A tattered American flag and small stone pillar mark an otherwise unremarkable beach scene in northeast France. It is the Henry Gunther Memorial, a tribute to the last U.S. doughboy to die in World War I.
Killed just seconds from the official end of the Great War, Gunther represents to photographer Michael St. Maur Sheil — who has made a career memorializing that war’s battle sites — something that America mustn’t forget:
The United States in 1917 was a nation of immigrants. Gunther was German-American, as was 10 percent of the American population at that time.
“You were a nation of immigrants,” St. Maur Sheil said Monday at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. “You welcomed them into your country. Many, like Henry Gunther, who was from Baltimore, were the quite ironic embodiment of the American ideals.”
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St. Maur Sheil was the featured speaker at the annual Memorial Day observance on the deck of the Liberty Memorial. Stretching out across the deck was a zigzag of his large-scale photographs that tell the story of a global war that involved 50 nations.
It was a time, he said, that America grew from being a still-young nation to a world power, a role that assumes heavy responsibility.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and Kansas City Mayor Sly James sounded similar themes in their remarks to a sun-drenched crowd.
“Sometimes, things interfere with our memory,” Cleaver said, exhorting memory of the sacrifices of those who fought and died protecting the freedom of others.
Today, Cleaver said, America needs to “do a better job of taking care of our veterans here and abroad,” particularly by improving the health care system offered to them.
James, a Marine like his father and son, said members of the military who fought and died “died for the ideal of America — not necessarily the reality of America — (because) we have not achieved the ideal.”
James said, “The ideals still survive,” but if we are truly to memorialize those who fought and died “we need to look hard at ourselves” and search to see if America can live up to the ideals of indivisible, liberty and justice for all.
The hour-long ceremony Monday morning was part of a three-day celebration weekend at the Liberty Memorial. Events included dedicating more than 100 new Walk of Honor granite bricks, now totaling about 10,000 bricks in honor of veterans, families, organizations and donors commemorating World War I.
Matthew Nayor, president and CEO of the museum, emphasized that the museum is intended to offer more than a look back in history. As a memorial frieze states, it “anticipates a more just and lasting peace.”
Naylor and other speakers congratulated Kansas City for recognizing the importance of the Liberty Memorial site, not just as a picturesque “gateway to the city” but as a national treasure. As the National World War I museum, Naylor wryly noted, “we get all the glory but no federal funds.”