Sanpete people answered their
country’s call to fight for freedom
By David Mackey
Nov. 30, 2017
Most Sanpete residents living in the early years of the twentieth-century hoped war was a thing of the past. Many had lived during, or had been directly involved in, military conflicts ranging from the War Between the States to armed disputes in the Old Country prior to immigrating to the United States.
A regional struggle called the Black Hawk Indian War was closer to home—a seasonal guessing game so marked by violence that it had required military intervention and the armed support of every community in Sanpete. Shadows from that episode and its turmoil remained fixed in the minds of older residents but were fast fading from the memory of the rising generation.
Some imagined that the 1900s would usher in an era of new enlightenment, a lofty and grand period that could not be marred by military engagement and bloodshed. Added to this idealism, a significant number of Sanpete’s people were so caught up with the allure of agricultural advancement and economic prosperity that events in far-off Europe didn’t concern them.
But world events soon profoundly changed everyone’s perspective.
The year 1917 brought the United States into a world engaged in war. Never before did events in Europe have such a far-reaching impact on North America, and Sanpete felt affected as much as any place on the continent. Clearly, military operations along the U.S. border with Mexico had been a major preparation for federal government leaders to test military readiness, resources and troop strength.
Those operations significantly altered the psyches of average Americans who were fundamentally opposed to war, especially when it came to blurry conflicts that would take place beyond the western hemisphere.
World War I was altogether different from any previous military confrontation, at home or abroad. This war, fought on such a vast scale, was labeled “the war to end all wars.”
After the United States formally entered the war, many believed that the effort deserved the patriotism and support of every American. Individuals answered the call in historic numbers, even from remote places like rural Utah.
“U.S. GOES INTO WAR” declared the Mt Pleasant Pyramid’s headline on Friday, April 6, 1917. The paper reported that the United States had officially joined with her allies Great Britain, France and Russia when Congress voted overwhelmingly the previous night in support of a declaration of war against Germany.
The decision for U.S. entry into the world war came after Pres. Woodrow Wilson had repeatedly condemned Germany for submarine attacks on passenger ships, including the sinking of a private American vessel, the “William P. Frye.”
In fact, by late March 1917, American newspapers were reporting that German and Austrian subs had attacked “twenty-four American ships” since the war in Europe had begun. In addition, it was being reported that an American ship, the “Cushing,” was attacked by “a German airship” in April 1915 and “official records” documented “fifteen American lives lost in these attacks.”
With the announcement of war, the Pyramid reported that Ed Norman, R. Beckstrom, Chesley Seely, and Ruel Seely of Mt. Pleasant and Roscoe Cox of Fairview had already enlisted, and others “of this and neighboring towns” were seriously considering doing the same.
The likelihood of American entry in the conflict had been made abundantly clear the previous week when readers were informed that Gov. Simon Bamberger was placing Utah’s National Guard units on “a war basis awaiting orders from the war department.”
Further, the governor had issued a proclamation “urging all young men of the state to fill the ranks in the guard.” And Captain S. M. Neilson with Mt. Pleasant’s Troop E had received orders to “fill up the ranks … to 107 men in North Sanpete Valley.”
Much of the credit for the prompt response was given to a greatly admired speaker who had over the previous two days visited the city. Major Brigham H. Roberts, Utah National Guard chaplain and member of the First Quorum of Seventy in the LDS Church, spoke to a packed house gathered in Mt. Pleasant’s Elite Theater.
On assignment from Gov. Bamberger, Major Roberts, in his passionate style, explained how the world would be doomed if Germany should come off victor in the war. And he “urged young men to rally to (the country’s) support in the most trying moment of its history by enlisting in the National Guard, the Army or the Navy.”
It was recorded that the gifted speaker “held” his audience “spellbound for more than two hours.” Moreover, the main thrust of his “appeals … were directed to the mothers, his call to them being both eloquent and touching.”
The LDS theologian “explained what would be expected of Sanpete county and Mt. Pleasant in the way of enlistments and put the question squarely to the people as to what they would do about it.” He emphasized that individuals could either “voluntarily enlist or run the risk of being pressed into service by being drafted.”
The following morning, Roberts delivered another “splendid address.” This speech was directed almost exclusively to prospective recruits. Then he spoke at North Sanpete High School on the topic of “America.”
Before continuing south, the military and religious leader may have visited other towns outside of Mt. Pleasant as part of his speaking tour. Communities in the northern part of the county (Ephraim, Manti, Sterling) and towns in the Gunnison Valley each saw men responding to the governor’s call for enlistments.
The Manti Messenger reported that the town’s Troop D, First Utah Cavalry unit “needs 40 men” as it was “low in numbers.” The paper explained advantages to being part of the Guard. “We want to recruit the organization with men from this community as far as possible. Better results can be obtained by associating together men who are acquainted with each other.”
The promotional article, one clearly crafted by those involved with recruiting in the town, closed with a chivalrous poem—“Ye Ancient Cavalryman’s Song.”
Undoubtedly, Major Roberts also received a rousing reception at Ephraim when he arrived there for a mass meeting in the town’s Tabernacle, either on the evening of Thursday, April 5, or during the afternoon of Friday, April 6.
From that town, Roberts headed to Manti where hundreds of people greeted him Friday evening with a parade that stretched “up and down Main street … as an additional evidence of the solid support of the national government in the war against Germany,” reported the newspaper.
The high school and ladies’ bands, school children, singing citizens, local government officials and other proud automobile owners (with horns honking) joined the procession past the throngs of people gathered along the streets waving American flags.
Roberts finally made his way into the Tabernacle, and, once again, he delivered a stunning speech. He promised the young men considering enlistment that “it would be no summer vacation.” Still, he advised them “to enlist.”
Observers noted that the “patriotic climaxes” of Roberts’ speech were met with “generous applause.” However, the country’s entry into the war—made official that day—and the “grim consequences that may follow were received in oppressive silence.”
Major Roberts did not make a stop at Gunnison, or at least the town’s paper didn’t mention a visit. In relation to the country’s entry into war, however, and the prospect of recruiting local young men, the Gunnison Gazette made some favorable observations:
“Seems as though war is at our doors in very earnest this time. No recruiting has yet taken place in Gunnison, but such may be looked for any day now. When it does come, our young men will respond valiantly as they have done before. Judging from the lavish display of American flags in response to the call, people generally are going to stand behind President Wilson in his policy for the Nation’s honor.”
Indeed, residents of the southern end of the county did respond to the war effort, beginning with a demanding call for enlistments. By the end of April, the newspaper noted that volunteers had been responding to outreach from Corporal George F. Smith (with the Salt Lake City Recruiting district), who had opened a “permanent recruiting station” at Manti.
Smith told the Gunnison reporter that “the mother who thinks she is the only one weeping for the loss of her loved ones is badly mistaken, as there are millions of other mothers also weeping, but who are gladly giving their loved ones to serve their country.”
Heber Madsen, Joseph R. Hendrickson, Hyrum N. Erickson, Harold C. Halverson and L. C. Rosenvall from Gunnison; Clyde Tuft from Centerfield; and Hans T. Jensen from Redmond were the first recruits to enlist in that section of Sanpete.
On Tuesday evening, April 24, 1917, a large crowd gathered at Peterson Hall in Gunnison for a patriotic program followed by a dance. The following day at noon many citizens of the Gunnison Valley turned out to see the boys off by following them east of town to the railway station.
All the patriotic activities and hopes that World War I would end all wars became muted by the realities of mounting casualties, physical and mental. Returning soldiers brought horror stories about conflict and chemical warfare on foreign soil. Veterans organizations were formed in Sanpete’s towns that worked with the Red Cross to care for the wounded.
Another enemy, one so mysterious and unpredictable in its attack, became as dreaded for average Americans as the relentless battles had become for soldiers. The influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 swept across the land, invading towns and visiting many homes in Sanpete.
Quarantine orders, the closure of public facilities, prolonged sickness and death posed perhaps a far greater threat to the peace of a free people than what had been faced on the battlefields of Europe.
The combination of the revulsion of warfare and the paralyzing fear of the pandemic profoundly transformed Sanpete’s and America’s psyches. The world was forever changed.