Editor’s note: The Country Today reader Toni Lubich sent us this story along with the following note: “My grandfather, Walter E. Swenson, of Pierce County, recalled memories of his life, including his service in the Army. I am attaching that story. He passed away in 1986 at the age of 88. We are so blessed to have his writings.” For part two, see this page in next week’s edition.
By Walter Swenson
July 25, 1918. This was the day of my induction into the Army of Uncle Sam. I was 21 years old at this time. We had registered and were drafted, so I felt I was now a man. With no violence in my heart to anyone, I knew it was my duty to help in whatever I was assigned to in my line of duty to defend our country, to stop the crazy desire of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany to conquer and subdue the many countries that were the peaceful neighbors surrounding. It started in 1914 when Kaiser’s armies invaded France right through Holland and Luxemburg and into France, etc. The U.S. got involved in it later in 1918. I, with several other young men from many counties of Wisconsin, were to report for duty on July 25, 1918, at Rockford, Ill.
My parents were sad at my departure, naturally. I sure tried to be cheerful and assured them I’d be OK and come home again. I, with several others, boarded the train at Hollandale that took us to Dodgeville where we spent the night at Higbee Hotel. Early next morning we departed by train for Rockford, Ill., where my Army service began. (Incidentally, it ended here too, next July.)
We had a couple of weeks of rookie training. We learned how to handle firearms, etc. We got up at reveille by a bugler, and taps at night by bugle told us to retire. And so we learned about drilling and marching and taking orders by our officials. Some were nice guys while others were something else! Early September that fall, we were sent to Hoboken, N.Y., no longer rookies, but well-trained (?) soldiers, ready to conquer the enemy.
We sailed from Hoboken the 19th of September in an old English vessel that had been used to transport horses, mules and cattle and now transported men to help them defend themselves against their enemy who was really crowding them. We slept in hammocks over the dining tables and were quite crowded. The food on this ship was none too good. It took 13 days to get to Liverpool, England. It was an anxious trip, as the German U-Boats lurked in these waters, to sink whatever might help their enemies. We were not long in England. We hiked and rode boxcar trains to get to a place called Naughty Ash (or was it Knotty Ash?) where we boarded a boat across the English Channel to France at La Havre. Thence to Bordeaux in southern France, marching (and boxcars) two days or so, where we stayed a short while, about a week.
It was pretty here, nice rolling hills where grapes grew. We saw so many grapes ripening here. We were given some and they were so very good, but always someone had to spoil a good thing by stealing grapes. Restrictions were quickly laid down. This was in the fall of 1918. From then on we went through many places. I no longer can recall the names of them, always riding trains and very slow boxcars at that, till we reached the battlefields. We saw old battlefields first, as the enemy had been retreating in France by the time we got there.
These boxcars held eight horses or 40 men each, sitting with our backs to the side of the car — legs stretched out front and our packs on our backs too. We’d rest and try to sleep. It was far from comfortable. No lights, except a candle or so. No smoking. If one man had to answer nature’s call, he might have to step over or on legs everywhere, cursing by him and others. Up front of the car he could relieve himself, right through the air. I don’t know how they managed if they had a B.M.!
A lot of marching with our 80-pound packs. It was most miserable when it rained, as the webbed straps holding the packs to our shoulders would shrink and make it tight and uncomfortable. We’d get good barracks and a good meal at the end of our march, we were told. Once it was dark and raining, but there were no barracks, I got a mess kit of beans! Many of us slept in an old horse barn that night, glad to find a dry place, and we slept! Others had found shelters elsewhere. Next day we discovered a heap of hand grenades in the yard behind this barn we’d slept in. Some of the fellows were fooling around with them. Someone tossed one out and it exploded somehow. Fortunately, no one was hurt. We had not been shown a hand grenade before. We respected them after that. This barn was hit by a shell and destroyed the next night or so. No one was in it at the time.
We did a little training, mostly marches. We did not remain here very long, as our destination was at the front. So, more boxcar rides and marches: 50 minutes marching, 10 minutes rest. If it was raining, orders were to don your rain coats and if the sun came out while marching with these garments on, you’d become saturated with sweat.
So at last we were headed for the front. Before we got there, we noticed much damage from the German shells. They had retreated some by this time, as American forces were at it, as well as English and French and some Canadian units too.
I was in the 86th Infantry Division, 142nd Regiment. Shortly after I got to France, I was transferred, 7th Division, 56th Infantry, the Hour Glass Division.
We were assigned to some holes in the ground with galvanized iron as roofing. A direct hit would of course destroy one. However, it protected us from shrapnel. These shelters and the whole terrain were more or less muddy, as rains were prevalent in the area. No smoking except in the dugouts, as these shelters were called, no lights and no fires.
Kitchens were left behind a mile or so and we had to go back to bring food up front. I was always ready to volunteer for such work. A spring, like a hole in the ground, was our water. We were fortunate to find them, otherwise we’d have to go back to where the kitchens were located to get our water to drink. On one of these trips, my company had been ordered forward on patrol and I found no one there of my company, green officers and men. Machine guns of the enemy found some of these men as targets. Only one in our company got killed. I knew him and liked him. He had expressed fear that he would never see Minnesota again. I told him I was confident I’d see Wisconsin again, which I did. I have always regretted not trying to locate his people in Minnesota, as I knew the town at that time.
This story continues in this space next week.