This story marking Armistice Day — today’s Veterans Day — should have been simple to tell. There is an obelisk in a city park and a marble plaque at City Hall bearing the names of the Burlington men who died 100 years ago on the World War I battlefields of France, and that would be the basis for the article.
There also were internet search engines available, and government records could be employed to tell the stories of these young men. A number of scholarly books would add immediacy to the actual battlefield. It should not have been complicated.
But Arthur Finnel Ware changed all of that.
The search began with the cooperation of the state archivist’s office in Des Moines that provided a list of the nearly 3,700 Iowa soldiers who died in World War I. This listing was pared to a startling 55 dead from Des Moines County.
This official list gave the date of death, the rank, company, regiment and division. And it quickly became apparent that most of those lost served in the 168th Infantry Regiment of the storied 42nd Division — also known as the Rainbow Division.
A search conducted at the National Guard library at Camp Dodge, with the help of historian, Mike Musel, indicated that these local men were members of Burlington’s National Guard outfit.
But a closer look at the casualty list disclosed an outlier. A young man who, on June 6, 1918, was the first Iowan to die. Arthur Finnel Ware, Burlington, age 25, had made his appearance.
The archive at Camp Dodge was the first to begin the unwinding of Arthur Finnel Ware’s story. A file card stated the date and place of his death, and that he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor – the nation’s highest Military honor. It also cryptically added he was “not on govt.list.”
Inquiries were then made to the Marine Corps service organization, Together We Served, and to Marine Corps History Division. But both organizations were unable to add significantly to the quest.
The investigation then moved to the Burlington Public Library, and despite the best efforts of the library staff, little was found initially for either the man or his family. The city directory had no Wares listed, there was no obituary or death notice and the high school yearbooks also were blanks.
Then the library searchers employed the website, Find A Grave, and Ware began to come into focus. The site had a picture of the very youthful-looking marine purported to be Ware. There also was a photo of a stark white cross bearing his name, among the seemingly endless rows of similar crosses, in the U.S. Military Cemetery at Picardie, France.
A Google search was then employed and it stated our Marine had been awarded the Navy Cross — the second highest honor for valor offered by the military — as well as the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, and Purple Heart Medal for his actions at Belleau Wood.
The awards were made for “extraordinary heroics in action. Under heavy machine gun fire he attempted to establish liaison with an adjoining French unit, during which he was killed in action.” Ware had committed himself well.
The search was now occupying more time than anticipated. But it was impossible to walk away from Arthur Finnel’s story. Ancestry.com next provided an important link forward in the story. It stated that in 1920 a will was probated for Arthur Finnel Ware and the search moved to the catacombs of Burlington’s courthouse.
In a metal file box and bound by a length of white yarn was Ware’s will as required by his military enlistment. Both of the men signing as witnesses to the will served in the same company as Ware and died the same day as Ware. One of the men, Sgt. Raymond Cronin, was apparently a close personal friend and also received the Navy Cross.
The details of Arthur Finnel Ware’s will were only to add more twists to the tale. He states the total amount of the military payout — $10,000, enough to buy a small farm in 1918 — was to go to Marian Louise Goempler.
At this point in the search for Ware there came a lucky happenstance. Also searching the record of wills that day on a different quest was Burlington’s Dan Moehn — a genealogist with an active sense of curiosity.
After reviewing the information gleaned to that point, Moehn offered to take on the search and a few days later a letter arrived and Ware’s story becomes even more confusing.
Moehn explained the reason Arthur Finnel Ware was so difficult to trace was there was no such person. The name was an alias used by a Clyde Deets, who moved to Fort Scott, Kansas, from Burlington at age 7 with his father and sister.
He returned to Iowa as a young man and lived in Burlington. But when war was declared, he quickly enlisted in the Marine Corps. For some unexplained reason, he opted to use the somewhat unusual name of Arthur Finnel Ware on his enlistment papers. He appears to have had no contact with his family following his enlistment.
Moehn’s information made it possible to do a newspaper clipping search for the Fort Scott Daily Monitor, and there, on August 21, 1918, the story is played out.
The article said Ware was raised by his uncle and he had left Kansas some years earlier. A friend maintained contact and confirmed Deets had enlisted under the assumed name but could not offer an explanation for the use of the alias
Moehn’s search also shows that Marian Louise — Ware’s legatee — was 5 years old at the time of the Marine’s death and of no known relationship. Her father had died four years earlier and her mother was a school teacher.
What the relationship between the Goemplers and Ware might have been is unknown. Marian Louise appears in the 1935 local high school yearbook and the photo shows a striking young woman active in a host of clubs. Moehn adds that she married but was widowed at age 22. She moved to Moline, Illinois, never remarried and died in 1986.
If the story of Arthur Finnel Ware’s life remains clouded in confusion, the aspects of his death are brutally clear.
In June 1918 the his division was ordered into the line to stem a German advance at Belleau Wood, 38 miles from Paris. At dawn on June 6, Ware’s 49th Company and the 61st Company emerged from their trenches and began in a line abreast to walk across a waist-high wheat field to woods on the far side.
The Hawk Eye was to publish an imaginative story of that advance, saying “the Marines leaped from their trench and eagerly made their advance on the German lines while singing Yankee Doodle.”
But in truth, there was little singing that day because waiting for them, dug into a tree line, were German machine gunners. It was to be the Germans’ first encounter with the Marines and their records expressed amazement that the Americans advanced in orderly waves — formations deemed no longer feasible with the invention of the rapid-fire machine gun.
“The Americans were poorly led but they knew how to die,” was one German account. And die they did. Before they reached the woods, the two companies had 62 percent casualties and more were to fall in the hand-to-had fighting that followed. At the end of the day, the two companies were no longer operational.
Ware may have survived the deadly walk only to be killed in the woods. In that quarter mile square of shell-torn trees, Arthur Finnel Ware’s winding story finally came to an end — except there is a marker in a city park, a marble plaque, a military grave and a Navy Cross — all bearing the wrong name.