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Sixteen Names on a Plaque

The Mortal Toll of the First World War at Montana State College

Thursday Nov. 1st, 2018

Just inside the main west entry of the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse is a plaque at the top of which is the text: 

“THESE STUDENTS OF MONTANA STATE COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE AND MECHANIC ARTS GAVE THEIR LIVES IN DEFENSE OF HUMANITY IN THE GREAT WORLD WAR OF 1914-1918”

Below the text are sixteen names of men, students enrolled at Montana State College (MSC) between 1908 and 1917, who died in service with the U.S. Army and Marines. The scope of MSC’s contributions to the war effort is more evident in the Montanan 1920, the yearbook for school year 1918-1919, containing thirteen pages of 573 names of MSC students, alumni, and faculty who served in the military as well as in medical, welfare, educational, and other support services such as the YMCA and YWCA.  Another page—titled IN MEMORY OF--lists MSC students and alumni in military service, and a few notable Bozeman residents, who died during the war. 

The United States entered the First World War on the 6th of April 1917, late in Montana State College’s school year 1916-1917.  The official figures for that academic year show 684 enrolled students (436 men and 248 women), taught by sixty-five professors and instructors.  Besides the familiar four-year degree offerings, there were also two programs that long ago disappeared. Five of the men named on the plaque were in the four-year degree program.  Three were in the three-year School of Agriculture “short course” with a six-month school term between fall harvest and spring work. Two were in the Preparatory School at MSC, which provided up to four years of secondary education and technical training to those who lived far from a high school. And six were in the Students Army Training Corps, a wartime program at hundreds of colleges and universities across the nation, operated in cooperation with the Department of War, for educating officers and training enlisted ranks in technical skills. 

Of the sixteen men named on the plaque, four died in combat. A group of Montanans died at sea early in 1918.  When the United States entered the war, the German submarine force expected to sink many ships carrying troops of the American Expeditionary Force to Britain and France. However, Robert K. Massie in his naval history Castles of Steel writes that the Germans only sank one loaded eastbound troop transport. This was the British liner S.S. Tuscania, with over two thousand soldiers aboard. It was part of a convoy that left New York in late January 1918. Aboard the Tuscania were many Montanans among the several companies of the 20th Engineer Regiment (Forestry). On the 5th of February, in the straits between southwest Scotland and northern Ireland, a German submarine torpedoed the Tuscania. Royal Navy destroyers rescued most of the passengers and crew from the sinking ship. Others got into lifeboats, some of which heavy seas smashed against the rocky coast of the Scottish island of Islay, killing the occupants. Ten Montanans died on the rocks of Islay. One of them was Marcus Cook, from Como in the southern Bitterroot Valley, of the 16th Company, 20th Engineer Regiment. Cook is one of twenty-one names on the First World War memorial on the campus of the University of Montana (called the State University of Montana until 1965). Cook first attended the Preparatory School at MSC and then transferred to the School of Forestry at the State University in Missoula. Also joining the 20th Engineers in Europe was another MSC alumnus listed on the plaque: Albert Urbach, of Livingston, with a rank of Master Engineer in the 5th Battalion headquarters, 20th Engineer Regiment, who died on the 6th of July, 1918 and is buried in the Suresnes American Cemetery just west of Paris.

Almost half of the Americans who died in combat during the Great War lost their lives in the last seven weeks of the war, in the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne. This culminating effort of the American Expeditionary Force took place near the eastern end of the active Western Front. U.S. soldiers fought well-prepared German troops in the hilly country north of Verdun, much of it thickly forested. As infantry with rifles and bayonets attacking entrenched defenders armed with machine guns and artillery suffered in the previous four years of the war, the American infantry suffered the same high casualties. About 26,000 Americans died in those seven weeks, the highest toll of any battle in United States history. For Montanans of the 91st Division (nicknamed “Wild West”) in the battle, the fight for the fortified village of Gesnes on the 29th of September was both a fierce battle and reason for later pride. It required an infantry charge across open ground toward the German lines, with soldiers shouting the division’s battle cry, “Powder River!” After taking the lines at great cost, the troops had to withdraw when neighboring units failed to advance, leaving their flanks unprotected. Several Montanans won the Distinguished Service Cross during this action. Among those who died that day in the attack on Gesnes was Oscar Solberg, from Big Timber, of Company D, 347th Machine Gun Battalion, 91st Division. Farther west in the Meuse-Argonne, less than a week later, on the 3rd of October, Earl Cherry, from Dawson County, of the 305th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division, was killed while carrying a message at Bois de la Naza.

One of the MSC alumni, and the only officer on the plaque, died just one week before the war ended. Cyrus Gatton, from Bozeman, attended three years at MSC and transferred to the University of Wisconsin for his final year, 1916-1917. When the U.S. entered the war, he enlisted in the Army Air Service and flew bombers over German-held France. On the 4th of November, while serving with the 11th Aero Squadron based at Maulan Aerodrome south of Verdun, his plane was shot down over German lines north of Verdun, probably by anti-aircraft fire. On the 4th of October 1930, MSC’s football field, across Grant Street from Romney Gym, was dedicated and named for Gatton. Through 1971, this field hosted both football and track and field. The memorial pillars with explanatory plaque now stand by the northeast corner of the Hoseaus Health and PE Center.

Disease killed more Americans in the military than did combat during the war. While the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 took by far the highest toll, other illness also claimed lives. The earliest death of an MSC student was that of Carter Yust, from Kremmling, Colorado, of Battery D, 341st Field Artillery, who died of pneumonia at Fort Riley, Kansas on the 7th of January 1918. Fort Riley and neighboring Camp Funston were where the influenza pandemic first appeared in the U.S. in March 1918. The two U.S. Marines on the MSC plaque died early in 1918 of lung-related illnesses. Robert Reed, from Windham (between Great Falls and Lewistown), died on the 22nd of February 1918 of pneumonia at the Mare Island Naval Hospital in San Francisco Bay, just two months after his enlistment. Harrell Hibbard, from Helena, died on the 17th of March 1918 of pleurisy at the Naval Hospital in Chelsea, Massachusetts.  

The influenza pandemic struck hard where people lived and gathered densely in large numbers, especially at military bases and in transport.  At the large military base at El Paso, Fort Bliss, Raymond Bowlen, from Red Lodge, in the Army Quartermaster Corps, died on the 5th of October 1918. He was serving at the Remount Depot, where the Army acquired and prepared horses for military purposes. His younger brother Dale Bowlen, of Montana’s 163rd Infantry, 41st Division, had died eight months earlier of unspecified cause, on the 31st of December 1917 while “on way to join regiment, bound for France.” Of the Bowlen family children in Red Lodge, one other brother and much younger half-brother remained.

The single largest group of names on the plaque were those who died in Bozeman, studying in the Students Army Training Corps program, which had two parts. Those in Section A—for educating officers and training in the areas of engineering, chemistry, and agriculture--were both enrolled at MSC and enlisted in the U.S. Army. (Those in Section B, the vocational section covering mechanics, forge work, and radio, were not enrolled at MSC.) Two large wooden barracks were constructed at the northwest corner of the campus (where the parking lot for Langford Hall is), and were completed just as the war ended. As the SATC students gathered at MSC for fall term 1918, the influenza pandemic attacked in Bozeman. On the 17th of October, the college administration ordered a quarantine on the campus and suspended classes. MSC students could leave Bozeman, but under Army control the SATC men had to stay, and many contracted the flu. Dozens of Bozeman residents and MSC faculty and students volunteered to assist the stricken SATC men in “nursing” and “kitchen work.” The Bozeman residents are listed, with appreciation for their “indispensable care,” in the Montanan 1920.  

The mortal toll inflicted by influenza included six SATC men from Section A: John Calone, of Belt, on 25th October 1918; Ralph Norton, of East Helena on 2nd November; Alexander Sert, of Worden on 4th November; Ellsworth Kane, of Conrad on 16th November; Glenn [misspelled Glen on the plaque] Dyer, of Moore on 30th January 1919; and Robert Huson, of Libby on 3rd February. Influenza took the lives of eighty-seven people in Bozeman, including at least one among the town’s volunteers who tended the ill SATC men. Edith Luther, from Choteau, graduated from MSC in 1917 with a degree in chemistry. Afterward, she found work in Bozeman with the State Board of Health’s water laboratory.  Luther died of influenza on Armistice Day.  She is listed twice in the Montanan 1920, including on the page IN MEMORY OF with the six SATC men: “Edith Luther (nurse)—S. A. T. C.”

All are welcome to attend a program on the MSU campus on Wednesday the 7th of November, at 4 p.m. in Leigh Lounge in the Strand Union Building, to honor these and all who have served in uniform.    

Dale Martin is an instructor in the Department of History and Philosophy at Montana State University, with major research contributions by William Ross, Celina Walker, and Paul Stouffer