Bennie and Mabel

A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 – to Paris

Between 1840 and 1914, as many as one million Swedes crossed the Atlantic Ocean to seek economic opportunity and/or religious freedom in the United States and Canada. Today I’d like to tell the story of two families that participated in this Scandinavian diaspora, and how they experienced the First World War.

I’m doing that today because as we drive a couple of hours south from the Somme area to Paris, we’ll be stopping at the first place on the Western Front where American forces (Marines, to be specific) saw extensive action, in May 1918: Belleau Wood. And one out of every five American troops was either a recent immigrant or the son of an immigrant.

Marines Outside Belleau Wood
U.S. Marines after the Battle of Belleau Wood

A quick recap, since we haven’t said much about U.S. history since the first day of the course.

  • A few “war lovers” like Teddy Roosevelt notwithstanding, most Americans embraced Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s response to the outbreak of war: to call for neutrality “in thought as well as in action.” The USA was not part of the European alliance system; its military struggled even to project power across the Rio Grande, let alone the Atlantic; and participation in the war risked exacerbating racial, ethnic, gender, and class tensions at a time when Wilson was more interested in building support for the Progressive reforms central to his domestic agenda.
  • Nevertheless, German attacks on American merchant shipping, the growth of the TR-backed “Preparedness” movement, and the growing involvement of American corporations in the war (e.g., the House of Morgan had its own trade deal with the British government) seemed to signal the inevitability of American intervention.
  • Wilson continued to push neutrality at home and “peace without victory” abroad during the tightly-contested 1916 presidential campaign, but then the Germans’ decision to gamble on reviving “unrestricted submarine warfare” (resulting inevitably in the loss of American life and property at sea) convinced Wilson to seek a declaration of war in April 1917. (A declaration that did not receive the kind of overwhelming support that Franklin Roosevelt’s did in December 1941, as Wilson was opposed by fellow Progressives like Sen. George Norris, Midwestern isolationists with heavy German-American constituencies, and the Socialist Party, which had received 6% of the popular vote the year Wilson was first elected and was in double digits in several Western states.) The collapse of the tsarist government in Russia the previous month made it somewhat easier for Wilson to claim that associating with the Allies served the disinterested purpose of protecting “the right.”

It took the better part of a year to recruit, train, provision, and deploy substantial numbers of American troops to the Western front, but they arrived in time to help turn back the last great German offensive of the war. And so we’ll stop near Belleau to see the Chateau-Thierry Monument and the Aisne-Marne Cemetery and Memorial. (These and fourteen other WWI and seven WWII sites in France are run by the American Battle Monuments Commission.)

That summer and fall, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) played a key role in the Allied offensives  that forced the Germans to sue for peace. Just days before the Armistice, for example, the Americans broke through the German defenses (the “Hindenburg Line”) at Prény Ridge in Lorraine. One of the units involved in the attack was the 56th Infantry Regiment, whose ranks included a young conscript named Bennie Peterson.

Bennie Peterson
Private Bennie Peterson

Bennie’s father, A.P., had left the Swedish province of Dalsland in the 1870s, and eventually settled with his growing family in Pierce County, Wisconsin. The youngest of five surviving sons, Bennie was twenty-five when the US entered the war and was drafted a year later with his brother Otto (who ended up in the artillery). Bennie’s unit left for France in September 1918, just eight weeks before the war’s end.

Back home, the Peterson family celebrated Christmas with special joy, as they awaited Otto and Bennie’s returns. But day after nerve-wracking day passed with no news. Finally came a telegram from the War Department, informing the family that Bennie had died of the “Spanish flu” the day after New Year’s.

The family’s historian picks up the story:

A.P. was almost beside himself with grief. He feared that the faith which was so precious to him was not shared by his youngest son. Darkness settled over him during those long winter days. It ended when Bennie’s personal effects were returned to his father. Among them was a decision card which Bennie had signed at a chapel service on the night before he sailed for France.

[It read:] “This night I have received God’s gift of eternal life. I believe that His son, the Lord Jesus Christ, died to pay the penalty for my sin, and that He has forgiven me and granted me new life through His indwelling Holy Spirit. ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).”

Approximately 116,000 American soldiers died in the First World War, nearly half of them—like Bennie—from influenza.

One of the nurses who helped treat influenza victims was another child of Swedish immigrants, Mabel Larson of St. Paul, Minnesota. She had trained as a nurse at Bethesda Lutheran Hospital, where, according to one of her daughters, the supervisors saw their job as three-fold: “…to train young women to be outstanding in their profession, to be socially polished, and to develop the piety that would attract husbands from among the Lutheran clergy. Mabel’s score was two out of three.”

Mabel Larson
Mabel Larson

After joining the American Red Cross, Mabel was assigned to a naval hospital in Norfolk, Virginia and commissioned as an ensign. (All to the dismay of her father, who had secured a draft deferment for his son by signing over the family farm. Another common cause of Swedish emigration in the 19th century was the desire to avoid compulsory military service.) Worked to exhaustion, Mabel herself contracted influenza and was bed-ridden for three weeks before recovering. Meanwhile, her closest friend committed suicide after she found out that she was pregnant with the child of a young officer just departed for France.

Mabel herself was reassigned to the Western Front, but the end of the war arrived first. After a tour of duty during which she had met John Philip Sousa and seen Woodrow Wilson and AEF commander Gen. John J. Pershing, Mabel Larson left the service in February 1920 and one year later married Hjalmar Nelson, a farmer from Maiden Rock, Wisconsin.

Their third daughter, Hildur, went on to write the privately published book that furnished these stories. She married George Peterson a year after the end of the next world war. George had not been drafted during WWII, surely to the relief of his father, Gust, whose older children remembered him crying only once in his life: when he heard the news that his baby brother Bennie had died in France of influenza, Gust “lay down on the daybed in the dining room, and hid his grief under his bandana handkerchief with which he covered his face.”

While there is no typical story of how Americans participated in WWI, this is my family’s experience, and I’m happy to share it in somewhat belated honor of the birthday of Elaine Gehrz (née Peterson): Mabel’s granddaughter, Bennie’s grandniece, and my mother.

Tomorrow: how ‘ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm (or get them back to Bethel) after they’ve seen Paree?

<<Day 12          Day 14>>


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