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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published May 26 2013

World War I hero rests in Polk County grave

CROOKSTON, Minn. – Strictly speaking, Nels T. Wold was an orphan by the time he died in a hail of bullets during his brave attack against German machine gunners.

But he’s got a big family of descendants who keep the memory of his heroism alive.

He was credited with saving the lives of many comrades and a famous Army general came to his hometown of Winger, Minn., the very next summer to present the Medal of Honor to his siblings. Wold is one of only three Minnesota men who received the nation’s highest military award in World War I.

American Legion Post 20 in Crookston is named after him and displays his portrait, the flag from his casket, his Norwegian Bible and short accounts of his exploits.

It was Sept. 26, 1918, only a few weeks before the war ended.

He was 22 and his Norwegian-born parents had died several years before – Klara in 1902 after giving birth to 11 children, and Tidemand, a blacksmith and boarding house owner in Winger in 1912, only a few years after he remarried and fathered one more child.

In the summer of 1919, Gen. Leonard Wood presented Wold’s Medal of Honor to his oldest sibling, Nicolene, during a “homecoming celebration” for all war veterans in Winger.

Three years to the day after his death, his remains were brought back from France and reinterred in Elim cemetery near Winger, where his parents are buried. A newspaper photo and story show thousands showed up.

‘Over there’

In the Allies’ furious rush in 1918 to finally end the war, Wold was a soldier only five months, signing up April 2 in Crookston, in France by June, dying Sept. 26.

According to historical and newspaper accounts and letters, it happened fast.

In March 1918, Wold was living in McIntosh, Minn., knowing he soon would be called up, going to dances until near dawn, telling others he had tried to enlist in the “medical corps” but found no slots.

He reportedly worked for a time as a farm laborer near Minnewaukan, N.D., near Devils Lake, N.D., just before he returned to Crookston to answer his “call-up” April 2.

By June, Wold was “across,” in France.

Typical of soldiers, he took care not to worry his loved ones back home.

“This is a beautiful Sunday morning,” he wrote his sister, Inga Gilbertson, and her husband, Gus, of Finley, N.D., in a letter from “somewhere in France,” dated June 2, 1918. “I am laying in the grass under a big shade tree and taking a good rest. It is very pleasant and beautiful around here now.”

Wold made it through eight grades of school, says Orphie Vraa of the uncle she never met who wrote English so well for one who spoke Norwegian first.

He left no wife or children but had 10 brothers and sisters.

“I remember my mother saying he might have had someone that kind of liked him,” Orphie said. “But I don’t think he went with anybody. He didn’t say anything about that. He seemed like a really nice kid. I never heard my mother say anything bad about him at all. I don’t think he was a drinker or anything like that.”

The ‘Big Drive’

He was a private first class in Company I, of the 138th Infantry in the 35th Division, in the spear point, of the long Meuse-Argonne front of 400,000 American soldiers, flanked across France by millions of British, French and other Allied troops.

The Americans, freshest in the field, almost at an instant after hours of artillery barrages, all jumped from their trenches about daybreak Sept. 26 to begin the “big drive,” intended to sweep the Germans finally out of France.

From then it was a single long slog north and east until the Germans quit Nov. 11 after four years and

26 million dead.

But for Wold it ended those first few hours of the “Drive” in a literal fog of war.

The official citation with Wold’s Medal of Honor reads like the exploits of Sgt. Alvin York, who a week or two later and not far away did something similar and lived and also received the Medal of Honor:

“He rendered most gallant service in aiding the advance of his company, which had been held up by machine gun nests, advancing with one other soldier, and silencing the guns, bringing with him, upon his return, 11 prisoners. Later the same day he jumped from a trench and rescued a comrade who was about to be shot by a German officer, killing the officer during the exploit. His actions were entirely voluntary, and it was while attempting to rush a fifth machine gun nest that he was killed. The advance of his company was mainly due to his great courage and devotion to duty.”

According to accounts of the event, Wold was trained to shoot the Chaucat machine gun, the first such automatic weapon carried by one soldier. French in design but used by American troops in the last year of the war, it weighed 20 pounds.

The battlefield was so foggy that first morning of the drive, everyone got mixed up, lost their sense of direction – there were no radios yet and runners got lost – and American troops got ahead of German machine gun units, which began doing damage to the “Yanks.”

According to a 1919 history of the 35th Division, Wold volunteered to sneak up on one of the “nests,” killed three soldiers and brought back two prisoners.

He then pressed his sergeant to let him do it again, since it worked so well. He quieted four nests that way; at the fifth one, he was, perhaps, outfoxed and cut down by German gunners.

Seeing he didn’t return, his company swarmed the nest, laid waste to the gunners and carried his body away.

“No prisoners were taken,” wrote Clair Kenamore tersely, in his 1919 history in a chapter titled: “Nels Wold’s Glorious Death.”

Letters returned ‘deceased’

He called his stepmother Aase “mother” in letters, but between the lines of his letters, it was clear his sisters and Aase feuded. He wrote, with some good humor to a sister, that he would just as soon stay out of such fights.

But the yellowed envelopes of the latter letters from home kept now by his niece Orphie look starkly poignant, partly because they are here. Mailed to Wold only days before or after he was killed, they were returned to sender, stamped in cold block letters from the Army: “DECEASED.”

Unknowing and light-hearted, his sister Inga wrote him from Finley five days before his death:

“My dear brother Nels: Your very pretty card received, thanks! I was so glad to hear from you and to know you are well, can state same here ...

“Well, Nels, how many fights have you been in? How long a rest do you get between fights? Nels I’m going to send you a comfort kit. If there is anything else you need just let us know. ... Love, sister Inga.”

It took a 1-cent and a 2-cent stamp to go to France, then back again, unread by Nels.

Men with Wold at death

The letters include those from the men with him when he died.

Cpl. Julius Vonderlieth wrote to Wold’s stepmother on Nov. 1, 1918.

“I was with Nels when he died and his last words were of you and his loved ones. He requested that I write you and say that he truly loved you all and was ready to go. While we all miss him, we must not grieve, for he died for a noble cause.

“It was the Lord’s will that he be taken out of this world of sorrow into the heavenly realms above.”

In July 1920, Chris Antonson wrote from St. Paul to Alma, Wold’s sister, saying he was “a good pal,” and there alongside Vonderlieth:

“I was with Nels to his last. The last thing Nels said, ‘Pray for me Boys and write my folks and tell them I love them all.’

“We didn’t leave Nels at this place but took him with about a mile from there, where he later was buried.”

They left one of his dog tags on “his cross.”

“Did any of his brothers and sisters receive the medal that Nels should have had? I heard he was to get the Congressional Medal of Honor. … Do you know where it is?

“I do not know if anyone got Nels’ diary or if he kept one.

“Nels and I made plans to go to Norway as soon as we got out of the Army. He told me his folks were born there.”

Memories still kept

Wold’s Medal of Honor is in Grand Forks, kept by Dale Sollom, grand-nephew of Wold, grandson of Nicolene.

Sollom’s cousin, Fern Letnes, of New York City, remembers growing up near her grandmother Nicolene in Polk County, who kept the medal packed away with letters from Nels in his trunk.

“I still have Nels’ trunk,” Letnes said. “I remember when I was little, she would take me upstairs, under the eaves, and pull out this trunk. And she would be pulling stuff out and showing it to me, letters from her brother Nels.”

Orphie’s mother, Alma, also talked of her hero brother.

“My mother told us, talking about Nels, she said, before he went over, they said, ‘Now don’t be too brave,’ ” Orphie said. “I guess he didn’t listen.”