“I think it looks terrible to see the guns and bayonets and to think that we are going to use them on other people but I hope we won’t get that far.” Alfred, August 11, 1918.
Sometime last year, Diane, my niece in Minnesota, sent me a box of stuff that somehow ended up with her. She and her husband were downsizing so she asked if she could send it to me. That box sat unopened for several months, waiting for a quiet winter afternoon.
Inside was a cornucopia of old family photos, yellowing newspapers, and other miscellany. Then there was a little packet of letters, and I was stunned at what I held in my hands. These were letters from George and Alfred Froyum, great-uncles I’d never known, brothers of my maternal grandmother. When the United States entered World War One, or the Great War, as it was called, they answered the call to service, and these were letters sent to my grandmother. To someone who majored in history, this was pure gold.
The Great War started in 1914, though the U.S. didn’t enter the war until April 6, 1917. It takes a long time, however, to build an army. The Selective Service Act was passed and 2.8 million men were drafted and by the summer of 1918, we were sending 10,000 men to France daily.
Most of the letters were sent from training camps in the U.S., including the letter cited above. Here are some more quotes from the family Doughboys. I’ve tried to avoid editing of spelling and punctuation.
“As far as I have gone yet I don’t complain on anything. I have never been so healthy as I am at present.” George, Camp Lewis, Washington, June 5, 1918.
“The worst thing here is clothes washing you have to change underwear 2 times a week. When you are exercising in the field you get to take the outer shirt of sometimes and you will get all covered with Dust.” George, Camp Kearny, California, July 1, 1918.
“We don’t know when we go yet but it may not be so very long either…I s’pose it isn’t much worse to go across [on troop ship] than to stay any other place. And God is on the ocean just the same as on the land and if it’s his will that we should get through it all it’s nothing that will hurt us so I’m going to try and remember him at all times so that if I shouldn’t come back I pray that he will take me to him and hope to meet you all there.” Alfred, Camp Stuart, Virginia, August 21, 1918.
“There are a few cases of Spanish flu in Zumbrota…but not any around here…” Letter from my grandmother to George, October 27, 1918. The so-called Spanish flu was a world-wide pandemic that killed an estimated 40 to 50 million people. The close quarters and international travel of soldiers was considered a major factor in the spread of influenza.
“Well it is Sunday again today…so I will write a few lines to you. I just finished a letter to George too. I hear from him quite often now and hear he likes it good and is feeling well all the time.” Alfred, “Somewhere in France,” November 10, 1918. 54th Pioneer Infantry.
The 54th Infantry saw service in the Meuse-Argonne and Alsace campaigns in 1918. Alfred’s letter was written the day before an Armistice went into effect, ending hostilities.
“Here are big steamers going up and down the river all day long so it’s fun to look at them. We always get good buildings to sleep in wherever we come, and at the present I’m in a school house…” Alfred, Koblenz Germany, December 30, 1918. Koblenz is a city on the Rhine River, where the 54th Infantry had occupation duty. Another letter was sent from Dormitz, Germany on March 19th, which, surprisingly, he wrote in Norwegian.
The letters don’t describe any combat, and both George and Alfred returned home in 1919, evidently without a scratch. In the 1920s, both men married and started families. In Alfred’s case, he married a 30-something widow, Ragnhild, my father ‘s sister. Their three children were what I’ve always thought of as my “double cousins.”
Both brothers, in family tradition, became farmers, and members of the American Legion post in Wanamingo, Minnesota. Tragically, according to brittle, yellowed newspaper obituaries, both brothers died relatively young. In 1937, George, age 42, suffered a fatal skull fracture in a fall. Alfred, age 51, died in 1941 from a cerebral hemorrhage. American Legion Posts provided military honors at their funerals.
Next Monday we observe Veterans Day, the 101st anniversary of that Armistice on November 11, 1918. Some people consider history a dry subject, but holding and reading these century-old letters brings an unexpectedly personal connection to that long-ago war.