I was recently lucky enough to make another trip across the Atlantic, spending 10 days in England & northern France. I dedicated a lot of my time there to my passion for World War I history; visiting battlefields and memorials and also attending the Great War Group‘s inaugural conference.
Before the trip, I knew I would be visiting Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, which lies just outside Château-Theirry, the main location of American involvement in the Second Battle of the Marne, the Germans’ last push towards Paris in July & August 1918. An impressive American monument sits on a hilltop overlooking the town.
Aisne-Marne Cemetery is technically in the small village of Belleau, adjacent to the Bois de Belleau, or Belleau Wood, which of course is best known for the battle for the wood that the U.S. Marine Corps undertook in June 1918. The cemetery contains the graves of about 2300 and the wall of the missing inside the chapel memorializes 1060 individuals. Before my trip, I made a point of learning about a handful of those that came from my home state, so I knew to seek them out and take a moment with them while there. Here are their stories.
Private First Class Elmer Ecklund was from Thief River Falls, although he was born in Michigan and had gone to high-school in Sturgeon Bay, WI, graduating in 1914. He was a teacher near Dickinson, ND before the war, but his ambition in life was to be a musician; he was a tenor singer in his church choir and composer of music. He also enjoyed ball games, boating, skating and dancing. Elmer enlisted in the American Expeditionary Force in June 1917 out of Sturgeon Bay and served with the 28th Infantry, seeing action all over the front with that unit starting with their action in taking Cantigny in May 1918. He was killed in an advance at Soissons on July 18, 1918. According to a soldier who fought with him, he was hit in the right side by an artillery shell and died almost instantly.
His Gold Star Record contains a number of letters he wrote home to his family in which he described the landscape and engaging in battle with Germans. A small excerpt of some of what he wrote:
“A shell struck near our trench once and I was almost buried up. A man a few feet away was killed. Well so much for the war, at any rate don’t worry. Where there is life there is hope. At present I am at rest in camp. I must close soon and at every opportunity I will write home. I hope to be back in the states some day. I have more regard for home than I have for myself and I certainly want things to go well at home. So with this I must close. I will try to follow the good advice of taking care of myself. A corporal once said to me, who was killed during that battle, “Eck, you can avoid danger but you cannot avoid death.” He was a good soldier, a follower of Christ, and a good companion. And now dear folks good bye, with lots of love to all.” (Letter dated June 1, 1918)
His mother, Martha, wrote in 1920 to inquire about the return of his body to Thief River Falls, but it seems he would never be recovered. Elmer’s name is listed on the wall of the missing at Aisne-Marne.
I sang the Minnesota Rouser for Corporal Robert Fisher. He was a student at the University of Minnesota before enlisting in the Marines on April 21, 1917. He was athletic – playing football, hockey & basketball at the U and was also a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The 22-year-old was killed in action in Belleau Wood on June 6, 1918 and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Cross.
Private Edward Gilkey was a Minneapolis boy, a 1917 graduate of North High that enlisted in October of that year. He worked with his father in the printing office at Minneapolis Paper Co. Described as “modest and unassuming,” he “generally accomplished what he undertook.” Edward hoped to study engineering after his service, hence why he was part of Company B of the 6th Engineers. He was fond of being outdoors and adventure. He fought in the battle of Picardy, and later killed in the battle of Château-Theirry. He was hit by a shell on July 20, 1918 and given a burial service by his comrades.
Private Soloman Isaacs was from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. He was born there to German parents, but his father wrote how he was “exceedingly patriotic and begged his wife night and day to… permit him to enlist,” which he did in the U.S. Marine Corps in February 1918, along with his brother Nathan. They trained at Paris Island, SC and then Quantico, VA before heading to France in May of 1918. He was killed near Soissons on July 19 while attacking a machine gun nest, leaving behind his wife Alma and their three-year-old daughter.
“The death of this young man brings a feeling of sadness throughout this city. Let us remember that he was fighting for the greatest and grandest cause since the dawn of creation. He has not died in vain. Up from the ashes and dust of his and others remains will arise a glorious dawn of a brighter and grander day, when love, freedom and justice will govern the world.“
From the Sleepy Eye Herald Dispatch, September 27, 1918.
Private Clarence Larson was from Herman, Minnesota, and was born there in 1898 to Swedish parents. After gradating from Herman High School, he went to the University of Minnesota, where he played on the football team before injuring his leg. He transferred to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota for the next semester and was a student there when he enlisted in the Army in May 1917. He was in the University band at the U and then later the Carleton College band. He hoped to be a doctor, like his father. His mother also wrote that he was a good mechanic and very good auto driver, and also very fond of hunting. Clarence was killed by a shell at Soissons on July 19, 1918 (the same day as Soloman Isaacs), a battle which earned his unit the French Croix de Guerre. He is memorialized on the wall of the missing at Aisne-Marne.
Private John McGrath was born and raised in Barnesville, Minnesota. He aspired to attend the University of Minnesota to study law and take up law as his profession. He enlisted in May 1917 in Minneapolis and trained in California from May through August 1917, and in Quantico, VA, August to January 1918, at which point he headed for France. Supposedly, he at one point refused a promotion, preferring to serve his country as a Private. His final fate is not entirely known; he was wounded at the Battle of Soissons, and headed back to the aid station. He was not seen again, but the hospital he headed to was bombed later that night. He is listed on the wall of the missing at Aisne-Marne.
Of his character, his mother wrote that he “was a favorite with his companions on account of his wit and genial ways – kind to everyone – thoroughly moral and a devout Catholic. Lieut. Griswold said of him that he was a man in every sense of the world and a Marine that was true.”
Private Alvin Sclumpberger was from New Ulm, Minnesota. While he father was a native of New Ulm, his mother was from Nova Scotia, Canada. Before his service he was a railway car checker. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in November 1917. Alvin was reported as missing in action on June 23rd, 1918 and one year later the family received the report that he was presumed dead. He was 19 years old.
Ernest Wold was born in Winona, but resided in Minneapolis before his service. He graduated from West High and was as student at university before heading to officers training camp. Although he started in the infantry, he transferred to aviation was commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant in May 1918. He flew in the 1st Aero Squadron from July to August 1918 in the fighting around Château-Theirry. He was given a Certificate for Gallantry in Action for the below account found in his Gold Star record:
“On July 25, 1918, during the Chateau-Theirry offensive, Lieutenant Wold with Lieutenant Corley, as Observer, while on reconnaissance mission, was attacked by a patrol of seventeen enemy planes. The enemy patrol descended through a hole in the clouds and had surrounded Lieut. Wold’s ship. In spite of the overwhelming odds, Lieut. Wold, through exceptional coolness and accurate firing succeeded in eluding the enemy, shooting one down out of control. Although the enemy remained in the immediate vicinity, he recrossed the line three times more, being driven out each time. Due to the courage and tenacity of Lieut. Wold the mission was finally completed and information of the greatest possible value obtained. Lieutenant Wold was killed in action 1 August 1918, while on a photographic mission. He was driven out several times by hostile patrols. On his fourth attempt he was attacked by five enemy planes and although wounded twice by machine-gun bullets, he recrossed the lines but his controls had been shot away and the plane fell in a vrille.”
When Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport was first established in 1920 as an airfield, it was named Wold-Chamberlain Field after Ernest and another Minnesota pilot killed in the First World War, Cyrus Foss Chamberlain.
These eight are only a handful of the thousands of Minnesotans, and Americans, that are buried in the fields of Belgium and France, some with known graves and others without. It gave me valuable perspective to look into their stories, in some cases reading words they wrote and in others the words their families had to say about them. This was a war that took young men very far away from home, in what must have been an incredible adventure. It is heartbreaking that they never got to see home again and their families were left with only memories of young men full of promise, with hobbies and ambitions unfulfilled. I hope in some way they knew I was there to say hello, that they are still our Minnesota boys and they are remembered.