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On October 16, 1918, on the battlefields of Còte de Châtillon in France near the end of World War I, Private Thomas Neibaur volunteered to take out a German machine gun nest on a hill in France along with two other soldiers. While walking up the hill, Neibaur’s two companions were killed, and he was wounded in the leg, as over 40 German soldiers charged him.
After killing several Germans, his gun jammed, and he ran down the hill until he fell unconscious. Fifteen German surrounded him when he awoke, but thanks to supporting fire, he was able to kill four of the Germans and capture the remaining 11, leading them back to the American side.
Neibaur’s actions that day in France made him the first Latter-day Saint and first Idahoan to receive the Medal of Honor, the highest honor awarded by the U.S. military, in 1919. This recognition earned him the status of a local celebrity.
Neibaur grew up in Teton, Idaho. He volunteered for the U.S. Army before he had the chance to be drafted. Sherman L. Fleek’s biography of Neibaur, Place the Headstones Where They Belong, details his life, his combat experience and the hardships he and his family endured after the war.
Sunday marked the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I. The war devastated Europe, killing somewhere between 15 and 20 million people. The United States entered the war in the middle of the conflict in 1917.
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Around 4,734,991 Americans served in World War I in various roles, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The war resulted in 53,402 American combat deaths.
American veterans of the war discovered that financial hardships awaited them at home. Neibaur was no exception.
In 1939, Neibaur earned $900 a year and received $45 a month from a job at the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal-era agency that employed millions of Americans in public works projects. He also received $300 a year from a military disability pension. This was very little money even for the times and he and his wife had four children to support.
In an act of defiance of the government that sent him to war but left him to starve, Neibaur mailed his Medal of Honor and other awards back to Congress, saying, “I cannot eat them.”
Neibaur died in 1942 of tuberculosis and is buried in the Sugar City Cemetery. His experience highlights the troubles veterans of the Great War endured after coming home. Veterans throughout American history struggled for support from the government that sent them to war.
It wasn’t until World War II that Congress passed the G.I. Bill, a far-reaching program of veterans support. Until that time, even a Medal of Honor recipient struggled to survive.