Showing posts with label World War I. Show all posts
Showing posts with label World War I. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hell, No, I Won't Go!

When first made World War I draft registration cards available, I immediately began to search for evidence about relatives. Only one in my grandfather's family (total of ten siblings) actually served during the war. Most of his brothers were too young to be required to register... but, what of the eldest brother, and especially of my grandfather--the second eldest?

On May 18, 1917, the Selective Service Act authorized the President to temporarily increase the U.S. military. Under the office of the Provost Marshal General, the Selective Service System was established to draft men into military service. Local boards were created for each county or similar state subdivision, and for each 30,000 people in cities and counties with a population greater than 30,000. [1]

During World War I there were three draft registrations:

June 5, 1917 - all men between the ages of 21 and 31 residing in the U.S. - whether native born, naturalized, or alien

June 5, 1918 - men who reached age 21 after June 5, 1917. (A supplemental registration, included in the second registration, was held on August 24, 1918, for men who turned 21 years old after June 5, 1918.)

September 12, 1918 - all men between age 18 and 45.

Not surprisingly, I found Grampa's card; he registered promptly during the first go-around, on June 5th:

Name: Ernest JohnsonCity: Not Stated
County: Clearwater
State: Minnesota
Birthplace: Minnesota;United States of America
Birth Date: 23 Jan 1889
Race: Caucasian (White)
Roll: 1675389

His occupation is listed as "farmer."

In response to the question: "Have you a father, mother, wife, child under 12, or a sister or brother under 12 solely dependent upon you for support," he answered "wife."

I was unprepared, however, for his response to the question: "Do you claim exemption from draft (specify reason)." His answer was: "Yes, don't want to go to Europe," and below it, he signed his name.

I had to laugh at the blatant honesty of that answer, and I'm sure Grampa did not mean it quite the way it sounds, but...

Don't want to go to Europe?!

I can't imagine how many other young blokes would have liked that phrase to stick on their behalf.

Grampa turned out to be one of the lucky ones, but the government's decision to not draft him was based on several things: 1) his dependent wife, 2) the fact that he farmed alone, and 3) the need to keep enough farmers producing food on the home turf for U.S. citizens and troops abroad, and, 4) not just because he felt a responsibility to his wife and farm. As a newlywed, married just months before draft registration, he obviously felt a great deal of pressure to make his farm into a successful venture that could support a family. If Grampa had been drafted, the farm would probably have been sold and my grandmother would have returned to live with her parents. Happily, that did not have to happen.

(Love you, Grampa--always will; I miss your crinkly smile.)

Ernest Johnson, Salem, Oregon, about 1965.

[1] Kimberly Powell at genealogy