Nearly 200 area lads served in World War I; here are a few stories

With the Pelican Rapids American Legion Post #17 observing its centennial in 2020, it is a great opportunity to take a look back. 

It was the end of World War I, in 1919, that spawned the American Legion organization in America. 

The namesake for the Pelican Rapids American Legion Post 17 was Victor Cornell, who was among the first from the Pelican area to be killed in action in World War I. After World War II, the Post became the Cornell Syverson, as they honored the first World War II fatality from the area, Woodrow Syverson.

Some 2 million men returned from the armed forces during U.S. involvement from 1917-1919. About 2,000 were from Otter Tail County, and at least 170 were from the greater Pelican Rapids area. 

“…The gamiest, snappiest fighting men that had ever stepped on any field of battle,” is how editor G.S. Lundeen described the Americans, who turned the tide against the German Army. Lundeen Company published a book “Otter Tail in the World War.” 

Mike Nettestad, Pelican American Legion officer and veteran himself, loaned a copy of the book to me. It is a fascinating piece of history, with a brief summary of virtually every Otter Tail boy—and girl—who contributed during the “Great War.”  

The book is loaded with Pelican lake area names. We can hardly scratch the surface, but here are a few names from a century ago, which are familiar today. Also a few interesting anecdotes gleaned from the book. 

We first noted a Halbakken, son of Iver, who was a member of the Army Hospital Corps—who entered the service from Rothsay. 

Serving in the 13th Veterinary unit was Oscar Sjostrom from Erhards Grove–son of Julius Sjostrom. 

Another familiar name, Milbeck. Brothers Richard and Albert, enlisted from Erhard. 

Carl Westby, served in an Artillery unit. He was the son of Otto Westby, Erhard. 

Mike Nettestad had two ancestors who served. A great uncle from the Erhard area enlisted, but with the original Norwegian spelling Nottestad. On Mike’s mother’s side, a Beckman from Underwood also represented Otter Tail County in the World War. 

Two Hovland boys from Trondhjem Township served, the sons of Otto Hovland. There are several Hovlands scattered in the book, including Gilbert and John, the sons of Ole Hovland, Trondhjem.

Two Bakken boys from Maplewood Township served, Anton and Louis. One as a fireman, and one in the motorcycle corps. 

Trondhjem Township also sent Torger Ohe’s sons: Ingard and Oscar, who was wounded in 1918 in France. 

We were surprised at how many young men from Maplewood Township served. Today, with most of the township state land as Maplewood Park, its difficult to imagine the number of hardscrabble, small farm operations that were scattered around back in 1918. 

Amazingly, the W.B Mcguire family sent four brothers from Maplewood Township: Willard, Everett, Guy and Arva. All returned alive. Machine gunner Willard was shipped to the relative safety of the Panama Canal Zone, instead of France. We can only speculate, but the Army was known to carefully assign some from larger families, to avoid tragic losses to a single family. 

Three sons of A.C. Meland, Pelican Rapids, served. Orville earned the rank of Captain, in a hospital unit in France. Richard, an infantry sergeant, apparently served stateside when the war ended. Alvin served overseas in a headquarters position.

From Norwegian Grove, brothers Alf and Olaf Ongstad served; as well as James Ronningen. 

A Pelican Rapids Albright, William, served overseas with an artillery unit. 

From Star Lake Township: Harold Jenne, Theo Harthun, Johns Harthun, Otto Harthun and Harvey Ott. Star Lake’s Oscar Peterson and Otto Harthun saw combat at the Muese-Argonne, a pivotal and legendary campaign for U.S. Troops. Otto was wounded. 

Brothers Emil and Lewis Arntson both served, but late in the conflict and were not overseas. They were sons of John Arntson, Scambler Township.

Three sons of Lida Township’s Noah Salomonson served: Carl, Arthur and Frank. 

Finally, it is important to note that two Pelican Rapids women served in World War I. Marie E. Kelly was a medical Navy nurse. Hannah O Peterson was a member of the Army Nurse Corps at an Evacuation Hospital near Verdun, France—which was the location of some of the bloodiest fighting over the course of the World War, from 1914-1919.

These are just a very few stories with local connections, gleaned from the book, which is on file at the Otter Tail County Historical Society. 

Lundeen forward concludes: “…We have endeavored to commemorate the sacrifices and achievements of all who so manfully answered the call of the nation.

Peace is ours.” 

He couldn’t have predicted how short-lived the peace was after the Great War.