Monday, June 16, 2008

Doughboys, the Draft, and French Onion Soup

After writing about my grandfather's experience with the WWI draft board (Hell, No, I Won't Go!), I might as well continue with the story of the brother who did not escape the draft. Out of a family of ten children (eldest to youngest): Bennett, Ernest, Cora ,Thea, Odin, Mabel, Oral, Ruben, Carl, and Frank), it was only Odin Johnson who fit the draft board's specifications: male, single, healthy, and just the right age. When war was declared, Odin lived with his parents, Ole and Malla Johnson, on a farm just outside of Leonard, Minnesota.

Odin Johnson became a doughboy. The nickname "doughboy" was frequently used for American infantryman sent to France during World War I, referring to those who "licked Kaiser Bill and fought to make the world safe for democracy." The term had been in use for nearly a century beforehand, however (read an explanation of the origins of "Doughboy").

Draft card registration, WWI (

Name: Odin Johnson
City: Not Stated
County: Clearwater
State: Minnesota
Birthplace: Minnesota;United States of America
Birth Date: 11 Oct 1896
Race: Caucasian (White)
Roll: 1675389

A farewell party was held for him at the country schoolhouse by the Gorze family farm near Leonard. He was twenty-three years old when he left Bagley, Minnesota by train in February 1918. John Huff of Shevlin, Minnesota, Sidney Churness, and Selmer Nelson of Clearbrook, Minnesota were also on the train in route to Fort Dodge, Iowa. Odin stayed at this camp for a short time before leaving by boat from New York to England, Germany, and then France. He spent the longest period of time in France. After the war, Odin often talked about the times he spent in foxholes. The country had many big holes where bombs had been dropped.

Being away from home made Odin and his buddies very lonesome. Odin did receive mail from home, including many letters from his mother, Malla Johnson, that were written in Norwegian. What a treasure it would be to have these letters today, but unfortunately, they were burned along with the rest of Odin's and his wife and children's belongings in a house fire some years later.

Odin Johnson sent this postcard from France in 1919 to a younger brother, Carl. It is addressed to “Mr. Carl Johnson, Box 42, Leonard, Minn., U.S.A” and reads, "Well hello Carl. Well how was your day. I ’spose are going to school, playing with the little girls; it’s lots of them here. Bro. Odin."

As an orderly in the Army, Odin was in charge of equipment. He and two other men stayed with a French family in a civilian home. He indicated that the French people were kind and friendly. A French fellow from Brooks, Minnesota named Bruno stayed there also and was the interpreter. (The Brooks area is still known for its French settlement people.) A favorite meal of Odin’s that the French served was hot milk with onions, which was made like soup.

Odin Johnson was in the U. S. Army for fourteen months, and was wounded in the leg while serving his country. When the war ended, Odin remained in France for a time for peace keeping. Sidney Churness, his lifelong friend, happened to return home at the same time, even though they were not stationed together overseas. Odin’s father, Ole M. Johnson, drove a team of hoses to the Leonard Depot to meet his son and bring him home.

It was Odin’s wish that America would never be at war again. He kept in touch with the neighbors and friends who had followed him to war for many years following their safe return.

Information about Odin Johnson in WWI supplied by Duane and Betty Johnson (Duane is the son of Odin Johnson), march 2003.

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