And now the design of the Nephites was to support their lands, and their houses, and their wives, and their children, that they might preserve them from the hands of their enemies; and also that they might preserve their rights and their privileges, yea, and also their liberty, that they might worship God according to their desires.
When Private Thomas Croft Neibaur received the Medal of Honor on a cold, snowy February 9 th in 1919, he was 21 years old and the lowest ranking soldier to receive America ‘s highest military honor. He was also the first native-born Idahoan. And the first Mormon. 2
Neibaur receives Medal of Honor
September 26th of this year marked the 90th anniversary of the American Expeditionary Forces Meuse-Argonne Offensive, also known as the Battle of the Argonne Forest . It has been called the greatest battle of World War I and, some say, the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive lasted 47 days, its purpose to break through the enemy’s rail line and force its withdrawal from occupied countries. An estimated ground force of 1.2 million Americans fought through hilly, forested terrain, heavily fortified by the enemy. It cost 26,277 American lives, more than half the U.S. total war casualties. The wounded have been approximated at 117,000. In dollars and cents, the USA spent $22 billion. Some estimates claim as much as four million shells were expended. Certainly, the heavy artillery fire left the hillsides and their tops as much as a meter lower in elevation, pocked and denuded of vegetation.
During those 47 days, 53 men fought with such fierce and selfless determination that their efforts were afterward judged worthy of the United States of America ‘s Medal of Honor, a considerable token of gratitude, respect, and honor.
Few of us could name more than one of those honorees. Save for Sergeant Alvin York, and the “Lost Battalion”, their actions have been rarely discussed, their stories rarely told. Indeed, it seems Americans know very little of the men and women who fought in the Great War or of the war itself.
Some speculate this is because the United States ‘ participation was short, less than 2 years. Others suggest the folks at home found the horrific accounts of mustard gas, muddy, rat-infested trenches, and the stench of the unburied dead just too painful to consider.
It may have been also too painful for the veterans to talk about.
Tom Neibaur certainly remembered with difficulty, often refusing to discuss his experiences. His mother told James Hopper (Medals of Honor, 1929) of a time when Tom’s father asked his son to tell him what happened. Tom started to speak but heavy tears rolled so freely down his cheeks and fell to the floor that his father stopped him. “Never mind, Tommy,” he said, “if it makes you feel so bad, tell me some other time.”
When James Hopper asked Tom about the incident, Tom’s eyes filled with tears again as he replied, “It’s when I think of those thousands of boys that have gone west.” 3
Still others, who speculate over the silence concerning World War I, point to the Great Depression and the Second World War, suggesting those periods thereafter overshadowed America ‘s participation in The Great War.
Or, perhaps “the war to end all wars” had been a tragic disappointment and the memory was best left in the past. For after all, it had not put an end to all wars but, twenty years later, another war re-erupted for many of the same reasons in many of the same places.
Maybe, for those who were not in France in 1917 and 1918, it was easier to forget the vain declaration and failed attempt at worldwide peace. That also meant, however, the motive for the attempt and the efforts of thousands of fighting men were waved away from the country’s memory like a puff of bitter smoke.
In a May 25, 2008 article for the Washington Post titled, “Why Didn’t We Listen to Their War Stories”, Edward G. Lengel points out the United States has no national World War I Memorial, the 1918 battlegrounds and cemeteries go, for the most part, unmarked and unvisited.
Memorial or Decoration Day, originally designated for the remembrance of the country’s war dead, has become the marker for the beginning of summer vacation. The red, crepe-paper VFW poppy is all but extinct and a “doughboy” has become a commercial icon.
Yet still there are a few, mostly family members, who have kept the memories, stories, and physical reminders of the men and women who served “Over There”.
Anthony Gardner is one of those. He is the nephew who venerated Thomas Neibaur. Through his energy and the resources of the Neibaur family, the citizens of the Sugar City and Salem , Idaho area recently raised and dedicated an eight-foot high granite monument engraved on one side with the names of those who served in military service during and after World War I. On the other side is the youthful, smiling image of Thomas Neibaur with his medals pinned to the breast of his tunic. Below it are the words of his Medal of Honor citation and near the bottom of the monument is engraved, “We Shall Never Forget”.
According to Idaho Falls author, Paul H. Kelly, “It’s time that we did remember.” 4
Thomas Croft Neibaur was a farm boy, born and raised in eastern Idaho within a shallow valley of grain and sugar beet fields that still roll out at the foot of the Teton Mountains .
He was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of faithfully enduring pioneers who came with the first Mormon handcart companies to the Salt Lake Valley . His great-grandfather, Alexander Neibaur, was the first Jewish convert to the Church, a friend, occasional German teacher, and dentist to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. 5
Tom would have been aware of his family legacy from his earliest years, growing up in Sugar City where the majority of the community consisted of stalwart members of the Church. Among them, God, family, and country had not a hairsbreadth difference.
In the spring of 1917, when the call went out from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson for 25,000 volunteers to protect liberty, a wave of patriotic fervor swept the land.
In President Wilson’s message to Congress, he said,
We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no domination. We seek no indemnities, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. 6
During a conference of the auxiliary associations of the Church, the First Presidency, Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund, and C. W. Penrose, released a statement concerning The Great War. The account was printed in the Deseret News.
With earnestness, and with the religious thought uppermost in the mind and utterances of the speakers, the three members of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints yesterday afternoon, in the great tabernacle, urged the young men of the organization to enlist in defense of liberty and the principles emblemized in the Stars and Stripes.7
Tom was among the first to enlist in the Idaho National Guard. At the time, the declaration of war was but a week away and Thomas Neibaur just six weeks from his twentieth birthday.
Tom loved his country and often spoke of his feelings when he wrote to his parents,
June 2nd 1917
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.” 8
America declared war on Germany on April 6 1917 and for seven months Tom guarded railroad tunnels and bridges in northern Idaho and Washington . Then, his unit was first deployed to England and later to France where Tom joined the American Expeditionary Force, 167 th Regiment of the Forty-Second Division, – often referred to as the Rainbow Division for the mix of states represented within its regiments.
The 167th called Alabama its home. Its troops were known for their fierceness on the battlefield and their rowdiness off. When James Hopper asked Tom about his regiment, Tom replied,
I’ll tell you how it was. They were so full of life and pep they had to be doing something all the time. But there were no boys who would stand by closer.
And when James Hopper asked Tom to describe himself as a soldier, Tom replied, “A pretty tame one.” 9
Doughboy at Arms
In regard to his family, Tom could have been described as “tender”.
June 2nd 1917
I am still happy and contented but there is no use saying that I am not homesick. I think of you every day and wonder what you are doing. I can see my dear brother Earl chasing up and down the stairs and I see my dear old Grandma sitting in her chair by the fire with her needle or her crochet hook in her hands. 10
In a 1919 article for The Improvement Era, Charles W. Nibley, Presiding Bishop of the Church and Tom’s uncle, described him as
“. . . a studious boy, rather given to books and music than to play, and never given to rowdyism, rather subdued . . . He was a quiet boy, always desiring to avoid rather than to make trouble.” 11
But in February of 1918, this “quiet” and “subdued” Mormon farm boy would soon find himself
with more trouble than he’d ever read about and with few options to avoid it.
Into the Trenches
It was in February that Tom and the 167 th Alabamas were sent into the trenches within the Lorraine Sector and stayed there until June. Of that time, Tom said the freezing mud, mustard gas and constant shelling “pickled” them into “real soldiers”. 12
You know this war game is making a man of me. You remember how I used to be always leaving things around, well I have got over that now. I have more stuff to look after now than I ever had at home. My equipment consists of my rifle, cartridge belt, bayonet, canteen cup, mess kit, helmet, gas mask, clothing, bed, and reserve rations and I have them all to look after. You know when a fellow gets to thinking that his rifle bayonet and gas mask is the only thing that will save his life, he will take good care of them. And as for being a man physically why I am as hard as nails and as tough as leather. I can carry a heavy pack twenty miles a day without tiring and can stand most anything. I have slept night after night wet to the skin and never thought of a cold.
“Besides making us men physically I am more of a man both mentally and morally. When a man is lying in a trench and expecting an attack at any moment I’ll tell you, it sure makes him do some hard thinking and by thinking he learns what God is. 13
By the middle of July, the Alabamas had moved across France and into the critical and ferocious battle of Champagne . At midnight on the 14 th , both artilleries began their barrage within fifteen minutes of each other. Shells fell and burst all around them throughout the night, blowing apart embankments and shelters and flooding the trenches with mustard gas.
In the morning, the opposition charged in a mass through the smoke. Tom was one of two riflemen in his platoon, manning a Chauchat or Gladiator. It was an unreliable, 12-pound machine gun with only a 20 bullet clip. Generally, two men, one on each side, reloaded the gun while the rifleman operated the weapon. 14
That’s what Tom did all that day and the next and the next. He fired the Chauchat through the constant roar of cannon, the explosion of shells, and the cries of the frightened and wounded. His company advanced then fell back and Tom kept firing even with the Chauchat red hot in his hands.
“We didn’t think we would ever be able to stop them. But, at last, they did.” 15
From there the 167 th moved on to the battle of Oureq where they witnessed, in horror, the almost total destruction of their brother regiment, the 165 th Irish with fixed bayonets, in hand-to-hand combat.
That was followed by nine nights of marching to Saint-Mihiel, across the Meuse River from Verdun . The Alabamas saw little action but noted the enemy soldiers, disillusioned and exhausted by then, surrendered more and more often with little urging.
At the end of August, French Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch met in an angry exchange with American General John J. Pershing. Foch envisioned a mass offensive of the French army in combination with some select American units. Pershing had a different vision; that of Americans fighting in a strictly American army.
When Foch at last relented, Pershing committed, perhaps without properly thinking the matter through, to attacking up the steep-sided Argonne Valley , which had at its west, the forested Argonne hills and at its east, the Meuse River which, in that spot, was unfordable.
By the 25th of September, more than 400,000 American troops had been moved from Saint-Mihiel into the Argonne Valley and, after an all night barrage involving nearly 4,000 guns, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive began on the foggy morning of the 26th.
Tom and the Alabamas , however, remained in Saint Mihiel until October 4 th when they were trucked northeast into the Argonne Valley .
Tom went into the trenches again, this time for 10 days. Ten days of dreary autumn rain. The ground behind the trench lines was an ocean of mud, too fluid to allow the transportation of ammunition and food to the men in the trenches. Ahead of them were a series of barbed wire entanglements, some chest-high and twenty feet deep, and four-foot deep trenches outfitted with concrete machine gun nests. Yet, beyond that death trap was the Cote de Chatillon, a forested hillock that commanded the terrain to the front and the right. 16
Tom didn’t know the end of the war was less than a month away. The men of M Company, 167 th only knew their job was to help claim the Cote de Chatillon.
They went over the top of their trenches that morning of the 14 th and headed across the muddy ground to the first row of barbed wire. For two days, they advanced on the entanglements but were driven back by “a great wind” of machine gun, shell fire, and gas. Many soldiers fell. The rest scrambled for cover. A few leapt up and advanced. The guns roared. A few soldiers fell but a few more leapt up and advanced.
By the morning of October 16th, those who survived were wet, cold, famished, and exhausted. “We didn’t care who won the war,” Tom told James Hopper.17
The officers went among the bone-weary groups of men, telling them the Cote de Chantillon must be taken. To fail meant the loss of the Argonne Valley , the very means of driving the enemy back to his home ground, and disgrace for the American troops.
With the arrival of two additional companies from another battalion and spurred on by the desire to get the matter settled, the Alabamas rallied.
That day, they fought their way toward the wire, and when they gained it, broke through, fought their way past enemy trenches and the reinforced machine gun nests, then swept to the top of Cote de Chantillon.
It was nigh onto dusk when the surviving men of the 167th began organizing their position. Gunners lay down a cover of fire while others hastily went to work with their shovels. Then, men began to drop where they stood. Everyone scattered into half-dug out funk holes and trenches.
They determined an enemy sniper with a machine gun was shooting from a clump of trees, pinning down the Alabamas and buying time until the opposition would certainly mount a counterattack.
An Alabama officer came scrabbling among the funk holes, looking for a volunteer to take out the machine gun. Tom said he’d do it. Two other men volunteered, one to act as scout, to determine the placement of the machine gun, and one as Tom’s loader.
Years later when Tom was asked why he volunteered, he answered, “I don’t know. A sudden rush of patriotism to the head, I guess.” 18
Thomas Neibaur, Sharpshooter
In the growing shadow of night the three men crept, carrying the Chauchat and two heavy ammunition cases toward a clump of trees opposite of the sniper’s position. Following the ridge line, they circled around in front of their company, taking cover where they could. The Alabamas watched as Tom and the other two volunteers moved from tree to boulder to hole to bush, just below the crest of the ridge.
But Tom and his loaders got only so far. In the dim light, they came to a barbed wire entanglement. They could not easily determine how far it extended from right to left – Tom judged it to be about the length of a Salt Lake City block19– and decided they did not have the time to go around. They knew they could not crawl under or through the snarled wire. Their only option was to try to get over it before the sniper spotted them.
On Tom’s word, the three leapt up. The hostile machine gun chattered. All three soldiers spun in the air and came down on the wire. Tom knew he had been shot in the right leg. He looked around for his fellow soldiers. One was dead. Tom crawled over to the other and found him dying.
Dragging his wounded leg, Tom gathered the ammunition cases and the Chauchat. He settled in behind a bank of earth and examined his injuries. He had been hit three times but, since he was not bleeding badly, decided to try to go it alone. He set up the Chauchat and zeroed in on the machine gun nest in the trees.
Then, he heard the enemy.
“I thought there were at least five thousand of them. I looked toward the noise, and they were coming over the top of the ridge. But there weren’t five thousand – only about fifty. They were charging down on me, shouting and shooting, their bayonets fixed.” 20
At that moment, Tom and the Chauchat were all that stood between the charging lance-point of the enemy and M Company of the 167 th Alabama .
He swung the gun around and began to shoot, loading then firing, loading then firing. Down the slope, the Alabamas also began to fire, giving it all they had while avoiding Tom’s position. All the while a continuous spate of enemy fire buzzed past him. The Chauchat had expended two and a half ammunition clips when it failed. With the enemy bearing down on him, Tom threw down the jammed gun and began scrambling downhill, finding cover wherever he could, toward his company some 100 yards distant.
Then, a fourth bullet found him. It lodged deep in his right hip. Tom fell on his face in the mud, stunned. He lay there for a few moments until he realized a group of the enemy had gathered round his body. He fully expected to be killed or taken prisoner. One of the men standing over him took his pistol and threw it away from his body. Then the men began to move away, believing Tom to be dead.
Keeping a close eye on the retreat of the enemy, Tom crept toward his pistol. He knew, while he had been on the ground, his fellow soldiers on the slope below would have lost sight of his position. If he stood now, he might be mistaken for the enemy. Nevertheless, with his pistol in hand, Tom got to his feet to signal his position to “his guys”.
He also signaled his position to the opposition. With his gun leveled, he shouted at them to give themselves up. A knot of them rushed from a shell hole toward him with their bayonets fixed.
Tom shouted again for them to raise their hands. They kept coming.
Tom knew he had five rounds in his pistol and he meant to use them. With one bullet left, the charging enemy slowed then stopped before him. They threw down their bayonets, knocked off their helmets, and raised their hands.
Tom gestured with his gun and started his prisoners down the hill. Seven more emerged from shell holes to give themselves up.
The counterattack had been checked.
Tom and his prisoners marched a mile and a half to First Battalion’s headquarters. When the battalion Major asked how he had captured eleven men, Tom replied, “They attacked me, and I made a counter-attack.” 21
Tom might have walked another mile to a mule-drawn ambulance but decided against it as the ambulance had a tendency to get stuck in the mud. Instead, he walked another three miles to catch a motor ambulance. At the field hospital his wounds were dressed and Tom was put on a truck headed for the evacuation hospital.
He said, “Every jolt of that truck felt like a knife thrust through my leg.” 22
Photo for Monument
Small Mention of Medal
At last, at the evacuation hospital, Tom was able to get out of the wet clothes he had worn for a
month. He sat by a warm fire and slumped, for the first time, into unconsciousness.
He said, “When I awoke I had been given an anesthetic and had been operated on and washed and was now in good clean underclothes, and had had a good bath. I was lying in a nice white bed with white sheets, pillows, and a bed with springs – the first time for over a year.”23
Tom made little of his experiences in a letter home.
Oct 23rd 1918
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. 24
The War to End All Wars came to a conclusion with the 1918 signing of the Armistice for the Cessation of Hostilities between the allied forces of France, Great Britain, Italy, and the United States and Germany. It was to take effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 26 days after Tom’s actions on the Cote de Chantillon.
At the dedication and unveiling of the Thomas Croft Neibaur monument on July 26, 2008, speaker Paul Kelly told of his mother’s memories of that day.
In Sugar City, Idaho, 11 November 1918, nine-year-old Irene Hamilton, my mother, remembered the whistle high on the Utah-Idaho sugar factory’s smoke stack across the road from her family home in Sugar City, shrieking for what seemed hours. Her mother, Ada , told her it announced the end of the Great War, and meant soldiers, their neighbors, friends, and relatives who enlisted from their Idaho community could come home. They also knew some who had gone would not return. But the overriding relief and joy of knowing it was finally over, ‘over there’, tempered those feelings of loss on this day. 25
Tom didn’t have much to say about his Medal of Honor. There are three other mentions of it in an exchange of letters between Tom and his father.
Base Hospital #13
A.P.A. # 53
Jan 3rd 1919
I suppose you were very much surprised to hear that I had received a medal for bravery, but you know you never did get me excited about anything, and I always had a cool head. I am very proud of myself and I am going to try and live up to the reputation that I have made for myself altho it was nothing that any of my comrades would not have done under the same circumstances.
Sugar City, Idaho
Jan 3rd 1919
We certainly feel proud when we think of the honor you have received. At home mother and I have not only prayed God to spare your life but we have prayed that he would give you strength and courage to do your part where ever you was called to go, and when we think of so many shots being directed towards you and the many narrow and dangerous places you have been in, we feel that our prayers have been answered.
Wishing you a happy New Year,
God bless you
from your loving Dad.
A.E. F. France
Feb. 22 1919
I suppose you heard all about the big decoration from the papers, but I’m going to tell you my side of it now.
The day was very cold and there was about three inches of snow on the ground. We were marched up in front of General Pershing and stood at the salute while the band played the “Star Spangled Banner.” Then we read the orders and then he decorated us while our citations were being read by Colonel Jones. He then shook hands with us and told us how proud he was of us.
Everyone treats me as if I was a king of course. I like it, but it gets very tiresome at times to have some one always calling you a hero and wanting you for your medal more than for yourself. 26
What Tom didn’t mention was that he also received the Purple Heart, French Legion of Honor, World War I Victory Medal, Italian Medal of War, and the Montenegro Medal of War.
At the end of May in 1919, Tom Neibaur stepped off the 11:00 train and into the crowd of cheering, whistling people; nearly ten thousand strong, more than five times the population of the community, had come from all over the state to welcome home Sugar City’s hero. He climbed into an open-air automobile which proceeded along streets lined with flags and filled with shouting, waving folks, many of whom threw flowers. The procession stopped at the city park where the crowd watched as Idaho ‘s governor declared that day to be “Thomas Neibaur Day”.
Twenty-five years later, upon the announcement of Tom’s death, Vardis Fisher, acclaimed novelist, wrote an editorial in the Boise Statesman. He said,
And then memory went back across a quarter of a century to that day of pomp and glory when Tom Neibaur came back from the war. Of all names in Idaho , his was on most tongues that day. His was the hand that everybody wanted to shake; he was the man to whom everybody wanted to give a job. I’ve no notion how many hands and flags and orators turned out; but I believe the Governor and other state dignitaries were here, as well as all the windjammers from eastern Idaho . It was roses, roses all the day under the feet of Tom Neibaur; it was rhetoric with a vengeance from the rostrum; it was sweet flattery and handshaking and a banquet and more speeches.
On that day he could have had practically anything in the power of Idaho to give. 27
With all of that, no one in the state could give back to Tom what the war took from him. He suffered scarring in his lungs caused by mustard gas and constant pain from the bullet the doctors necessarily left in his right hip. Memories of the fighting in the Great War often plagued the quiet, subdued Tom.
Anthony Gardner recalled a time when he was in the fourth grade and Tom came to speak to his class. Tom stood at the front of the room in his uniform, wearing his medal and when he began to speak of the men of his regiment, Tom began to weep.
At recess, a friend told Gardner , “Your uncle isn’t a hero, he’s a big crybaby.” 28
Still, Tom looked forward to the future. He married Lois Shephard in 1919. Those who knew her called Lois an excellent wife, a wonderful housekeeper, cook, and seamstress.
In the decade of the 1920s, the nation entered a decade of relative peace and prosperity and Tom and Lois began a life together with great hope.
The couple eventually had nine children, two girls and seven boys, and Tom doted on each of his brood. “He was a loving and affectionate father. He had his faults but he loved us,” Tom’s daughter, Marian Neibaur Hunkerford, said. “And we knew that.” 29
Tom also loved farming and longed to have his own piece of ground but found himself limited by finances and his old injuries. Instead, he moved to Logan , Utah and attended what is now Utah State University to study agriculture. He had it in his mind to become a county agent but the money ran out before he completed his degree. 30
Tom, Lois, and their children returned to Sugar City and Tom went to work as a machine oiler in the sugar beet factory. In 1928, Tom’s right sleeve became caught on a cog in a cutting machine and the mechanism pulled in his arm right up to Tom’s shoulder. Another worker shut down the equipment but the machine had to be disassembled to disentangle Tom’s mangled arm. He was in the hospital for two weeks, coincidentally during the anniversary of the day 20 years earlier, when he painfully limped more than three miles from the frontlines to the motor ambulance. 31
In another year, however, Tom and the rest of the United States would find themselves in the middle of another battle known as The Great Depression.
After the accident at the sugar factory, Tom had a difficult time finding work and with the onset of the Depression, there was little work to be found. Everyone was poor. “I remember I didn’t have shoes,” Marian Hunkerford said. “We didn’t have the best of things, but we were okay.” 32
Marian and tunic
The Depression devastated the nation; industrial production dropped by 50 percent and construction by 80 percent. Three-quarters of a million families were evicted by mortgage foreclosure. Twelve million went without any sort of employment, while more than 30 million took whatever jobs came along.
The World War I veterans looked to the Veteran’s Compensation Certificate that would have paid a $1.00 bonus to each veteran for each day they served within the United States and $1.25 bonus to each veteran for each day they served overseas. The compensation was to come due in 1945 but in 1932, a bill was introduced in Congress to make the bonus payable immediately.
To pressure the Congress into passing the bill, 200,000 veterans descended on Washington D.C. , calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force.
Though the bill passed in the House of Representatives, it was defeated in the Senate. Most of the veterans of the Bonus Expeditionary Forces went home. 33
Tom realized he could not support his family in Sugar City and came to the conclusion he would have to leave. Perhaps Tom didn’t totally regret that decision, as some of the citizens of the area had developed a faint disdain for their former hero over his lapse into smoking and drinking at veteran’s gatherings.
Unfortunately, cigarettes were issued to the American soldiers during World War One. At the time, “smokes” were thought to calm the nerves as well as warm doughboys in the cold, muddy trenches. Many young Mormon men brought the habit home. And though Tom had tried to quit, he always seemed to lapse back into it.
Marian thought her father’s smoking may have been the reason her father did not attend Church with them. “He’d go when he was asked to speak, but other than that, it was just my mother taking us.” 34
For the soldiers, alcohol was an accepted outlet to relieve stress and boredom. Anthony Gardner, however, suspected his uncle might have begun drinking while he attended veterans’ gatherings, and was embarrassed by his tendency to cry. 35 Others surmised Tom was medicating his physical and emotional pain. 36
But, some Sugar City residents came right out and called Tom an “alcoholic”.
Marian Hunkerford countered those comments, saying she never saw her father drink at home and doubted accusations that her father was addicted to alcohol. “I knew he smoked,” she said, “but I never saw him take a drink.” 37
Whatever the reason for Tom’s choices in the matter, the label of “alcoholic” stuck.
But Tom spoke frankly of his membership in the Church. James Hopper made an introductory note, referring to Tom:
“Also, he is a Mormon. I asked him, and he answered very simply, ‘Yes, I belong to the Mormon Church. All my people do.’ Up to that time my ideas of Mormons were rather hazy, except that I was very certain they were a queer sect. Now that I know Thomas Neibaur, I think it would be good if the entire United States turned Mormon – his kind of Mormon.” 38
His war-time letters include frequent references to God and Church standards. On October 28, 1918 he wrote home, saying,
Well dear folks one thing I can say I am coming home as clean as I was when I left. There are many temptations but I have managed with God’s help to hold out against all of them. Of course I have a few bad habits but I am trying to quit them. I have not smoked any cigarettes for almost a month. 39
In 1935, Tom secured a job as a clerk in the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and moved his family to Boise . The meager wages and Tom’s military pension, which netted only $10 a month, were not nearly enough to support his family.
Senator William Borah attempted to pass a bill in the Idaho Congress that would allow Tom to be promoted from Private to the rank of Major and thus increase his military pension. But the bill was defeated.
Tom was thoroughly disgruntled, as were thousands of World War I veterans, and he did something he later admitted he regretted. He mailed his Medal of Honor as well as his other decorations to the U.S. Congress with the message, “I cannot eat them.”
Newspapers all over the country published the story of the returned medals and the Governor of Idaho offered Tom a job as a night watchman in the capitol building. 40
Though the Neibaur’s finances improved, other sorrows shadowed the family. Three of their small sons were killed in separate accidents. Thomas, just 18 months old, died after falling into an abandoned cesspool in Sugar City . Gordon died when he developed an infection after he was burned by a wood stove. He was just six. And when they lived in Boise , two-year old Doyle ran from between parked cars and into the path of an oncoming vehicle.
Then, in 1940, Lois died suddenly of a heart condition.
The United States was at the very threshold of a new war, or perhaps only the continuation of the old one. But, by that time, Tom had contracted tuberculosis and could no longer work. His two daughters, now mature young women, had moved from home but Tom still had four sons to care for.
He determined to send his boys to the Veterans of Foreign Wars children’s home in Michigan . Then, he entered a veteran’s hospital in Walla, Walla Washington.41
Two days before Christmas in 1942, Thomas Croft Neibaur died at the age of 44.42
Tom’s funeral was not held in Sugar City . Instead, his body was shipped to the small town of Teton some four miles from Tom’s hometown where an old friend presided as bishop of that ward. After the funeral, Tom’s flag-draped coffin traveled to the Sugar City Cemetery and was interred next to the graves of his wife, Lois, and their three sons. On that winter day, there were no great crowds of mourners to mark Tom’s passing.43
Perhaps because of his imperfections, Tom Neibaur and his Medal of Honor dimmed in the memory of his home town and eventually, as did the accounts of so many who fought in the Great War, his story was waved away as one of our nation’s bitter reminiscences.
Still Tom’s patriotic influence, pressed upon the youth of eastern Idaho , continued through their lives.
At the unveiling and dedication of Tom’s monument on July 26, historian and author Paul Kelly spoke of that influence in a speech and specifically of one boy, Ross Clements. Paul quoted Clements from Courage in a Season of War (2002).
“While I was in grade school, the principal invited Thomas C. Neibaur, the first Mormon, [and first Idahoan] to receive the Medal of Honor, to speak to us. Sitting on the floor of the gym I remember seeing that medal hanging on a ribbon around his neck. It aroused great feelings of patriotism in me.”
Years later, Ross was an Army private in World War II on his way to battle in the Far East . He recalls, “As I boarded the ship to leave the United States , I remembered Thomas Neibaur and my two uncles who had served during World War One and hoped I could measure up. I was concerned that I would serve well and finish the task I was sent to do.”44
Tom Neibaur came home to Sugar City , Idaho three times. In 1919 he came home to the spectacle and fanfare of a hero’s welcome. In 1942 he came home as a man alone, broken by war and sorrow. The third time Tom Neibaur came home, in July 2008, he brought with him the memory of all those who had served their country and families by preserving their rights, privileges, and their liberty.
As with the first time, there were speeches and flags and music on July 26th. The crowd was a bit smaller, mostly members of the Neibaur family and town residents. And the pomp and spectacle were replaced by profound respect for the veterans of The Great War and particularly for the young patriot, Tom Neibaur.
Today, Private Thomas Croft Neibaur M.H. is a unique representative of his nation in a time when the world went to war with itself; a time that may have been overshadowed by other later, desperate events but nevertheless epitomizes patriotic service, sacrifice, endurance, and especially the courage found in willing obedience.
As long as Tom Neibaur’s monument stands in Sugar City , those qualities will not be forgotten.
“Indeed, we may search in the histories of the wars that are past, and it will be difficult to find
anything to equal the heroism, the bravery, the willing sacrifice, exhibited by this “Mormon” boy.
“Perhaps some future Longfellow would write of him and say,
‘Listen, my children, I want you to know,
The “Mormon” boy hero of Idaho .'”
Bishop Charles W. Nibley 45
Marian at Monument
Grateful thanks to those who contributed to this article:
Marian Neibaur Hunkerford
Paul H. Kelly
Mary L. Smith
Want to know more about Thomas Croft Neibaur?
Place the Headstones Where They Belong: Thomas Neibaur, WWI Soldier by military historian, Lt. Col. Sherman Fleek, to be released through Utah State University Press.
(1) Motto of Sir William Wallace (1272-76 – 23 August 1305 )
(2) Conversations with Paul H. Kelly, September 2008
(3) James Hopper, Medals of Honor , (New York: The John D. Day Company Inc. 1929) 210
(4) Conversations with Paul H. Kelly, August 2008
(6) War message to the United States Congress, President Woodrow Wilson, 2 April 1917. https://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/Wilson%27s_War_Message_to_Congress
(7) B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints , 6 vols. [ Salt Lake City : Deseret News Press, 1930], 6: 475.
(8) Thomas C. Neibaur Letters, Harold B. Lee Library Online Collections. Contentdm.byu.edu/ c dm4/browse.php? C ISOROOT=/BYUIOralHist& C ISOSTART=1,41 – 74k
(9) Medals of Honor , 211.
(10) Thomas C. Neibaur Letters
(11) Thomas C. Neibaur, “How Private Neibaur Won the Congressional Medal of Honor, A Thrilling and Wonderful War Story Told in his Own Words, Introduction by Charles W. Nibley, Presiding Bishop of the Church.” Improvement Era, 1919 https://gospelink.com/next/doc?doc_id=234575
(13) Thomas C. Neibaur Letters
(14) Medals of Honor , 217
(15) Improvement Era, 1919
(16) Medals of Honor 214-5
(17) Ibid, 216
(18) Ibid, 219
(19) Improvement Era
(20) Ibid, 223
(21) Improvement Era , 1919
(24) Thomas C. Neibaur Letters
(25) Paul Kelly Speech, Thomas C. Neibaur Monument Dedication, July 26, 2008
(26) Thomas C. Neibaur Letters
(27) Vardis Fisher, “Roses, Roses all the Way.” The Idaho Statesman , January 4, 1943
(28) Conversation with Anthony Gardner, September 18, 2008
(29) Conversation with Marian Neibaur Hunkerford, September 19, 2008
(30) Anthony Gardner
(31) Medals of Honor, 207
(32) Marian Neibaur Hunkerford.
(33) Clayne D. Laurie, Ronald Cole, The Role of Federal Military Forces in Domestic Disorders, 1877-1945 (Diane Publishing, 1999)
(34) Marian Neibaur Hunkerford
(35) Anthony Gardner
(36) Paul Kelly
(37) Marian Neibaur Hunkerford
(38) Medals of Honor , 1929
(39) Thomas C. Neibaur Letters
(40) “Obituaries, Thomas C. Neibaur”, Time Magazine , January 04, 1943
(41) Anthony Gardner
(42) Time Magazine
(43) Anthony Gardner
(44) Courage in a Season of War , 2002
(45) Improvement Era
Flags courtesy of Bruce King (1) Conversations with Paul K. Kelly, July, August, and September 2008
Marian Hunkerford at Her Father’s Monument courtesy of Bruce King
Thomas C. Neibaur at Arms courtesy of Marian Hunkerford (1) James Hopper, Medals of Honor , (New York: The John D. Day Company Inc., 1929)
Thomas C. Neibaur Receiving Medal of Honor courtesy of Marian Hunkerford. (1) Pass in Review , September, 1999 (2) Obituary in Time Magazine , 4 January,1943
Thomas C. Neibaur, Sharp-shooter. (1) James Hopper, Medals of Honor , (New York: The John D. Day Company Inc, 1929)
Hopper, James. Medals of Honor. New York : The John D. Day
Company Inc., 1929
Kelly, Paul H., Johnson, Lin H. Courage in a Season of
War. (2002) Distributed by Deseret Book
B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints , 6 vols. [ Salt Lake
City: Deseret News Press, 1930], 6: 475.
Pass in Review , September 1999
Fisher,Vardis. ” Roses, Roses all the Way,” The Idaho Statesman, January 4, 1943.
Fleming, Thomas. ” Meuse-Argonne Offensive of World War I” Military History, October 1993.
Lengel, Edward G. “Why Didn’t We Listen to Their War
Stories?”, The Washington Post , May 25, 2008, B03.
Neibaur, Thomas C. “How Private Neibaur Won the Congressional Medal of Honor: A Thrilling and Wonderful War Story Told in his Own Words, Introduction by Charles W. Nibley, Presiding Bishop of the Church.” Improvement Era , 1919
The Alexander Neibaur Society
War message to the United States Congress, President Woodrow Wilson, 2 April 1917
Conversations with Paul H. Kelly, July, August, September 2008
Conversations with Marian Neibaur Hunkerford, September 2008
Conversations with Anthony Gardner, September 2008
Letter from Gayle Alvarez. 21 September, 2008