Avenue of Flags keeps memories alive

 The Avenue of Flags is displayed in Peterson Park each year on Memorial Day.

Nebraskans gathered in downtown Lincoln in October 1923 for a ceremony that was part celebration and part solemn remembrance to dedicate Memorial Stadium on the University of Nebraska campus.

The gathering honored the nearly 48,000 Nebraska men and women who served in World War I. Above all, the event showed reverence for the more than 1,500 Nebraskans who lost their lives in the war, which had ended five years before.

The call to build the stadium arose after Roscoe “Dusty” Rhodes, captain-elect of the University of Nebraska football team, was killed in combat in France in 1918. The $450,000 construction cost was covered by pledges from boosters, alumni, staff and students.

It’s fitting, on this Memorial Day, to look back at the Midlands’ experience during World War I, since this year marks the centennial of America’s entry into the conflict in April 1917.

The 1914-18 war on European battlefields produced war deaths on an unprecedented scale. Over the course of the war, “10 million soldiers died in mud-ditches and no-mans-land,” writes Michael Vlahos, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

U.S. forces under the command of Gen. John J. Pershing — who taught at NU in the 1890s and held a law degree from the Lincoln campus — began to arrive in force on the European continent in 1918.

Nebraska provided nearly 48,000 troops; Iowa, 99,000. Omaha ranked No. 2 nationally among American cities for armed forces enlistments relative to population, The World-Herald’s David Hendee has reported.

The first major campaign under Pershing was the Battle of St. Mihiel, in which more than 500,000 U.S. troops attacked a 30-mile-wide German position in northeastern France. It was the largest U.S. military undertaking up to that point, marked the first use of the term “D-Day” to designate a major operation and boosted the U.S. Army’s reputation among the Allies.

Among the Midlanders who perished:

» Army First Lt. Jarvis Offutt. This native Omahan, who attended Central High School and graduated from Yale University, flew planes from British factories to the front in France almost daily. He died in an Aug. 18, 1918, crash in France. Offutt Air Force Base takes its name from this Nebraskan.

» Merle Hay. A native of Glidden, Iowa, he was the first Iowan to die in combat in World War I, killed in November 1917 with the 16th Infantry.

» Marion Crandell. This Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native was the first American woman killed in active service in the war. She graduated from Omaha High School (later Central High) in 1889, studied at Sorbonne University in Paris and taught French in Davenport, Iowa. She left for France in January 1918 to aid French soldiers and died two months later when a German artillery struck the hostel where she worked in a YMCA canteen.

U.S. war dead in World War I ultimately exceeded 116,000, including more than 1,500 Nebraskans and more than 3,500 Iowans.

On the northeast corner of Memorial Stadium is the commemorative wording written by NU philosophy professor Hartley Burr Alexander:

Their Lives they held their Country’s Trust: They kept its Faith: They died its Heroes

A fitting salute, etched in stone, for the fallen of World War I.

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