As Europe stumbled into war in late July and early August 1914, Coloradans viewed the conflict with mixed emotions. Some favored the English, French, Italians, Russians, and their allies. Others preferred the Germans and Austrians and their friends. The divisions were predictable. The 1910 federal census showed that approximately 16 percent of Colorado’s 799,024 residents were foreign-born. Among them were more than 28,000 Germans and Austrians, more than 17,000 English and Scottish, and more than 14,000 Italians. At the onset of the war, President Woodrow Wilson asked Americans to embrace neutrality, but that proved difficult for many foreign-born sons and daughters and their families.
Some Coloradans hoped the war would spur demand for the state’s cattle, coal, crops, and minerals. Others worked for peace. Detroit automaker Henry Ford invited two Denverites—Ben B. Lindsey, nationally known as the “kid’s judge” for his promotion of juvenile justice, and Helen Ring Robinson, the first woman elected to the Colorado State Senate—to sail to Europe with him and other prominent peace advocates. Their mission failed early in 1916. Ben Salmon, an anti-war activist, stayed home in Denver, where he passed out leaflets supporting Wilson’s pledge to keep America out of war.
Wilson changed his position after Germany announced in February 1917 that it would engage in unrestricted submarine warfare—a huge threat to the considerable trade the United States enjoyed with England and France. Americans also grew alarmed when they learned in early March that in the event of war, Germany hoped to make an alliance with Mexico. Prompted by President Wilson, the US Congress declared war on Germany. Two of Colorado’s four congressmen, Benjamin C. Hilliard of Denver and Edward Keating of Pueblo, were among the fifty members of the House of Representatives who voted against the declaration on April 6, 1917.
The Home Front
Once the United States entered the conflict, most Coloradans backed the war against Germany or kept their reservations to themselves. Creede, a small mining town, celebrated US entry into WWI with a simulated 21-gun salute using 400 pounds of dynamite. The Denver Post offered 300 free flags to subscribers who persuaded a non-subscriber to take the paper for a month. For some immigrants the war offered an opportunity to prove that they were as “red, white, and blue” as Uncle Sam. On April 27, 1917, the Aspen Democrat Times quoted one local patriot, Irish-born Reverend Patrick McSweeny: “Let no man call me an Irish-American. Just an American is all that I am—all that I care to be.”
To turn patriotism into action, Colorado governor Julius Gunther ordered a special session of the General Assembly to meet in Denver in early July 1917. It appropriated funds for the National Guard and gave every member of the Guard a ten-dollar bonus. In early August the Guard was put under federal control. To drum up war support, Gunther organized two Councils of Defense: one made up of leading men, the other of prominent women.
The defense councils encouraged people to save food and fuel and to lend the federal government money by buying Liberty Bonds and War Savings Stamps. By late 1918, Coloradans had purchased more than $150 million in bonds and stamps. Coloradans did not face rationing as extensive or enduring as they did in World War II, but they saw rising food and fuel prices and limited supplies of sugar and wheat. To curb coal prices, Denver mayor Robert W. Speer created a city-owned coal company in September 1917, and he pondered setting up a municipal bakery to control bread prices. Conscientious citizens planted gardens and saved food by forgoing meat on Tuesday and wheat on Wednesday. Colorado State Agricultural College in Fort Collins (now Colorado State University) dispatched home economists to teach people how to conserve and preserve food. Men mined molybdenum at Bartlett Mountain north of Leadville and tungsten near Nederland west of Boulder; both elements were needed for making high-grade steel for armaments.
Women staffed canteens at Denver’s Union Station and at Pueblo, where they supplied travelling soldiers with candy, cigarettes, and stationery. At the Colorado State Hospital for the Insane in Pueblo, women wielded their knitting needles for the Red Cross. Women also filled gaps in the work force, particularly in agriculture. Helen Ring Robinson, a member of the Woman’s Council of Defense, shifted from peace promotion to war work as she tirelessly traveled around the state urging citizens to buy Liberty Bonds. Ben Lindsey went to England and France to talk with the troops. Denver journalist George Creel stoked patriotic fires as Chairman of the Committee on Public Information, the federal government’s propaganda agency.
Hyper-patriotism sometimes degenerated into witch hunts. Historian Lyle Dorset tells of Germans and Austrians being threatened with hanging, pressured to buy war bonds, and otherwise harassed. Historian Phil Goodstein reports that a Denver “loyalty squad” attacked Fred Sietz, a German-American who made anti-war remarks and refused to kiss the flag. Putting a rope around his neck, they dragged him behind a truck from Eighteenth Avenue and Pearl Street into the downtown business district. They dumped Sietz “near Sixteenth and Champa streets where he was rushed to the hospital in poor condition.”
Fort Morgan banned teaching German in school and made a bonfire of German books. High-schoolers in Salida burned their German books, as did grade-schoolers in Fairplay. Denver’s East High School stopped teaching German in early 1918. Peace activists also became targets. Ben Salmon, who said he would not join the Army and kill Germans who were his brothers, was sentenced to twenty-five years in federal prison.
Some Coloradans were serving in the military before the United States entered the war; as the struggle progressed, around 1,500 others volunteered by May 1918. Federalization of the National Guard probably added around 4,500, but the numbers fell far short of the nation’s needs. Unable to get sufficient volunteers, Uncle Sam resorted to drafting young men. Most served in the US Army, although the state also took pride in its Marines and seamen and the Navy cruisers named for its two principal cities, the U.S.S. Denver and the U.S.S. Pueblo, which protected convoys on their way to Europe.
The US Army judged Colorado too cold a place to establish a major training camp, so most of the state’s volunteers and draftees learned to be soldiers at places such as Camp Funston in Kansas, Camp Kearney in San Diego, and Camp Mills at Hempstead, New York. Most Coloradans were mixed in with troops from other states, with many of them serving in the Fortieth and Eighty-ninth Divisions. A few units more or less retained their Colorado identity, including the 157th Infantry, the 341st Field Artillery, the 115th Engineers, and Base Hospital 29. Most of the state’s African American soldiers came from Denver, and most Latino troops hailed from the state’s southern counties. Blacks served in segregated units and in the Colorado National Guard, where some were assigned to protect state reservoirs.
Most Colorado troops did not enter serious combat until July and August of 1918, although some fought in the grueling, twenty-six-day battle at Belleau Wood in June. The waning months of the conflict saw Coloradans active in major offensives such as Aisne-Marne (July 18–August 6), St. Mihiel (September 12–16), and Meuse-Argonne (September 26–November 11).
Soldiers’ letters published in newspapers gave Coloradans a glimpse of the war. One account in the Fort Collins Weekly Courier of December 27, 1918, described the troops’ reaction to the Armistice that ended the carnage on November 11, 1918: “There was none of the cheering or the excitement, crying, weeping, hugging and slapping of shoulders that you would want to see. It is hard to express our feelings. We were tired.”
In 1949 historian LeRoy Hafen wrote that “1,009 [Colorado military personnel] were killed or died in service.” Germans killed some Colorado soldiers; many others died from accidents and disease, particularly tuberculosis or influenza. At least two—Clara Orgren and Stella Raithel—were nurses. Ironically, the number of war dead paled compared to the more than 7,500 Coloradans who succumbed to the influenza pandemic that ravaged the state between September 1918 and early 1919.
Two Coloradans, Lt. Marcellus Chiles and Cpt. John Hunter Wickersham, posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroism. Two other Congressional Medal recipients, Pvt. Jesse N. Funk and US Navy Quartermaster Frank Upton, survived the war. Also fortunate was Cpt. Jerry C. Vasconcells, an aviator who shot down six German aircraft—including a balloon—to become Colorado’s only World War I flying ace.
Many of the dead were initially buried abroad, usually in cemeteries in northern France where their graves remain to this day. Others eventually returned home. Pvt. Leo T. Leyden, a Marine killed in action on June 15, 1918, was the first Denver soldier to fall in the conflict. His body was returned more than three years later in early September 1921. Given the honor of lying in-state at the Colorado Capitol, he was also memorialized by Denver’s first American Legion post, the Leo Leyden Post (organized March 20, 1919). Later it merged with other posts to become today’s Leyden-Chiles-Wickersham Post Number 1.
Denver’s black veterans named their Legion post after Wallace Simpson, an African American cabin steward who died when the U.S.S. Jacob Jones, a Navy destroyer, was torpedoed by a German U-Boat on December 6, 1917. Veterans in Fort Collins gave Charles L. Conrey a similar tribute by naming their Veterans of Foreign Wars post for him in July 1921, a few months before his body was returned. Other American Legion posts named for World War I men were established in Arvada, Durango, Grand Junction, Gunnison, Longmont, Pagosa Springs, Salida, and Steamboat Springs.
At least two Coloradans had major military installations named for them. In the late 1930s Lowry Field (later Lowry Air Force Base) was named for Lt. Francis Brown Lowry of Denver, an aerial photographer who was shot down over France in September 1918. A spin-off from Lowry, originally called Lowry II, became today’s Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora. It honors Lt. John H. Buckley of Longmont, an aviator killed in France on September 17, 1918.
On average, Colorado soldiers participated in fewer than six months of fighting, but many of them had been in the Army or Marines for a year or so before engaging in battle. After the war many remained in Europe until they could be transported back to the United States in mid-1919. On arriving home they found welcomes warm but jobs scarce, as wartime demand for farm products and minerals declined. For some the war had been a great adventure, for others an unwelcome detour in their lives, and for others a nightmare.
Denver and Aurora got a big plum from the war—a large Army hospital intended to treat victims of tuberculosis and poison gas. Named US General Hospital No. 21 in 1918, it was renamed Fitzsimons in 1920 to honor Lt. William T. Fitzsimons, a Kansan who was the first American medical officer to die in the war. For most Denverites the economic benefits provided by Fitzsimons were offset by the inflation fueled by the war. Food and other prices soared, and often wages did not keep pace. That led to strikes against the Denver Tramway in 1919 and 1920, with seven bystanders killed by strikebreakers in 1920. Wartime hyper-patriotism led to the attacks on suspected Communists during the 1919–20 “Red Scare” and to the rise of a powerful Colorado Ku Klux Klan that trumpeted “100% Americanism.”
Some Coloradans turned their wartime experiences into lauded works of literature. Ben Lindsey used his war experience in Europe to produce a book, The Doughboy’s Religion and Other Aspects of Our Day (1920), which he co-authored with Harvey J. O’Higgins. Katherine Anne Porter, destined to become a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, was a reporter for Denver’s Rocky Mountain News in 1918. Her short novel, Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), was shaped by her days in Denver, including her near death from influenza. Screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo (born in Montrose in 1905) drew on the horrors of World War I for his award-winning anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun (1939).
Political enemies lambasted congressmen Benjamin Hilliard and Edward Keating for voting against the war declaration. Both were defeated when they sought re-election in November 1918. The American Civil Liberties Union and others pressured the government into releasing peace activist Ben Salmon in late 1920. According to biographer Pat Pascoe, when Helen Robinson was dying in 1923, she asked her stepdaughter to tell the newspapers that “it was the overworking of war days that made me an invalid.” Grateful for her service, Colorado allowed her body to rest in-state at the Capitol.