HALMA, MINN. — As a boy growing up in tiny Halma (pop. 73), Shane Olson never missed a Veterans Day program. It was a family thing.
His father, Billy, served in Vietnam. His grandfathers served in World War II, one as a combat medic on Okinawa. And his great-grandfather, Herbert, was wounded in fighting near St. Mihiel, France, where the American First Army under Gen. J.J. Pershing — in its first independent operation of World War I — pinched off a German salient and captured 16,000 German prisoners.
But there were so many crosses in the cemetery, so many fading stories.
“I always wondered who those guys were besides just a name,” Olson said.
Years ago, he set out to collect as much information as he could about the veterans of Kittson County, the far northwestern corner of Minnesota wedged between North Dakota and Canada. He has visited all their graves, and he plans to write a book and build a veterans memorial on the banks of the Two Rivers in Lake Bronson, Minn.
Today is the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I: “The Great War,” it was called, and “the war to end all wars,” and “the war to make the world safe for democracy.”
Only survivor was later POW in Philippines
Of the more than 2 million U.S. troops to reach France, only one survives: Frank Buckles, 107, of West Virginia.
Buckles, who enlisted in 1917 at the age of 16 by claiming he was older, drove an ambulance in France. After the war, he served in the merchant marine — and found himself in the middle of another war in 1941, when he was swept up in the Japanese conquest of the Philippines. He spent three years as a prisoner of war.
American losses in World War I — about 53,400 battle deaths, 63,000 other deaths and 204,000 wounded — were dwarfed by the losses suffered by France, Germany and other nations that had been at war for more than four years.
But those are numbers.
Last week, after many months of researching at the Kittson County Historical Museum in Hallock and recording faded epitaphs on old headstones scattered about the county, Shane Olson marked the coming anniversary by sharing what he had learned about “who those guys were” with readers of the Kittson County Enterprise.
He has found bits of their life stories, including the names of the obscure hamlets where they said goodbye to parents and friends, places that in some cases have long since been returned to woods or fields. He hungers to know more about them — what they thought and feared and did “over there,” though he knows that as time passes the chances fade of finding a letter home, a scrawled diary or a merry postcard from Paris.
Many were of recent European descent
We know from their family names that some may have been just a generation removed from Europe, if that, when they boarded troop ships to go “over there”: sons of immigrants from Norway and Sweden, France and Poland, even the Kaiser’s Germany itself.
Gust Norberg of Hallock died before reaching France, succumbing to “sickness” at his barracks in Missouri. But Norberg died in uniform, and Hallock”s American Legion post is proudly named for him.
Sickness took more U.S. lives than bullets did, especially when the great influenza pandemic struck in the last year of the war. Even before the so-called “Spanish Flu” hit, Louis Gravegaard of Kennedy died of pneumonia in New York, and Henry Spilde of Halma died of scarlet fever while training at Camp Dodge, Iowa.
Aloysius Malinski, Orleans, trained at Camp Dodge before he was sent overseas to serve as a bugler with the 33rd Infantry Division. He was killed by a machine gun bullet on Aug. 9, 1918, near the Somme River, the first boy from Kittson County to fall in combat.
On Sept. 12, 1918, Ole Olson of Karlstad was wounded at St. Mihiel; he died three days later.
Two brothers, both killed
Robert Minchinton and his brother, Henry, both joined the Canadian Army and were both killed in action in France. Alfred Hanson of Karlstad was killed in the Argonne Forest on Oct. 1, part of the last great Allied offensive that ended the war. A day later, Herman Eklund of Mattson fell, also in the Argonne, and on Oct. 3 Olaf Locken of Lake Bronson was killed there. Locken’s body was never found, but his name survives on memorial markers in France and Lake Bronson, and the local Legion post is named for him.
Boys from Kittson County continued to fall in the last weeks of the war: Olaf Bergquist of Lancaster (namesake of the Lancaster Legion post) on Oct. 8, George Easter Jr. of Humboldt on Oct. 24, Tinius Jensen of Springbrook on Nov. 1, Thure Carlson of Hallock on Nov. 2.
Thorjus Solvskar of Karlstad survived fighting on the front with the 35th Infantry Division but died nearly four months after the armistice while serving with the occupation forces in Germany. He lies buried in the American cemetery at St. Mihiel, three plots from Ole Olson, and we are left to wonder: Did the two Karlstad boys know each other? Were they as close in life as they were in death?