An American was the last to fall in both wars.
Our previous newsletter was about the last soldier to be killed in the Civil War. Today we are going to take a look at the last men to be killed in the line of duty in the world wars. Despite the international nature of these conflicts, both times it was an American.
The last man to be killed in the First World War was Henry Nicholas John Gunther of Baltimore. Gunther was a bank bookkeeper and the grandson of German immigrants. When the war broke out, he didn’t volunteer to serve due to the relatively close family ties to Germany. Instead, he was drafted into the 79th Infantry Division in 1917 and he became a supply sergeant in charge of clothing for his unit. He arrived in France in July 1918 with the American Expeditionary Forces.
Private John Jefferson Williams (1843-1865) of Indiana is usually cited as the last soldier to die in the line of duty during the American Civil War. His death is particularly poignant in its pointlessness. Serving in the 34th Indiana Infantry Regiment, “the Morton Rifles,” fate brought him to the shores of the Rio Grande River separating Texas and Mexico in early 1865.
Gunther hated being in the war and wrote a letter home in which he talked about the miserable conditions on the front and advised a friend to avoid the draft any way he can. The letter was read by the Army postal censor and Gunther was demoted to private as punishment. During the last month of the war, his comrades noticed that Gunther was often in a brooding mood after his demotion and was obsessed with regaining face in the eyes of his comrades.
At 5 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the Armistice was signed in a railway wagon in the Compiègne Forest, ending the war – almost. The German delegation asked for the immediate declaration of a ceasefire to end the bloodshed, but Marshal Foch, the French commander-in-chief, insisted it should only come into effect at 11 a.m., the famous “11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.”
Shortly before 11 a.m., Gunther’s squad approached a German roadblock guarded by two machine guns. Overcome with a strange mood and his obsession, Gunther violated the orders of his sergeant by getting up, firing off a few shots and charging the roadblock with his bayonet. The Germans knew the armistice was going to come into effect in a few moments and tried to wave Gunther off, but he continued charging. When he got close, the Germans fired off a short machine gun burst in self-defense, killing him instantly sometime between 10:59 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., in the last minute of the war. Gunther’s death was wholly avoidable, along with the 11,000 other deaths and wounds that occurred between the signing of the armistice in the morning and its coming into force six hours later.
The identity of the last soldier to be killed in action in World War II is harder to establish, but it was very likely aerial gunner Anthony Marchione. On August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender on the radio. Between the surrender and V-J Day on September 2, the USAAF sent several bomber flights above Japan. The mission of these bombers was ostensibly to verify Japanese surrender with recon photos. In actual fact, some U.S. commanders didn’t trust the Japanese and were concerned they might set up an ambush for the landing American troops and the peace delegation. The flights were a test to see if the Japanese were sincere in giving up the fight.
Unknown to the Americans, Japan was a powder keg. Army die-hards attempted a coup against the Emperor after the surrender and several airfields were in de facto rebellion: some pilots decided that allowing American planes over Japan before the signing of the peace treaty was unacceptable.
On August 15, two B-32 Dominator heavy bombers, an obscure plane designed as a fallback should the B-29 fall short of expectations, flew into Japanese airspace on a photo mission. They were intercepted by fighters from a rebellious airfield, one of them flown by Japanese ace Saburō Sakai. One of the Dominators was at a safe altitude but the other was flying much lower and came under fire from several directions.
During the attack, Marchione’s plane, the one flying low, sent a radio message to the other asking it to slow down and wait for them. The next moment, one of the Japanese pilots came on the radio and added “Yes, please slow down so I can shoot you down, too” in English. It very well might have been Sakai, who spoke the language fluently.
One attack punched through the plane’s skin and wounded photographer Joseph Lacharite. Standing next to him, Marchione picked him up and placed him in a cot but he himself was shot the next moment. Other crewmembers rushed to his aid but he succumbed to the large chest or groin wound he suffered within half an hour, passing away while cradled in the arms of a comrade.
As far as we can tell, this was the last documented case of a soldier getting killed in the line of duty before the surrender documents were signed. Several deaths occurred afterwards but those were technically after the end of the war. In December, three Marines were killed by Japanese stragglers on Guam and a war-related death occurred as late as 1972, when hold-out Private Kinshichi Kozuka was killed by Philippine police in a shootout. Ignoring such outliers, however, the last drop of blood shed in both world wars was American.
You can learn more about the sacrifice it took to bring the world wars to a close on our historical tours scheduled for 2019.