Joe M. Hansen: The Ultimate Sacrifice
One hundred years ago, foreign nations were engaged in a great war that was raging across most of Europe. Half a world away, war was probably not on the mind of a young man as he worked the cattle and land on his parents’ Divide Creek homestead. Three and a half years later he would be counted among his nation’s dead and the first local boy to make the ultimate sacrifice in the great war.
Joe M. Hansen came into this world in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1892, the second of three brothers born to Gus and Rebecca Hansen, who moved their young family to Colorado in 1903 and homesteaded on Divide Creek, south of Silt. It was a time when the former Ute lands were being opened to development, with farms, ranches, roads, railroads and businesses popping up throughout the Grand Valley. President Theodore Roosevelt hunted bear on Divide Creek and gave a rousing speech from the porch of the Little Blue Hen School near the Hansen family home in 1905. There was a true feeling of American greatness, and patriotism was widely celebrated.
In 1914, a great war spread across and engulfed much of Europe. It was a time of great technological advances; armies on both sides used machinery, firepower and chemicals never before seen in battle, while still employing charges and troop movements of a bygone era. The result was mass military deaths never before witnessed. By the time the war ended in 1918, more than 8 million soldiers died as a direct result of military action. To survive, armies on both sides built millions of miles of trenches where they peered and sniped at each other, lobbed shells and gas, and occasionally made charges. It became a war of stalemate in the trenches — dripping with mud, blood and death. Political pressure mounted on the United States to come to the aid of France and England. On April 6, 1917, Congress voted to enter the war.
Patriotism swept across the U.S. and morphed into recruiting drives in communities large and small. The United States entered World War I with an army of 128,000 men. By the war’s end two years later, it had more than 4 million men in uniform, half of which were in Europe. According to the March 22, 1918, edition of the Rifle Telegram-Reveille, 74 “boys” from the Rifle area signed up to go to war. They were mobilized as “Troop M” on July 12, 1917, and sent to Camp Baldwin in Denver to begin their training.
“There were 13 boys from Divide Creek who joined Troop M, and my Uncle Joe was one of them,” said Maryhannah Throm, whose father, Richard Hansen, was Joe’s younger brother. Maryhannah’s younger sister, Dorothy Hansen, recalls Dee Mobley, the daughter of Ray Starbuck, another member of the Divide Creek 13, saying her father had said, “Joe Hansen was the last one to sign up and the only one to not come back.”
In November 1917, Troop M was sent to Camp Kearny in California where its members were broken up into various divisions and regiments of the U.S. Army. Corporal Hansen was assigned to Company M of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division. With training mostly completed, Joe was sent back across the country to New Jersey in June 1918, and on to France in August.
His mother, Rebecca, wrote him every chance she could with local news, what family members were up to, how much the crops sold for and who had visited. It was a daily account of farm life on Divide Creek at the time. Soon the letters started coming back unopened. She kept writing anyway. Finally one came back with a message scribble on the outside, “Wounded 10-24, Bourges, France.” Bourges was used as a supply and administrative base for the American Expeditionary Force; making it reasonable to assume the letters would be returned from there. Another returned letter was marked “October 11, wounded in action.”
The Hansens did not know the fate of their son until January 1919, when the Army informed them of his death. Maryhannah and Dorothy remember few details of their uncle’s death except that he was wounded in early October 1918 during his second charge out of the trenches toward the enemy lines, before being injured and taken to a hospital where he died a few days later. According to a 1988 publication by the United States Army Center of Military History, the U.S. 1st Division was sent to fight in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign — more commonly known at the Battle of the Argonne Forest — on Oct. 1, 1918. The battle would be fought until the Armistice was signed on Nov. 11.
The Battle of the Argonne Forest cost the U.S. more than 26,000 lives. It would rank as the largest and bloodiest battles of World War I and one of the deadliest in U.S. history. Most of those killed in Argonne were buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial in nearby Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France. For reasons unknown to Dorothy and Maryhannah, Joe’s body was sent home, but it took three years. In November 1921, Joe Hansen was laid to rest in Rifle’s Rose Hill Cemetery. Before his burial, Joe’s parents asked to view the body. His mom swore it wasn’t him.
In 1923, returning veterans organized the Kelly-Hansen Post No. 78 of the American Legion in Rifle and named it after two of their own who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Maryhannah, who was born in 1927, remembers it was an annual family ritual to stand at Joe’s grave on Memorial Day while the American Legion conducted a service complete with a three-gun salute and the playing of taps. “There was always a large turnout,” said Maryhannah. “It was special to us.”
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