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The Last American to Die
As Senator and failed presidential candidate John Kerry famously said before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22nd, 1971, "… how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" It is a question that could be asked about any war: how do you ask someone to be the last man to die if even you do not consider the whole thing a mistake?
Tragically by the time the last man is reached the outcome is known. But the last man has to die anyway. There always has to be a last man, good war or, as Kerry characterized his war, bad. And as bad as being the last man is, being the last man and being forgotten to history.
If you are going to be a remembered last casualty of an American war, it has helped if the sacrifice took place during a big war. Though the information is probably hidden away somewhere, no one knows who was the last casualty of the Black Hawk War of 1832. Even the Mexican-American War that saw more than 17 hundred combat deaths (and over 11 thousand "other" deaths) cannot produce a name.
The Civil War, a Forgotten Last Battle
The Civil War seems to be the first war with a remembered last battle that resulted in a remembered final death in combat. A bit more than a month after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Private John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana became the last man killed in the last battle of the Civil War at Palmito Ranch, Texas.
The Spanish-American War does not offer a clear-cut dividing line from which to draw a final name. The last battle of the official war, the Battle of Manila, resulted in 17 US Army casualties. It ought to be possible to discover who these individuals were, but they did not mark the end to combat deaths in the Philippines. Soon the Filipinos and Americans were fighting over the same ground and the deaths continued in small numbers for years.
World War I: Immigrant Son
World War I, with its strict demarcation between war and peace at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day, 1918, gives the name of twenty-three-year-old American Henry Nicholas Gunther as the last soldier killed in action. Gunther was killed one minute, a mere sixty seconds, before the Armistice took effect.
He was in the act of charging a German machine gun emplacement between the French villages of Ville-devant-Chaumont and Chaumont-devant-Damvillers a few miles north of Verdun. The Germans, knowing the Armistice was only moments away, tried to wave him away. Fearing the bayonet in his hands and having no desire to become the last dead Germans, they shot him a few paces in front of their position. Heartbeats later the firing died away all along the front.
Gunther's death may be nearly unique. He earns the distinction of being last by dying within at least one well-marked boundary of the war. More often wars' endings resemble the Spanish-American experience and do not end so clearly at a single moment in time. Even in the case of Gunther's death, the label may be inaccurate to the degree that other soldiers continued to die for years from wounds received in combat.
World War II: Europe, The Pacific, and Long After
The question of the last American combat death in World War II is more complicated. The war was fought in two major theaters, the European where fighting ended in May 1945, and the Pacific where it ended in August 1945. In the European theater the last soldier killed seems to have been Private First Class Charles Havlat assigned to Charlie Company, 803rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, in the 5th Division's 2nd Regimental Combat Team.
Charles Havlat, the eldest of three brothers who served from Dorchester, Nebraska, was machine gunner in the leading jeep patroling near Volary, Czechoslovakia, on the morning of May 7th, 1945 when his platoon was attacked. A bullet struck Havlat in the head, killing him instantly. Ten minutes later, his unit received word that an armistice was in effect. The official unconditional surrender of all German forces was signed on May 7th at 2:41 in the morning, and it commanded "All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European Time on May 8, 1945."
In the Pacific, the last man, at least nearest the actual surrender, was probably USAAF Sergeant Anthony J. Marchione. Marchione, also the eldest son was described by a sister as a good-looking kid, five-foot-six and 125 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes. He was shot while flying in a reconnaissance aircraft on a mission over Tokyo a little after 2 o'clock in the afternoon of August 18th, 1945. He bled to death in the air. Again the surrender had been agreed to, though in this case, not yet signed.
Marine PFC W.C. Patrick Bates was shot on Guam on December 14, 1945, by a Japanese sniper three months after the surrender was formally signed. The Japanese soldier may either have not known of the surrender or have not cared.
Korea: Forgotten War, Forgotten Death
The last American to die in Korea was just before the truce signed at Panmunjom on July 27th, 1953 went into effect. The firing was scheduled to stop at 10 o'clock in the evening, and at twenty minutes to 9 o'clock, a Chinese mortar killed Sergeant Harold R. Cross, Jr., of K Company, 3rd Battalion, in the 5th Regimental Combat Team.
Interestingly, a Life magazine photographer, Michael Rougier, took a picture of a body resting on a cot under a blanket in July 1953 that is identified as a 22-year-old Marine and labeled as the "Last American to die before Korean war truce was signed." Is this a young Marine or is it Sgt. Cross? Or was this an effort to get a poignant picture without much concern about details?
Vietnam: Names in Stone
The last American killed in the Vietnam War was either Kelton Rena Turner, Gary L. Hall, Joseph N. Hargrove, Danny G. Marshall, William C. Nystal, Michael J. Shea, or Richard Vandegeer. The question depends on whether the definition of limits of the war include the Mayaguez Incident that took place in May 1975 or are limited to the evacuation of Saigon the previous month.
Nystal and Shea were killed together when their helicopter crashed on April 30th, 1975, during the evacuation of Siagon. Turner and Vandegeer were known to have been killed on Kong Tang Island on May 15th. Hall, Hargrove, and Marshall were accidentally left on Kong Tang at the end of the mission, and their fate is unknown. All their names are listed on the panels of the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
The Future of Being Last
Later wars will have last casualties as well when they finally end, but it is not yet clear who will be in the position of being the last dead American in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya. Perhaps the last "man" will be a woman this time.
Dan Rodricks. "The sad, senseless end of Henry Gunther," The Baltimore Sun, November 11, 2008.
Joseph E. Persico. Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918: World War I and Its Violent Climax. Random House, New York 2005.
Jim Larson. Letters from a Soldier: 1941-1945. Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford Publishing, 2002.