June 28 marks 100 years since WWI began. With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on June 28, 1914, war spread throughout much of the world for the next four years. The war would reach rural Eastern Idaho, placing a young Thomas C. Neibaur of Sugar City, Idaho “somewhere in France.” Neibaur enlisted in the Idaho National Guard, stating in a letter to his mother on June 10, 1917,
Well dear mother I am not sorry that I joined when I did altho I am very young and have had no experience away from home but still I feel that I am serving my country and I feel as if that was the next thing to serving my God.
Medal of Honor
Neibaur was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic acts during the war.
Considering it his duty as a citizen, Neibaur enlisted and was stationed in Boise and then Sandpoint, Idaho. He routinely wrote home, encouraging his family while also sharing his love for them. On June 2, 1917, he wrote from Sandpoint,
I sure would like to be back home with you again, but still I realize that I am serving my country in time of need, and I remember the words of Sir William Wallace, ‘God armeth the patriot.’
Neibaur went from Idaho to New York then New Jersey for training. He reached France sometime early in 1918, and was transferred to an existing division made up of individuals from the South. Missing his old company, he remarked of his new comrades on April 18, 1918, “Of course they are good fellows and all that but still they have different ways that seem a bit funny to me.”
Neibaur would also mention briefly “a few pretty exciting times” in the trenches, which surely worried his family as is apparent when he wrote from “somewhere in France” on May 28, 1918:
Now dear mother do not worry because I tell you I have been to the trenches as there is not much danger the worst thing is the gas and we have good gas masks to protect us. The only thing is getting them on in time.
On October 1918, Neibaur wrote home what must have been startling news to his family. He opened the letter mentioning that he hadn’t received any recent correspondence from home, probably because the post was slow and because he had “been on the front for a long time then got wounded and am now in a hospital nursing a leg with three machine gun wounds in it.” Later in the letter, Neibaur briefly described how he got injured:
Say folks I sure had quite an experience I was captured and was in the hands of the Germans for about half an hour but I watched my chance and when they were not looking I recovered my gun and took ten of my captives prisoners after I was wounded three times.
In Còte de Châtillon, Neibaur had volunteered with two others to take out a pocket of German machine guns. After some action where his two companions were killed and he injured, Neibaur, while injured, was able to take out several Germans until his gun jammed. Upon retreating, he was eventually captured, but, as described in his letter home, found an opportunity to make his captors the captives. It was that action that brought him the Medal of Honor, presented by General Pershing himself. On January 3, 1919, after several months of recovery, and what must have followed several less-than-detailed letters home, he wrote,
I suppose you were very much surprised to hear that I received a medal for bravery but you know you never did get me excited about anything and I always had a cool head.
BYU-Idaho’s Special Collections and Archives is fortunate to hold several original letters from Neibaur to his family. The passages above are all taken from these letters. To read the letters, visit Special Collections & Archives, room 220 in the McKay Library, and ask for manuscript collection 98 (MSSI 98: Thomas Neibaur Papers). You can view the finding aid online here: Neibaur Papers