Unique Indiana Fact – First American Soldier to Die in World War I was from Evansville
Welcome to another edition of what I normally call, "Indiana Fun Facts." An ongoing series where I share with you tidbits of trivial knowledge I've discovered over time. Considering this edition is about war and death, I didn't think "fun fact" was an appropriate name, so I'm temporarily re-branding the series this one time to a "Unique Indiana Fact." In this edition, I'll introduce you to Army Corporal James Bethel Gresham, the Evansville man who has the distinction of being the first American soldier killed in battle after the United States entered World War I.
Corporal Grisham was actually a Kentucky native, born in McClean County, Kentucky in 1893, according to Explore Kentucky History. He and his family moved to the booming metropolis of Evansville in 1901 which would have put him around 8-years-old at the time.
Gresham enlisted in the Army in April 1914, a few months shy of his 21st birthday. He spent a short amount of time in St. Louis before his unit "was sent to El Paso, Texas, to assist with the Mexican crisis involving Pancho Villa," according to Explore Kentucky History.
In June 1917, roughly two to three months after the United States declared war on Germany, his unit, Company F, 16th Infantry, was called to France to join the fight as part of the American Expeditionary Forces. Their job was not only to fight the Germans but to provide some relief to British and French soldiers who had been fighting them for nearly three years straight. Gresham and Company F were some of the first U.S. troops to be sent. Not just for World War I, but ever. Until that point, America had never sent soldiers to fight on foreign soil. All the wars we participated in took place here at home (Civil War, various wars against Native Americans, etc.).
The Ultimate Sacrifice
Gresham, along with Private Thomas F. Enright from Pittsburgh, and Private Merle D. Hay of Glidden, Iowa were killed in action in the middle of the night on November 3rd, 1917. According to Iowa Pathways, Company F set up positions roughly 500 yards from the German line around 10:00 p.m. the night before. At 2:30 a.m. they awoke to heavy fire and artillery from German forces. Unable to see much in the dark, the men engaged the oncoming German soldiers in close-quarter combat. It was during the fight Gresham and the two others lost their lives fighting for their country.
Final Resting Place
All three were first laid to rest on the battlefield where their lives ended. However, at some point in time, Gresham's body was returned to Evansville and buried in Locust Hill Cemetary on Kratzville Road on the City's northside where it still resides today among other local soldiers who lost their lives on the battlefield over the years.
In addition to his headstone, a plaque honoring Gresham and his place in American history sits at the base of a flagpole in the middle of the military graves.
The plaque reads:
Cpl. Gresham was a member of Company F, 16th Infantry, United States Army. He was serving with the A.E.F. in France when he became the first American soldier to die in World War One.
On November 3rd, 2017, the 100th anniversary of his death, a ceremony to honor his service was held where Mayor Lloyd Winnecke announced the cemetery's arboretum would be named after him.
More Indiana Facts
If you enjoyed this edition, and enjoy learning unique things about the state we call home, check out the previous editions of Indiana Fun Facts.
- Indiana Fun Fact - Tomato Juice was Invented in French Lick
- Did You Know the First Electric Streetlight in America was Installed in Indiana?
- Indiana Fun Fact - A Tree Has Been Growing on This Courthouse Roof for 140+ Years
- Indiana Fun Fact - Elvis Played His Last Concert in the Hoosier State Before His Death in 1977
[Sources: Explore KY History / Library of Congress / Iowa Pathways]