Henry Gunther: the Baltimorean who was the last U.S. battlefield death in World War I

The grave of the last U.S. soldier killed in World War I lies near Belair and Moravia roads, not far from the mortuary chapel at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery. Henry Nicholas Gunther, 23, died of a machine gun bullet to the temple a few seconds before the armistice took effect at 11 a.m. Nov. 11, 1918.

Gunther was a member of the 313th Infantry Regiment, Company A, known as Baltimore's Own. He joined up with fellow East Baltimore men for military service after the U.S. entered the war 100 years ago, in April 1917. That centennial is being marked by an exhibition at the Fifth Regiment Armory.

Gunther, a bank teller, was living with his parents at 3011 Eastern Ave. in a rowhouse that faced Patterson Park.

He was inducted into the Army at what was then known as Camp Meade, and he was soon made a supply sergeant. He sailed to France aboard the Leviathan in July 1918 and landed at Brest, France. He rode a French rail boxcar, known as a 40 and 8 — it carried 40 men or eight horses — to the front.

There, Gunther made the error of writing to a Baltimore friend about the terrible conditions. That note was intercepted by an Army censor, and Gunther was demoted to private. (His rank was posthumously restored.)

Gunther and the other members of his company fought in the Argonne and at a hill called Montfaucon during the Allies' offensive in September 1918.

A friend in his unit, Sgt. Ernest F. Powell, wrote of Gunther in The Baltimore Sun, 50 years after his death: "Germans were constantly infiltrating and cutting our ground phone lines. To insure messages getting through, we set up runner system. Carrying messages was hazardous because of enemy snipers. We worked it on a volunteer basis."

He wrote that a regimental runner came and asked for a volunteer to run between regimental and brigade headquarters.

"Before I could ask for volunteers, Gunther said, 'Sergeant, I'll take that,'" Powell recalled in 1968.

Gunther ran messages for a week and was hit once by a sniper. It was a flesh wound to his hand, which he bandaged himself.

"Most soldiers would have welcomed a chance to get away from the front, but Gunther stayed with the action," Powell wrote.

At midmorning on Nov. 11, 1918, Gunther and his company were at a village, Ville-devant-Chaumont, surrounded by dense fog, according to Powell's account. A pair of German machine-gunners at a roadblock continued to fire on them. They hugged the ground and returned fire.

"Gunther, who had been lying by my side, jumped up and ran into the fog toward the Germans. The machine guns had been quiet for a few minutes, but one of them let loose with a burst of about five rounds. That was the last of Henry Gunther," Powell wrote.

His comrades erected an inscribed cross at the spot where he died as the Armistice was being declared. A 2014 New York Times article notes that a memorial and a bench remain at this place, about 172 miles east of Paris. His body was sent to Baltimore in 1921, and he was buried in the Gunther family plot.

The Henry Gunther Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars was established in his old neighborhood on South Kenwood Avenue. It was later moved to Rosedale.

His great-niece, Carol Gunther Aikman, who lives in Joppa, said her father, who grew up in the old family home, was named for the uncle he never knew. The young Gunther, who was born in 1923 and died in 2009, revered his namesake.

"His Purple Heart went to my dad," she said. "His death was always talked about in the family as we visited the grave. The circumstances of his death remain a mystery — why he died when the war was nearly over — and there were discussions about why he jumped up at the last minute. As I get older, I try to understand more. I still don't have all the answers.

"My father always kept a scrapbook of the stories about him," she said. "And we have a Bible, with a bullet hole in it. Henry Gunther carried it in Europe, in the war."

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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