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Hansen: The unlucky life of Nebraska’s own Private Ryan, killed in action after WWI had already ended

November 12, 2018

Our Private Ryan lived a cursed life, right up till the moment his commanding officer sent the Nebraska boy charging over a bloodied river in France.

Clifford T. Ryan is the full name of the 24-year-old infantryman sprinting through your mind. He’s carrying some serious baggage as he runs on Nov. 11, 1918. Cliff’s mother died when he was 4. He grew into a man and married his first love, Loretta. His wife died giving birth to their first child.

His baby girl died, too.

He enlisted in the Army then, and — just his luck — soon found himself stuck for three months on the brutal front line of The War to End All Wars.

The cursed man from tiny Emerson, Nebraska, is charging across the Meuse River now in our memories. Running hard until he falls and becomes one of the nearly 20 million people killed during World War I.

But even death itself isn’t the cursed part. Not for poor Cliff.

Clifford T. Ryan died 100 years ago Sunday. He died on the war’s final day. He quite likely died as the last Nebraskan to die in World War I.

And that, somehow, is still not the worst part.

Private Ryan likely died after the agreement to end World War I had been signed, according to research done by both the World War I historians and one of his Omaha relatives.

He died a century ago today in a war that was unofficially — and maybe officially — over.

“You can make a really good argument that his death was pointless,” says Bob Guinan, an Omaha lawyer and Cliff’s nephew, who has been investigating his story for years. “It turns your stomach a little bit.”

Exactly why and how Cliff Ryan died is a reminder that war is always hell. It’s a reminder that even the “good wars” — the wars we now see in the warm glow of the distant past — were marred by ego and confusion and stomach-churning loss.

Consider this: Cliff Ryan may have died because the Allied commander who signed the armistice ending the war had a thing for the number 11.

In the war’s final days, Gen. Ferdinand Foch, the Frenchman serving as supreme commander of the allied forces, invited his German counterparts to meet outside Paris.

The Germans actually wanted a cease-fire on Nov. 8. Foch said no, not until the Germans gave up their occupied territory and their guns. Also, crucially, not until Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated his throne and ended the practice of a Prussian king ruling Germany.

The Germans agreed to these demands by the early morning hours on Nov. 11. Foch and his German counterparts actually signed the armistice agreement around 5 a.m. — almost the exact time that Private Ryan’s battalion was crossing the Meuse River, according to history unearthed by researchers at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City.

But that armistice didn’t take immediate effect. Instead, Foch chose to make it official at 11 a.m. on that day — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

Cool, right? Except 3,000 troops died on Nov. 11, 1918 — many of them between the hours of 5 a.m. and 11 a.m. — says Jonathan Casey, the WWI museum’s director of archives.

“It was symbolic to him,” Casey told me. “The humane thing to do would have been to say, OK, as of right now, we aren’t going to fight anymore.”

Gen. John Pershing, the former University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and head of all American forces, got news of the armistice by 5:30 a.m., Casey says. But Pershing didn’t exactly welcome that news. He believed that Allied forces should continue into Germany, take Berlin and occupy that country during the postwar period.

Pershing may have been right about this, by the way. It’s possible this occupation could have filled the power vacuum in postwar Germany and halted the rise of a military veteran named Adolf Hitler, who then started an even bloodier World War II.

But Pershing’s ambivalence toward the armistice also may have led indirectly to Private Cliff Ryan’s death. Pershing offered no additional orders to his subordinates, Casey says. He allowed his American commanders to continue to fight if they so chose.

Many didn’t. They kept their troops safe until the armistice went into effect.

But some did. And that included the commander of the 356th Infantry Regiment — Cliff Ryan’s regiment.

The 356th took heavy casualties on the war’s final two days, losing more men than all the rest of the regiments in the 89th Division combined.

On that fateful final morning they crossed the Meuse River, where at some point Cliff’s battalion joined with a group of Marines and lost contact with the rest of the division.

But why? Why did soldiers continue to try to take the town of Stenay, France, on Nov. 11, a town still held by German soldiers?

Because, according to histories written soon after World War I, the American commander thought his boys needed a bath.

“The division had been in the line a considerable period without proper bathing facilities, and since it was realized that if the enemy were permitted to stay in Stenay, our troops would be deprived of proper bathing facilities there,” said an explanation later offered to Congress.

“I mean, geez, it’s just so goddamn stupid,” says Bob Guinan, the Omaha lawyer and Cliff Ryan’s nephew. “Didn’t anybody ever get pissed about this?”

Actually, yes, Americans did. In the aftermath of World War I, there was enough anger that Congress held special hearings and grilled Pershing and other top military officers on the final days of World War I.

But of course that didn’t change the news that Cliff’s father William Ryan received back in Emerson weeks after the war ended — weeks when he assumed that his son was on his way home.

Instead, Cliff Ryan was declared officially missing, then killed in action. In 1921, after a lengthy delay, a ship brought his casket back to Nebraska.

On April 17 of that year, a funeral procession that stretched nearly two miles long made its way to the Emerson cemetery, according to newspaper stories.

They buried the unlucky Cliff Ryan next to his wife and his baby girl. A hundred years after he died in the final hours of World War I, you can still find him there, this Private Ryan we did not save.

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