Northern Michigan in Focus: Evart’s American Hero

April 6, 2017 will mark the 100th anniversary of America entering World War I.

More than 100,000 Americans lost their lives.

As Kevin Essebaggers and Corey Adkins show is in this week’s Northern Michigan in Focus, one of them was recognized more than most and he was from Northern Michigan.

Evart: An Osceola County town of about two square miles, and about 2,000 people, nestled along the Muskegon River.

Crossing the Guyton Bridge, you may not realize that in Forest Hill Cemetery, there’s a family plot with one man laid to rest who made America proud, and made American history.

“He was not the first man killed in World War I. He was not the first American killed on foreign soil in World War I. He was the first American to die on German soil in World War I,” says Mark Wilson. 

Joseph William Guyton, a man who could have sat out a world war but will be remembered because he didn’t.

“He was drafted into the military. He could’ve got out of that draft by claiming exemption because he had one daughter, he didn’t have a namesake to carry his name on. He chose to go ahead and go,” explains Wilson.

Guyton was among the first American soldiers headed to the front lines, landing in France aboard the USS President Grant March 4, 1918 and helping unload equipment and other soldiers.

“It was a substantial moment in the war because it was kinda the turning point of the war. In the spring of 1918, France was on the verge of losing. They were losing ground significantly. So, it was our chance to step in and win the war, help win the war,” explains Wilson.

Guyton’s unit, the 126th Infantry Regiment, moved to the front in Germany May 23, 1918. Less than 24 hours in, Guyton was part of the fight.

“It wasn’t much of a battle, per se. Guyton was in an outpost that was a bit forward from the lines and his orders at the time were to fire periodically toward the German lines, and he was doing that and they fired back a machine gun barrage, he was struck in the temple and just died instantly,” says Wilson.

The first of so many American men to die fighting in Germany, but Guyton was the first. His unit buried him in this churchyard not far from the front. A wooden cross marked his grave for three years, until the government could bring him home in 1921.

“President Harding did a funeral service at Hoboken, and Guyton’s casket was placed in front of the president’s podium. And the speech that he made that day was significant, because he called out Guyton as being the first American killed on German soil, and he noted that that was a turning point in the war,” explains Wilson.

It wasn’t until June 1921 that Joseph Guyton’s remains arrived in Evart. When they held a funeral, five times the population of Evart showed up to honor him.

“There were over 10,000 people that attended his funeral here in Evart. There were dignitaries from around the state that attended Guyton’s funeral, so he, even three years after his death, he was still a significant figure nationwide, especially in military circles,” says Wilson.

Mark Wilson works for the city of Evart, and takes care of the local cemetery. He researched Guyton’s history and is preserving it in a new book.

“Just like the cemetery itself, I firmly believe it’s our responsibility as a community to keep this legacy well taken care of and that’s my intention. Part of the funding raised from this book will be to care for the cemetery plot of the Guyton family,” explains Wilson.

A first American family. The first to lose a son, husband and father on German soil in the First World War that proved the strength of the nation.

“We look at it now and understanding the significance of being the first American to die on the enemy’s soil, that’s kind of hard to comprehend now, but at the time it was a very big deal. I just want the reader to get an idea of how big a deal it was at the time.”

Categories: Northern Michigan In Focus