Remembering Arlington's John Lyon
This post was originally published in advance of the Arlington Historical Society's November 2015 public program, which featured a talk by Annette Benbow, who has conducted extensive research about Arlington soldiers during World War I.
John Lyon was born April 2, 1893 in Ballston, the son of Frank Lyon, a successful lawyer and real estate kingpin whose name is still prominent in the county today. (Think Lyon Village, Lyon Hall, etc.) By most accounts he lived a pretty normal life as a child. He attended high school in Washington, D.C. (at Western High School, which is now the Duke Ellington School for the Arts), since Arlington — then Alexandria County — did not have any high schools at the time. He later made his way to the University of Virginia, where he was a class officer, and then to Georgetown Law School.
According to researcher Annette Benbow, young John "was like many idealistic young men of the era" who were looking to help when World War I broke out in Europe in 1915. He dropped out of Georgetown, applied for a passport, and served as a volunteer ambulance driver on the battlefield in France. These positions were coveted. In fact, the Red Cross was so overwhelmed with inquiries from prospective volunteers that The Washington Post later ran an article with the headline "CAN'T USE COLLEGE BOYS: No Place for Students at the Front, Miss Boardman Warns. Offers to Drive Ambulances or Distribute Supplies Deluge Red Cross Head."
After returning home six months later, Lyon joined the U.S. Army and served on the Mexican border. When the U.S. officially entered the war in 1917, his unit was part of the American Expeditionary Force under General John Pershing. Lt. Lyon was a machine gunner in the 29th Infantry Division, one of the units that took part in the bloody Meuse-Argonne Offensive, that began in September 1918.
Tragically, his life was cut short when he was killed in action on October 15, 1918. Lyon's family could take some solace in the fact that John's final act was a selfless one. As Major H.L. Opie wrote to them later, John lost his life when he rushed from the relative safety of his machine gun to tend to Opie, who had been wounded on the battlefield. For his actions, Lyon was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1919.
Today, Arlington remembers Lt. John Lyon on the War Memorial in Clarendon Circle and at VFW Post 3150, which was established in 1934 and named in his honor.