Saturday, March 23, 2019

Those Who Served in the Great War: Private Odin Johnson

 A Minnesota Doughboy in WWI France

Odin Johnson, the fifth child out of ten born to Ole Martin Johnson and Malla (Larson) Johnson, was the only one among seven brothers who served in the U.S. Army overseas during World War I.  Odin was a farm laborer when he was required to register for the draft.  He was rather tall compared to others in his family, standing at just under six feet and weighing 180 pounds.  The combination of his youth, single status, and lack of his own farm almost assured that he was chosen as a draftee.  He served in the U.S. Army for fourteen months, and before he left home a farewell party was held for him at his old country schoolhouse near the town of Leonard, Minnesota.

Odin's two older brothers, Bennett and Ernest, were not chosen to serve during WWI even though they also had to register for the draft.  Bennett was unmarried but did not own his own property at the time, and the government did not wish to reduce food supplies by shutting down farms.  Ernest, my grandfather, owned a farm and was married.  Of the younger brothers in the family, only Oral Johnson was old enough to register for the WWI draft, but he was not chosen primarily due to timing.  The remaining brothers, Ruben, Carl, and Frank, were underage, but they were required to register for the WWII draft in later years.  The early twentieth century proved to be a rough period for families with men being shipped off to war, many of whom never returned home, or returned home forever changed.

Odin Johnson in uniform (on the right), ca. 1918.
Odin Johnson enlisted on February 23, 1918.  Assigned the rank of Private, he was attached to the 30th Infantry Division, a unit of the Army National Guard, named the "Old Hickory" division in honor of President Andrew Jackson.  Along with three other local men:  John Huff of Shevlin, and Sidney Churness and Selmer Nelson of Clearbrook, Odin took the train from Bagley, Minnesota to Fort Dodge, Iowa, where they were stationed before the division headed to Europe in May 1918. From New York, the 30th Division shipped out to England before departing for the Western Front.  Odin worked as an orderly in charge of equipment. After the war, he talked a lot about the time he had spent in foxholes, and how the French countryside was littered with huge holes where bombs had been dropped.  During the war, the 30th Division participated in the Somme Offensive (1916), in which two American divisions broke the Hindenburg Line in the Battle of St. Quentin Canal, and the Ypres-Lys Offensive (launched in August 1918),   Odin's regiment, the 117th Infantry, was at the top of the order of battle for the division.

Being away from home made Odin and his buddies very lonesome.  While in France, Odin regularly received letters from his mother, Malla Johnson, written in Norwegian.  When Odin was able to write home, he told about how he and two other men stayed with a French family in a civilian home for a while.  One of the soldiers was from Brooks, Minnesota, a community known for its French settlers, and he served as interpreter.  The French people were kind an friendly to the U.S. Army soldiers.  A favorite meal of Odin's that the French served was hot milk with onions, which was made like soup.

When the war ended, Odin and his unit remained in France for a time, for peace keeping purposes.  The second Camp Dodge detachment, 117th U. S. Infantry, 30th Division, departed St. Nazaire, France aboard the SS Pocahontas on March 16, 1919.  The ship, which was built in Stettin, Germany, was seized at the port of New York when that country entered the conflict in 1917.  It was interned by the United States and renamed, then put to use as a troop transport for the Navy. Overall, the ship carried 24,573 servicemen to Brest and St. Nazaire, and returned 23,296 servicemen to the United States, and all of them safely.  It did face dangers, however.  Less than a year before the USS Pocahontas returned Odin Johnson to the Americas, another group of service men returning home received a major fright when an Imperial German Navy submarine surfaced in the ship's path and fired upon her with 150 mm. shells.  The USS Pocahontas was not quite in range, however, so she suffered no direct hits and suffered no casualties.

Shoulder sleeve insignia for the 30th Infantry Division.

USS Pocahontas underway in 1910.

After crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Belize, Odin Johnson and his unit boarded the SS James Timpson, bound for New York. Odin's unit was scheduled to be discharged after the ship arrived in New York.  He was released from service on April 10, 1919.  It was a happy time for Odin, and also for his mother and father and the rest of his large family waiting back home.  The James Timpson was built by the G.M.Standifer Construction Company at Vancouver, Washington in 1919, to aid in the World War I effort.  It was a fairly new ship when it transported Odin Johnson and his fellow soldiers home to American soil.  The ship, based in New York Harbor, later foundered in a 1924 Caribbean storm and sank, but not before the ship's crew was rescued

SS James Timpson, 1919
By the time the 1920 U.S. Federal Census was taken in Dudley Township, Clearwater County, Minnesota, Odin was back home again, helping out on his parents' farm.  When he returned home after the war, Odin's father, Ole M. Johnson, met him at the Leonard train depot driving a team of horses.  It was Odin's wish that America would never have to go to war again.  Though he was wounded in the leg during battle, his injury apparently healed well enough so that he was able to continue farming.  He was one of the lucky ones...

Like so many young men returning home and seeking a new challenge and a sense of normalcy, Odin started a life of his own.  In 1922, he purchased 160 acres of land in Sinclair Township, Clearwater County, within several miles of his parents' farm.  The Red Lake Trail, which was still used by Indians going to and from the nearby reservation, was a short distance east of the farm.  Sometimes, Indians would stop and stay overnight at the farm.  In gratitude, the Indians would always prepare food and share it with Odin.

On October 26, 1923, Odin Johnson married Emma Charlotte Moen, who came from another large family in the neighboring town of Neving, in Sinclair Township.  Emma's father passed away from typhoid fever when she was only four years old.  Her mother worked as the neighborhood midwife, tending new mothers at the time of birth, then staying on to lend a hand where needed.  Odin and Emma Johnson had four children:  Arlie (1924-2004), Ardys (1928-), Duane (1930-), and Kermit (1933-1971), all delivered by Dr. Forest and aided by Odin's mother, Malla Johnson.  The entire family worked together to make a living at farming.  They raised grain, hogs, sheep, and dairy cattle, with the cream sold to the Leonard Co-op Creamery.  Emma kept chickens and sold the egg--sometimes trading them for groceries at Strand's Store in Leonard.  Odin hunted deer in order to provide venison, which was eaten fresh or preserved.  Like most early farmers without the convenience of supermarkets, they kept a large vegetable garden and picked wild berries, then canned most of the produce for winter use.  In 1931, Odin purchased his first car, a Model T Ford Coupe.

Odin and Emma Johnson. with Duane, Ardys, and Arlie, ca. 1932.

In 1933, Odin and Emma's farmhouse burned, and the family lost nearly all of their possessions.  Until a new house could be built the following year, the Johnsons lived in a next door neighbor's granary, and then moved into a new chicken coop they erected on their own farm.  During the fire, the letters that Odin had written and received while in France were unfortunately lost to history.  But, with the help of his loving wife and family, Odin Johnson seemed to be successful in putting the horrors of war behind him as much as was humanly possible.


"30th Infantry Division (United States)."  Wikipedia (accessed March 19, 2019).

Johnson, Duane Truman, son of Odin and Emma Johnson.

New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (for Odin Johnson), (accessed March 18, 2019).

"SS James Timpson, 1919," photograph:  "Welcome to the Post of Vancouver USA Centennial Celebration," Port of Vancouver USA, (accessed March 18, 2019).

"Ship's Crew Rescued Just Before She Sinks; James Timpson of New York Founders in Caribbean--Storm Hits Punta Gorda."  New York Times, October 21, 1924, p.8.

U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1929 (for Odin Johnson),

U.S., Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010 (for Odin Johnson),

"USS Pocahontas (ID-3044).Wikipedia (accessed March 18, 2019).

"World War I Casualties."  Wikipedia (accessed March 20, 2019).

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