Whiting’s First Casualties of World War I
By John Hmurovic
Walter Kleiber and John Santa both died on July 15, 1918. They were the first soldiers from Whiting to die in World War One.
“Your son, John Walter Kleiber, was killed in action on the front, July 15,” read the telegram that Reinhold and Nancy Kleiber received at their 119th Street home. Walter, as he was known, was born in Chicago on January 17, 1893. At the age of 19 he enlisted in the Navy, where he served as an electrician. He stayed in the Navy for three years, a full-term, and received an honorable discharge.
Walter discovered in the Navy that he had a knack for electrical work. He found a job when he returned to civilian life and developed his electrical skills. He had a handful of inventions for electrical appliances which showed his promise. But all of that was put on hold in April 1917, when the United States entered the World War. Walter enlisted as soon as he could. He was in the Army before the end of May.
He was assigned to the field artillery and for the next eight months he trained in Douglas, Arizona. In March of 1918 he sailed for France, where he underwent more training. This time, he trained in the Army’s radio wireless school. With his electrical skills it was a natural fit.
On July 14, 1918, Walter was acting as a telephone operator for an artillery crew during a battle at Greves Farm, France. His position was detached from the crew operating the artillery piece. That crew came under an intense bombardment. Every one of the men operating the gun was killed. Seeing that the gun was still operable, Walter and another soldier took charge of it and fired back at the enemy despite being under heavy bombardment. They continued to fire the artillery piece until it was destroyed in a direct hit, which also killed Walter and the other man.
His mother later accepted a Distinguished Service Cross awarded for Walter’s “extraordinary bravery in action.” He also received a Silver Star citation. He was survived by his parents, brothers Charles, Richard and Harold, and by his sister, Helen. Richard had followed Walter in the service, and had just arrived in England with plans to meet his brother when word of Walter’s death arrived. Walter is buried in Hammond’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
John Santa was born in Austria-Hungary on March 20, 1887. He lived on Fischrupp Avenue in Whiting and attended St. John the Baptist Church. He was an active part of the church community with memberships in the Catholic Order of Foresters, the Catholic Turner Society and St. Benedict’s Court. He also worked at Standard Oil, employed in the refinery’s car shops.
Like Walter Kleiber, John Santa quickly enlisted in the Army, joining up a month after the United States entered the World War. He was assigned to Company E, 6th Engineers, 3rd Division. Santa saw extensive action in France during the war. He was at the Battle of Bois-de-Jute and Aisne, where U.S. and other Allied forces endured heavy bombardment and the use of poison gas by the Germans. He was also at the Battle of Chateau-Thierry, where nearly 2,000 men died. Santa spent nine weeks in the trenches, according to a letter he sent to a friend on July 6. He was involved in the heaviest of fighting.
Shortly after he wrote that letter, his division moved on and became involved in what is called the Second Battle of the Marne. It was the last major offensive push by the German Army on the Western Front. For Santa and the soldiers in his division, the objective was to hold onto the south bank of the Marne River, just east of Paris. For three hours on the first day of that battle they endured an extremely heavy bombardment of shells and poisonous gas. But the German attack failed to achieve its purpose. The Allied defense held, and the American, British, French and other allies responded with an offensive of their own. Germany never recovered from that defeat. The battle was a major turning point in the war. Within 100 days Germany surrendered.
But John Santa did not survive the battle. He was one of 12,000 Americans either killed or wounded there. He was 25 years old, and left behind his mother, still in Austria-Hungary. Some reports say he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., others say he was laid to rest at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in Fere-en-Tardenois, France.
The lives of 16 Whiting men ended because of World War One. On July 15, 1918, one hundred years ago, Walter Kleiber and John Santa became the first.