Omaha slept soundly on that chilly November night, 100 years ago.
Then, a few minutes before 2 a.m., the Union Pacific railyard whistle echoed throughout the city.
The Omaha World-Herald heard first, and called the railroad to let them know: German military commanders in Europe had agreed to peace terms with the U.S. and its allies.
The armistice, set to begin at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, brought an end to what Americans then called “The Great War,” and what today is called World War I. Omaha had been a hub of fundraising and military support during the United States’ 18-month participation in the war.
The piercing blast conveyed the message to all of Omaha:
“Peace! The war is over!”
Omahans spilled out into the streets, sparking dances and impromptu parades.
Lou Keeney, who lived on South 13th Street and was outdoors when the whistle sounded, quickly gathered a large group of his friends and began a snake dance and march through the streets of downtown.
They quickly gathered flags and carried a dummy in a coffin-like box, a stand-in for Kaiser Wilhelm, the German leader vilified in this country as the cause of the Great War. They lit a bonfire at the intersection of 14th and Farnam Streets. The crowd grew into the thousands.
“The brave ermine of wealth mingled proudly with the imitation fox-furs of the hoipolloi in one grand celebration of peace,” reported The World-Herald in a story headlined Omaha Goes Wild When Good News Is Received. “And they shouted and sang until the gray dawn came.”
The Great War had begun in the summer of 1914, when a Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated an heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo.
The unrest that followed prompted the powers of Europe to line up on opposing sides. The Allied Powers, led by France, Great Britain and Russia, squared off against the Central Powers, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.
The diplomatic row exploded into a ferocious, bloody conflagration that ultimately killed an estimated 15 million to 19 million people, both soldiers and civilians. It was fought mostly between soldiers dug into an extensive network of trenches in France and Belgium, which bore the brunt of combat on the Western front. German and Russian armies clashed in the east.
Americans had steadfastly opposed getting mixed up in Europe’s mess, even after a German U-boat sank the ocean liner RMS Lusitania off the Irish coast May 7, 1915, killing 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans. The disaster touched Omaha: survivors included Dr. Daniel V. Moore, 36, of Yankton, South Dakota, who had earned his medical degree at Creighton University in 1905.
President Woodrow Wilson won narrow re-election in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” On April 2, 1917, just a few weeks after he was sworn in for his second term, Wilson asked Congress to declare war after Germany decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare against international shipping, and after the exposure of a German diplomatic cable attempting to lure Mexico into the war against the U.S.
Wilson championed an aggressive anti-German propaganda campaign. German language and culture were suppressed, German-American newspapers censored and books banned.
Wilson, and Congress, criminalized dissent. The Espionage Act of 1917 made it a crime to interfere with the war effort, or to aid any nation at war with the United States. The Sedition Act of 1918 barred “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” against the government, the flag or the military. Omaha passed its own law, Ordinance 9843, which banned printed material opposing the war.
The government instituted a military draft to boost the size of the Army from 200,000 to 4 million in less than a year.
Nebraskans participated enthusiastically. Nearly 20,000 men from Omaha enlisted, ranking it second in the country in per capita enlistments, according to the Nebraska State Historical Society.
“Omaha was a top city for enlistment,” said Mark Celinscak, a history professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “There’s obviously a very, very proud military heritage here.”
But the state’s largest city had no monopoly on war fever. The northeast Nebraska town of Coleridge, population 600, sent 100 men into the military. The World-Herald called it “The Most Patriotic Town in All America.”
Omaha boosted the war effort through its businesses and military installations. The Omaha Quartermaster Depot, along the railroad tracks near 21st and Woolworth, had seen little use since the end of the Indian Wars in the early 1890s. Now, almost overnight, it again became a busy military supply hub. More than 278 million tons of goods passed through the depot during the war.
The Army decided to locate a balloon school at Fort Omaha, just north of the city, to train the aviators — called “balloonatics” — who would man dirigibles as aerial observers over the German lines. A dozen companies of Fort Omaha soldiers deployed to the front lines with their 90-foot airships.
Casualties among the balloonatics were light even though Germans frequently shot the blimps down. That’s in part because of an invention by the Scott-Omaha Tent & Awning Company. From their plant at 1501 Howard St., the company supplied the Army with tents, tarps, bags, balloons, bedrolls — and a first-of-its-kind invention, the modern military parachute. Soldiers who might have died when the dirigibles crashed in flames instead floated harmlessly to earth.
Omaha Steel, at 48th and Leavenworth streets, produced munitions. M.E. Smith & Company produced khaki shirts. And about 75 percent of the meat produced in South Omaha’s stockyards was sold to the U.S. government and its allies, the World-Herald reported.
Omahans organized a local Red Cross chapter. More than 29,000 volunteers offered their aid in the first membership drive, knitting clothes for the troops and outfitting a hospital in France.
Though far from the front lines, Fort Omaha’s own hospital was filled to overflowing. That’s because of the Spanish influenza pandemic that circled the earth in 1918, infecting an estimated 500 million people worldwide and killing between 50 million and 100 million, including an estimated 675,000 in the U.S.
The flu hit Nebraska in the fall, and peaked about the time of the Armistice celebrations. Omaha reported its first flu death Oct. 5; 974 would succumb in the city (and between 2,800 and 7,500 across the state) before the year attended, according to the Nebraska State Historical Society. Schools, churches, theaters and pool halls were closed across the state. The University of Nebraska cancelled classes until after Thanksgiving.
Because the flu strain hit young people the hardest, soldiers suffered badly. The Fort Omaha hospital was so packed, with up to 800 patients, some soldiers had to recuperate in neighboring buildings.
Sickness claimed many lives — but so did combat. Lt. Jarvis Offutt, an aviator from one of Omaha’s leading families, volunteered with the Great Britain’s Royal Air Force. He died Aug. 13, 1918, on his first day on the front.
Russell Hughes was the first Omaha soldier to die in ground combat. Some men were killed in massive infantry charges against deadly cannon and rifle fire, or by exploding artillery shells, or from the effects of poison gas — which caused suffering so awful it was banned from future combat.
The list of Nebraskans who died in the service totaled 751, including 211 from Douglas County. Coleridge lost one soldier, Carl Korff, in combat and three others died in camp.
In Omaha, people found ways to remember those on the front. Students at Central High School sewed a quilt adorned with 495 handmade stars, one for each of the school’s alumni serving at the front. Nineteen of the stars were gold, signifying graduates killed in the war.
The U.S. list of more than 116,000 dead was huge, coming mostly in a six-month period at the end of the war. But they suffered only about one-tenth as many combat deaths as the French and the British, and one-twentieth as many as the Germans.
Still, the addition of more than a million U.S. troops at the front is generally credited with turning the tide in favor of the Allies. Soon after, the Germans, whose citizens suffered from starvation and malnutrition, asked for peace.
Fighting continued, though, until the very last minute. On Nov. 11, the last day of the war, 2,738 soldiers were killed and 8,206 wounded or missing. One of those last-day dead, Clifford T. Ryan, 24, was from Emerson, Nebraska.
“They refused to give up an inch of land,” Celinscak said.
So it is little wonder that Omahans filled the streets with what The World-Herald described as a “gales of hilarity, to the color; shouting, laughter; to the gay din and glory of surging banners. . . gales of clamor confused, continuous, far and near, made up of clanging bells, clashing pans, screeching of steam whistles, hooting of horns, volleying shotguns.’”
“Never before,” the story continued, “had the city quaked with such tumult.”
But it also noted some people in the crowd marched quietly, with tears in their eyes.
“You knew their joy lies dead, on stricken fields of France and Flanders,” the story said.