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WWI: 100 years ago, the U.S. entered 'the war to end all wars'


Herbert Keilman wrote his mother about his upcoming Thanksgiving dinner.

"We will have the swellest dinner in the world," the 31-year-old Dyer man wrote Nov. 26, 1917, extolling her with a menu of apples, oranges, grapes, sweet potatoes and spring lamb.

"My stomach is so full I can hardly move," he wrote, explaining he had been eating away as he and others prepared the meal.

Less than a year later, Keilman, a private in the U.S. Army would die in France, one of the more than 116,000 casualties of the The Great War, The War to End All Wars or, as we know it, World War I.

U.S. involvement in the war began April 2, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany.

Keilman, who had worked at the local Lion Store in Hammond in his youth, enlisted as did thousands of other Region men between April 6, 1917, and Nov. 11, 1918.

And, like more than 200 of those Region men, he didn't come home. He was wounded Sept. 26, 1918, in the Argonne Forest, died two days later and was buried in the Argonne American Cemetery in France.

Beginning of war to end all wars

For the first three years of WWI, America stayed out of the fray.

The war started July 28, 1914, when Austria-Hungry declared on Serbia after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie. Within a month, Germany, France, Russia and England joined the battle.

At home, Wilson and Vice President Thomas Reilly Marshall, a Hoosier, declared the country's intent to stay neutral to the war "over there."

The Progressive Movement was at its zenith in the United States at the time, said University of Indianapolis professor Ted Frantz. They looked to reform society, including putting an end to wars.

The U.S. nearly wavered in 1915 when a German U-boat sunk the Lusitania, killing nearly 1,200 on board, including 128 Americans, according to the National World War I Museum and Memorial. A few months later, Germany vowed to stop submarine attacks on civilian ships. The promise held until March 1916 when the Germans sunk the passenger ship Sussex.

Germany, fearing U.S. intervention, again suspended submarine attacks. That lasted until Jan. 31, 1917, when Kaiser Wilhelm II gave U-boat commanders the order to "sink on sight" any ship sailing under the flag of one of its enemies, according to the museum's interactive WWI timeline.

In the meantime, Wilson won re-election in 1916, thanks in part to his campaign slogan, "He Kept Us Out of the War."

Sentiment began to change, however, with the continued attacks at sea. The final straw was the discovery of the Zimmerman Telegram in February 1917. The telegram, from German officials, invited Mexico to join the war. It promised German backing in the Mexican efforts to regain their properties including Texas. The Germans, assuming the U.S. would no longer remain neutral after their U-boat campaign was resurrected, hoped a war on the Mexican/American border would stop America's interest in Europe.

Within days after Wilson's request to go to war against Germany, the U.S. Congress and House of Representatives agreed and war was declared.

Unbridled patriotism

The entrance into WWI was marked by a "fury of patriotism," said Indiana University Bloomington history professor James Madison.

"On April 28, 1917, a huge procession cascaded down Broadway," James Lane, professor emeritus at Indiana University Northwest, wrote in "Gary's First 100 Years" in 2006. "Caught up in the martial spirit and anxious to quash rumors that its 'hyphenated' populace lacked patriotism, 30,000 marchers stepped to the beat of 26 bands. Mayor Roswell O. Johnson, dressed as Uncle Sam, was parade leader."

Porter County residents showed their own support. 

"After war was declared, there was a universal demand for a patriotic demonstration throughout the country and early in May, a monster parade with 4,000 persons participating was held in Valparaiso," according to a 1936 article in the Vidette-Messenger marking Porter County's centennial.

Valparaiso was also the home to a U.S. Army training unit. Some 1,200 men were stationed at Valparaiso University, which had a contract with the U.S. government to house and train recruits, according to the 1936 article, which also stated the recruits often participated in parades and rallies.

The patriotism, however, wasn't all positive.

The idea of patriotism "ran amok," said Frantz.

He and Madison said locally and nationally, people took the idea of being 100-percent American to the extreme. The Indiana State Legislature banned the teaching of German in schools. People renamed sauerkraut as "liberty kraut." Businesses owned by German-Americans were boycotted.

According to Lane's book, peace groups and labor organizations were suppressed; local newspapers printed names of "slackers" avoiding the draft and organizations such as the Loyalty League forced aliens to buy bonds.

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Groups such as the Lake County Committee on Educational War Propaganda and the Lake County American League all cropped up in response to the Americanism push.

Harry Hall, a Gary resident, wrote "My Story" for "Steel Shavings: Life in the Calumet Region's Formative Years." In it Hall described being a member of the "wrecking crew" in October 1918 and his job was to "bear down" on those who refused to buy Liberty Bonds. Hall wrote some crew members were "quite rough" with German and Belgian immigrants, making them kneel down and kiss the ground and repeat the oath of allegiance.

Magnet for immigrants

Ironically, Lake County was a magnet for immigrants, attracting thousands from across the Atlantic, and then from Mexico, to work in the steel mills, refineries and other industries that were profiting from the war effort, said Madison.

Madison said there were some attempts to help children of immigrants assimilate through schools, but it was a one-sided effort requiring the child to become "American" and give up recognition of his or her roots.

And, many of the men who enlisted or were drafted in the war effort were immigrants. Men like Leone Agostino, born in Italy, or Millas Athanasius, born in Turkey and Chiro Dubraja, born in Serbia, immigrated to the United States less than a decade before the war began. They worked in Gary, and ended up fighting and dying for the U.S. war effort, according to their biographies in the Gold Star Honor Roll, a list of Hoosiers who fought and died in WWI, published by the Indiana Historical Society in 1921.

Spanish influenza

WWI and the influenza pandemic of 1918 were intertwined, according to a report by the National Institutes of Health. 

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The Spanish flu sickened 20 percent to 40 percent of the U.S. Army and Navy personnel, killing almost 30,000 U.S. soldiers before they even got to the front. The Navy recorded more than 5,000 deaths, according the NIH.

Once overseas, the illness spread, killing as many soldiers as did bullets and shrapnel.

Worldwide, according to the National Archives, 50 million people died of influenza during the outbreak, while 16 million people — soldiers and civilians — died in the war.

The Spanish flu, said Madison, only reinforced the American public's fear of connecting with the world. The public blamed foreigners and immigrants for the spread of the disease.


Meanwhile, industry in the Region flourished during the war.

U.S. Steel, which was coming out of a pre-war recession, boasted the slogan "Shells, More Shells for the Huns," according to Lane's book. The war sped up Gary's growth, caused housing shortages, revitalized the vice trade and increased migration of African-Americans from the southern United States, he wrote.

East Chicago became home to a national arsenal producing naval and military shells, artillery, shrapnel casing and submarine parts, with its population jumping from 19,098 in 1910 to 35,967 in 1920, according to "Twin City — A Pictorial History of East Chicago, Indiana."


After the armistice in November 1918, the U.S. was at peacetime, but, Madison said, WWI had an impact on the Region, the state and country until the U.S. entered the next great war on Dec. 7, 1941.

While Wilson had hoped Americans would come out of the war with a larger world vision, he said, the opposite happened.

The U.S. refused to join the League of Nations and became even more isolated and less involved in world affairs.

Locally came the steel strike of 1919, in which those involved in workers rights and the foreign born were portrayed as the enemy of the people, Communists and anti-American.

New, stricter immigration laws were enacted, Madison said, as a result of the war.

Both Madison and Frantz said the Ku Klux Klan also began to rise to prominence after WWI.

Frantz said that by 1920 Indiana had the distinction of having the highest percentage of white native born citizens than any other state in the union, fueling the KKK movement.

"They didn't see what they were doing as un-American," Frantz said of the KKK at the time.

"In 1923, the KKK was very active in Lake and Porter counties. They weren't so popular in southern Indiana. They were built upon getting rid of Catholics, immigrants and anyone else they considered non 100 percent American."

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