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This Day in History: Thomas Neibaur's bravery in WWI

On this day in 1918, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Thomas Neibaur was the first Latter Day Saint to receive the honor.

“Private Thomas Neibaur is not listed among the most prominent names in the annals of U.S. military history,” his biographer writes, “but some think he should be. . . . Neibaur was one of the most decorated veterans of the Great War.”

Neibaur enlisted in the Army when he was just 18 years old.

“I sure would like to be back home with you again,” he wrote his parents, “but still I realize that I am serving my country . . . I remember the words of Sir William Wallace, “‘God armeth the patriot.’” He later reiterated the sentiment, writing that “I am serving my country and I feel as if that was the next thing to serving my God.”

The young soldier’s heroism came on October 16, 1918, in France. Americans had just captured Cote-de-Chatillion, but isolated pockets of Germans remained.

“The Captain called for volunteers to attack the Germans,” Neibaur later explained. “I volunteered, then my two companions stepped out and said they would go with me.”

Years later, Neibaur was asked why he’d volunteered. “I don’t know. A sudden rush of patriotism to the head, I guess,” he said.

He would later shrug off the courage that followed. As he moved forward, the two men with him were shot, leaving him to a one-man battle against roughly 50 Germans. He was already wounded in one leg and would soon be wounded in the other. Ultimately, he emerged from this encounter with 11 prisoners. He nearly didn’t survive the final moments.

“They came out of the shell holes and rushed at me with fixed bayonets,” he described. “There were seven shots in my pistol. I shot the four Germans in front, and all this time I was calling on them to hold up their hands. When they saw that four of the fifteen were killed, the other eleven threw up their hands. I took them back to our lines.”

Eyewitness Jack Hayward couldn’t believe it.

“I’ll never forget that afternoon when Neibaur came stumbling back to our lines in France . . . . I saw the [Germans] coming in with their hands raised . . . . [Tom] had a death grip on an automatic rifle and his face was as white as a sheet. He was stumbling as he walked, and we could see he had been hit. As he neared our location, he fell unconscious.”

Neibaur returned home, a hero, but the Great Depression would hit him and his family hard. He was partially disabled and down on his luck. His Senator asked Congress to promote Neibaur to the rank of major so his retirement pay could be increased, but the request was refused at the behest of the War Department.

Neibaur mailed his Medal to his Senator in 1939. He had a family to support, and he’d made only $900 the year before.

“I am sending you my medal of honor and propose that you see to it that it is given to [the Secretary of War],” Neibaur wrote, “who no doubt has performed a much more patriotic duty to our country by saving the people the few dollars necessary to pay my claim than I did when I stopped an enemy counterattack and saved the lives of a number of American soldiers . . . .”

Newspapers were quick to report the story, and Neibaur’s home state of Idaho rallied around him. He soon had a job as a statehouse policeman. He was thrilled, having earlier noted that he’d “be glad to exchange my medal and all it has ever bought for a good job.”

Sadly, Neibaur fell ill and passed away just three years later.

“Thomas C. Neibaur, with a German name and an American heart and soul,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported, “died in a veterans’ hospital . . . . Peace to his heroic spirit . . . .”

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