Remembering a Summit WWI veteran on Memorial Day
100 years ago this year, World War I ended. The Great War, the War to End All Wars, forever changed the trajectory of many nations on this planet, including our own. The war saw the first widespread use of great and terrible weapons such as chemical gas, scorched-earth tactics and tanks, which combined with outbreaks of disease to make the war a truly horrendous experience for all involved.
Over nine million soldiers perished in the war, including over 110,000 Americans. Among them, it is estimated over 1,000 fallen soldiers came from Colorado. These men volunteered or were drafted into a war that was as far a cry from the tranquility and prosperity they knew in the Rockies as humanly conceivable.
Reports and whispers of horrible suffering crept into the mountains, including Summit County, which had been fueled by a mining boom. Leadville’s Climax Mine, for example, produced molybdenum, a type of ore used to harden steel. The switch from merely contributing supplies and material for the war to sacrificing men must have been a jarring one for the Coloradoans who heeded their country’s call to arms in 1917.
It is tough to get a full record of all the soldiers who came from Summit County, as the sheer number of dead and wounded overwhelmed record-keeping practices at the time. But there are records of a few, such as Henry Graham Black of Montezuma.
On Saturday, May 18, 1918, the front page of the Summit County Journal led with the story, “Summit County Soldier Loses Life in France.” Black was declared to be the first soldier from Summit to be reported dead in the Great War, and the story took pains to describe his and his family’s difficult path to the war.
“Summit County and Montezuma have found their names on another Honor Roll,” the story reads. “This time the highest Honor Roll in the nation. When Henry Graham Black gave up his life for his country, he gave his all, and he now heads the list of heroes that have been the product of the county we are all proud of.”
The story goes on to indicate that Black was not only one of the first soldiers to head to France from Summit, but one of the first Americans to set foot in France in general, perhaps as part of General Pershing’s legendary American Expeditionary Force.
Henry Black was born in Montezuma in 1899, where he spent most of his life. He went to high school, but was called home when his brother, Ralph, became very ill. Henry quit school to train to be a machinist in the Sweeney Automobile School, and later enlisted in the Aviation Corps, which was then part of the Army, in May 1917. He swiftly moved up the ranks due to his “broad knowledge of mechanics,” which would indicate that Black may have been a warplane mechanic.
Details of his death are not included in the story, aside from considering it “accidental” on July 7. Being the aviation pioneer that he was, Black not only sacrificed his life for his country, but also in the name of the technological progress that has led to United States Air Force becoming one of the most technologically advanced military branch on the planet.
Black’s mother, Isabel Black, was informed of his death five days later on May 12, 1918. That day happened to be Mother’s Day, and she was at the bedside of her own dying mother when she received the telegram.
The Journal story said in letters home, Black spoke of enjoying his duties as a soldier.
“He was proud to be a soldier of liberty, and now that he has given his all, we in Summit County will longer honor his name.”
In the end, the Summit County Journal used Black’s death as an example of the harsh price the country pays to be free, and encapsulated the manner in which America recognizes the bravery and sacrifice of its fighting men and women.
“We at home can now know what war means, and we should always be willing to do what we can for the cause, as Henry Graham Black has done all he could by giving his life, which is the most precious legacy we have in the world. It has been said so often that we do not realize the tragedy of this terrible conflict that is at present raging in Europe, nor will the reality of it ever be brought forcibly to us, until one of our own boys gives his life that this country might be free.”
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