100 years ago this month, my dad’s father, Ragnvald Duesund Bergeson (on the right in the picture above), enlisted in the United States Army. The United States had been involved in World War I for some months and more and more young men were interrupting their personal lives for a larger purpose.
At the time, Ragnvald was a senior at Augustana College (now Augustana University) in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His plan was to graduate in May and pursue a career in industry. Early in the spring of that year, he changed his mind about his future plans and decided that he wanted to join the war effort.
Grandpa Ragnvald had to leave before the graduation ceremony, in fact, the faculty allowed him to leave before he took his finals! Augustana College gave him a rousing send off at an all-campus assembly. It’s stunning to realize that he had arrived in the United States as an immigrant only 8 years earlier and when he arrived he only spoke Norwegian. Now he was volunteering to fight and possibly die for his new country. I’m sure that he was also thinking of his family still in Norway and anything that he could do to help the Allied cause would help Norway as well.
After enlisting, Ragnvald was told to report to Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis, where he began his Army training as a carpenter. While he was in Minneapolis, he decided that he would rather be involved in communications in the army and asked to be trained as a radio operator. After completing his training he was transferred to the 35th Infantry Division (the Kansas-Missouri Division) 110th Signal Corps Battalion and sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to wait for assignment.
Eventually, his unit was put on a train bound for the east coast and transported to Newport News, Virginia. From there they boarded a boat for the transatlantic crossing, stopping first in Liverpool, England and then finally France.
Ragnvald’s platoon was one of the replacement units that relieved the 35th Division after its exhausting 5-day stand in the Meusse-Argonne region in September 1918. They marched from 7pm-5am for two nights under cover of darkness to reach the defensive sector known as “the Sommedieue” near St. Mihiel where they dug in and waited for orders.
In his autobiography, “Things I Shall Always Remember”, Ragnvald describes what happened next:
“One night we came under attack with mustard gas lasting several hours. By noon the effect of the gas began to show up and by evening our entire platoon had been sent back to the field hospital. The next move for some of us was to a base hospital further south and finally, back to the Division, then stationed at Commercey, where we arrived two days before Christmas.
I was at the base hospital on November 11, 1918 when peace was signed. From then on waiting for orders to go home seemed never to come. The order to go home finally came in April. I landed at Newport News and was discharged at Dodge, Iowa.”
Grandpa was mustered out of the Army in the spring of 1919. In the fall he began his pursuit of another degree at South Dakota State University in Brookings.