]

Merle Hay
Born (1896-07-20)July 20, 1896
Carrollton, Carroll County, Iowa
Died November 3, 1917(1917-11-03) (aged 21)
Artois, France
Buried West Lawn Cemetery, Glidden, Iowa
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1917
Rank Private
Unit Company F, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division
Merle Hay memorial boulder in Des Moines, Iowa


Early lifeEdit

Merle Hay was born on a Carroll County, Iowa farm to Harvey and Carrie Hay. He was the oldest of 3 children. In 1909, the family moved to another farm near Glidden. Before his service with the United States Army, he was a farm implement mechanic.[2]

World War I serviceEdit

When the United States entered the First World War, Hay was young enough to avoid being drafted. With his father's blessing, he voluntarily enlisted on May 9, 1917.[3] He was among 8 men from Glidden who enlisted that day. They were first shipped to Fort Logan, Colorado, then to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.[2] He was assigned to the 16th Infantry Regiment. On 26 June 1917, the regiment disembarked the troop ships in St. Nazaire, France, as part of the 1st Infantry Division. By November 1917, he was assigned to Company F along with Corporal James Bethel Gresham and Private Thomas Enright. They were posted in the trenches near the French village of Artois. In the early morning of 3 November 1917, the Imperial German Army attacked. After an hour of fighting, Hay, along with Corporal Gresham, and Private Enright were the first three casualties of the American Expeditionary Force.[4]

Two days later, on 5 Nov 1917, Enright, Gresham, and Hay were buried near the battlefield where they had died. An inscription marked their graves: "Here lie the first soldiers of the illustrious Republic of the United States who fell on French soil for justice and liberty." Their bodies were eventually returned to their families and reburied in the United States. Hay was then re-interred in July 1921 in West Lawn Cemetery in his home town of Glidden, Iowa.[5] The West Lawn Cemetery was later renamed the Merle Hay Memorial Cemetery. An 8-foot monument commissioned by the Iowa Legislature marks his gravesite.

Shortly after Hay's death, the highway running from the west edge of Des Moines to Camp Dodge was renamed Merle Hay Road. A memorial boulder was placed along Merle Hay Road in 1923 and remains up today amidst the commercial development along the road.[6] Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines was also named for Hay; the local Kiwanis club placed a memorial plaque near the entrance to the mall's Sears store in 1979.

On the 100th anniversary of Hay's death in 2017, Glidden native Eric Schumacher published an original composition, "The Ballad of Merle D Hay," in Hay's honor.

The first American military casualty in World War II was also an Iowa native. Andrew, Iowa, native Robert M. Losey, a military attache, was killed on April 21, 1940 during a German bombardment of Dombås, Norway. Captain Losey had been attempting to complete the evacuation of the American diplomatic delegation from Norway to Sweden in the wake of the German invasion.[7]


Hay's mother collapsed upon hearing of his death but in an interview two days after Hay's father, D. Hay, said that "I am proud of my boy if he has given up his life for his country." He was survived by a younger brother Basil, eighteen, and a fourteen-year-old sister Opel.[3]

See alsoEdit

First killed in WWI

Last killed in WWI




External linksEdit