Honoring my favorite WWI Vet, Great Uncle Ollie, in Novel
Updated: Mar 6, 2021
Growing up, I was lucky enough to be close with one of my great uncles, Olaf Olson. My Uncle Olie was a character who spoke with a Norwegian lilt and ate ham and eggs every single time we took him out for dinner, no matter where we went. He liked to say he’d lived ‘the clean life’ - never smoked or drank much. He passed away at the age of 103, when I was in college.
One of the things I found most fascinating about my Uncle Olie was that he served in World War I. He manned a machine gun and was on the front lines at the Battle of the Muese-Argonne when the war was called off. April 6th marked the centennial anniversary of America’s entrance into WWI. In a year and a half’s time, Michigan sent more than 135,000 service men and women overseas and suffered over 5,000 casualties.
My dad believed it was a genuine miracle that his Uncle Olie survived. “Gunners didn’t last long on the front lines,” he’d say. “The whole town of Spruce prayed him though it.” Now that I’ve read more about the war, I can see why he believed that. The trench warfare Uncle Olie lived through was hellish, to put it mildly.
Uncle Olie didn’t talk much about the war, at least not to me. However, he did share one story time and again. It was about what happened after the armistice, when he was loaded onto the ship to go home. Uncle Olie told me that he and the other soldiers were forced to strip down. They deloused them with chemicals to kill the body lice they were all infected with. He said it burned his skin. It must have been torture, standing there, until he was allowed to wash the powder off. When he first told me this story, I couldn’t picture Uncle Olie ever having been young, so I had a vision of this delousing happening to his wrinkled and frail body.
My novel, The Life-Dividing Days, spans the years 1915-1928. For the war chapters, I wanted to honor my Uncle Olie and provide a realistic account of the movements a Michigan soldier might have taken during WWI. So I started with what I knew, that he had been at the Meuse-Argonne in the fall of 1918 and did his initial training at Camp Custer in Battle Creek. The novel’s main male character, Johnny Walsh, follows the course my Uncle Olie would have likely taken.
Michigan’s 32nd Infantry Division, also known as the Red Arrow Division, was activated on July 18, 1917. Its infantrymen first trained at Camp Custer and many were then sent for further training in Waco, Texas. While in Waco, they were assigned “host” families who treated the soldiers to an occasional home-cooked dinner. The townspeople came out in droves to see the northern boys leave from the train station, heading to Hoboken, New Jersey. There, they boarded ships for the approximate two-week journey across the Atlantic, marked mostly by boredom, sea-sickness, and the threat of submarine bombings.
I thought of my uncle a lot while I researched and wrote the WWI chapters, especially the battle scenes. In life and in the novel, the 32nd fought nearly nonstop from May to November 1918.
There were several interesting things that stood out to me about WWI. The first is how isolationist the US was prior to WWI. President Wilson won his second term in 1916 because he’d kept the US out of the war. Before 1914, wars were contained to specific geographical area, so the mere idea of a world war, with more than 30 countries involved, had been unimaginable. Also foreign was the idea that such a war could be sparked by the assassination of some far-off Austrian archduke by a group of Serbians.
Second, the advances in weaponry at that time were horrifically alien to the soldiers as well as their folks reading about it at home. Poison gas, barbed wire, flame-throwers, machine guns, and tanks - these were the inventions of nightmares.
Third, what the soldiers and their families went through, in terms of loss, impacted the country for years to come. It struck me that the “gay twenties” may have actually been more about escapism than celebrating - maybe it was a mix of both. It reminded me of the Vietnam War era; there were many similarities between those two tumultuous times.
Looking back, I wish I had asked my Uncle Olie more questions about his time overseas. I wonder how that experience impacted his life. I’ve learned that you can write to the state archives for the records of WWI vets. Last week, I sent off my request to see if I can learn more about his time in the service. If you would like to find a record of a loved one, send a request with the service member's name and the war in which the individual served to the State Archives of the soldier's home.
Last weekend, we took a drive out to a WW1 Centennial event at a new military museum in Grass Lake, Michigan. They had Camp Custer memorabilia, a WW1 machine gun, uniforms and much more. Here's an article about the Michigan Military Heritage Museum, for those interested in military history: Detroit Free Press Article. It's worth the drive!