NANCY, France – One minute before the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I took its last American victim.
Henry Gunther was hit by German machine gun fire at 10:59 a.m. in the northeastern French town of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers in a final-minute clash with German troops.
A monument honoring the 23-year-old from Baltimore, Maryland, was erected in Chaumont-devant-Damvillers before Tuesday's 90th anniversary of the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice that ended the bloody four-year conflict.
The town's mayor, Pierre Lenhard, said Gunther had largely been forgotten by French historians.
"I found the reference (to Gunther) when I was looking through the archives," said Lenhard, himself a historian. "This soldier isn't mentioned in any French documents."
Gunther, an employee of the National Bank of Baltimore, arrived in France in July 1918 as a staff sergeant in the 313th Infantry Regiment. A letter he sent to a friend complaining of living conditions was intercepted by military censors, and he was demoted to the rank of private, Lenhard said.
Gunther then volunteered to be a messenger.
On that fateful Nov. 11, his regiment took up position in Chaumont-devant-Damvillers. Gunther and a fellow American soldier made for the German lines, bayonets fixed, Lenhard said. The Germans, who at 10:45 a.m. knew that the armistice was to take effect at 11 a.m., fired into the air above their heads. The two soldiers hit the ground, but Gunther got back up on his feet and surged ahead — only to be gunned down.
Lenhard said it was not clear why Gunther stood up.
"Perhaps he wanted to redeem himself," the mayor said. "Perhaps he, as the son of German immigrants, wanted to be the first to go shake the hands of the adversary."
U.S. Gen. John J. Pershing later designated Gunther as the last U.S. soldier to die in combat in the 1914-1918 war, and Gunther was posthumously awarded the "Distinguished Service Cross," Lenhard said.
Gunther is buried in Baltimore.