Seeking Private Larson – Part 1
Smith Larson was born 22 April 1877, the second (surviving) child of Ole Larson and Anne Samuelsdatter. His elder sister Louise (Aunt Lucy) was very fond of him throughout his life.
Smith was an amateur photographer, taking up the hobby in the early days of the Brownie camera (190-something). He claimed a North Dakota homestead in 1909, along with the three other brothers pictured above. The “famous” photo below, of the first homestead shack, *may* have been taken by Smith.
It is not clear how much time Smith spent on the homestead after “proving up.” His brother (my grandfather Isaac’s) home, where he raised his five sons including my father, was located on Smith’s original claim. Smith never married, had no children, and died on 22 January, 1922, age 45. Cousin Aline published this portrait of Smith in her book, “Larsons and Slettens 1985.” Please pardon the poor reproduction.
As a caption, there is only his name, birth and death dates, and “Merchant Marines.” But look closely at the insignia on his uniform cap. Next, we analyze the few tantalizing facts I learned on my Wisconsin trip in June, 2009.
Seeking Private Larson – Part 2
The inscription on Smith Larson’s gravestone at Brush Creek Cemetery reads: “Pvt. Smith Larson, 18th Co. 5th Reg., U.S.M.C. 1877-1922. The only artwork on the stone is a copper relief of the U.S. Marine Corps insignia, the same as seen on Smith’s uniform cap. At the base of the stone is a metal receptacle that holds a small U.S. flag on a wooden pole (about which more in a moment).
So far, I have uncovered no details of Smith’s military service, and precious little else about his life. He was about 21 years old (prime military age) at the beginning of the Spanish-American war, making it seem likely that he served in that conflict, in which the Marines played key roles.
I later learned that the 5th division was only first formed in 1917, and also, that Smith’s first hitch in the Marines was much earlier, but well after the Spanish-American War, in 1907-1910.
Still Seeking Private Larson
Cousin Carmen Stifstad shared with me a dozen picture postcards from Smith Larson to her mother, Mabel Johnson. Mabel was in turn the granddaughter of Kari Larsdatter Nesseth (who was sister to Ole Larson, but whom Aline and the rest of us had not known about until the 1980′s).
This was my first inkling of any contact between Ole Larson’s family and that of Kari Larsdatter. Also the first and only writings. Smith and Mabel were first cousins, once removed (Mabel’s mother, Randine Nesseth Johnson, was his first cousin). The cards were sent between 1906 and 1910, when Smith was 30-34 years old. Here are some observations:
She would have been a young girl of 10-12 years of age and must have been thrilled to get mail from such far away places. They don’t reveal much, but do give us an idea of where he was from 1906 to 1908.
March, 1906 Nevada
July 1906 – Mare Island, CA
March, 1907 Mare Island and Riverside, CA;
April, 1907 Santa Barbara May, 1907 will be leaving Santa
August 1907 Punta Arenal (not sure of spelling on that one)
April, May 1908 Bremerton, WA
July 1908 Honolulu – leaving for Panama
Sept 1908 due to arrive in ‘Frisco’ (card mailed from there)
1910 ( not sure of location in Washington) 18 days before leaving
There isn’t much room for personal notes, so he doesn’t give a lot
of info about what he’s doing, etc.
After comparing Smith’s uniform in the previous post with other pictures on the Internet, I am sure it is from WWI, not earlier.
I found Smith Larson in the 1910 and 1920 US censuses, both times in rather surprising circumstances. Also, a fragmentary outline of his military career in over 50 monthly “muster rosters” of the US Marine Corps. There are some extensive details on combat action, medical issues, etc. in these rosters, but they are severely abbreviated, and need more study. There are also some crucial missing months.
Finally, but far from least, I found a concise “digest” of his Marine service, in a surprising place:
Roster of the Men and Women who served in the Army or Naval Service (including the Marine Corps) of the United States or its Allies from the State of North Dakota in the World War, 1917-1918 Volume 3 Larkee to Rice
Name: Smith Larson
Army #: 154,280
Registrant: no, over age
Birth Place: Ontario, Wis.
Birth Date: 22 Apr 1877
Parent’s Origin: of Norwegian parents
Comment: enlisted in the Marine Corps at St. Paul, Minn., on April 23, 1918; sent to Parris Island, S. C.; served in Company A, 3rd Casual Battalion, to June 30, 1918; arrived in France, July 8, 1918; served in Replacement Battalion, to July 21, 1919; returned to Quantico, Va., Aug. 1, 1919, and served there to discharge. Grade: Private 1st Class, April 1, 1919. Engagements: Marbache Sector; St. Mihiel Offensive. Discharged at Quantico, Va., on Aug. 21, 1919, as a Private 1st Class. Previous military record: U. S. Marine Corps from March 27, 1906, to March 26, 1910. Died at LaCrosse, Wis., on Jan. 21, 1922; burial, Ontario, Wis.
I say “surprising,” because even though Smith was one of the four Larson homesteaders in ND around 1909, It would appear that he was not as firmly rooted there as his brothers Axel, Isaac, and Oscar. You will also note that there is no mention of North Dakota in the above article. However, there is a tantalizing clue in the 1920 census.
Let us examine Smith’s whereabouts at the US censuses of 1910 and 1920. He was discharged from his first (4-year) tour with the Marines in May of 1910. He wrote to Mabel Johnson in that year from somewhere in Washington state that he was “leaving for home” in 18 days. But where would that home be? Well, the census of 1910 finds him in Alden Township, Polk County, Wisconsin, at the home of his cousin Louis Nesseth and family! The second indication of a stronger connection between the families of Ole Larson and Kari Nesseth.
You will note that the very next household (probably on the same or adjacent farm) is that of Ole Johnson and Randine Nesseth Johnson, including their daughter Mabel, the addressee of all those postcards from Smith, and another cousin, Andrew Nordgaard. His exact relationship is unknown. I’m guessing he was a relative of Ole Johnson. And look who else is there: Kari (Larsdatter) Nesseth herself, age 79.
This domicile raises another interesting question: Upon his discharge, why did Smith not go to the North Dakota homestead he had claimed the year before, along with his brothers Axel, Isaac, and Oscar?
Enough about 1910 for now. Fast-forward to 1920, after Smith’s second tour, which included combat at the “Battle of Saint Mihiel,” in the late months of World War One. This time, the census *does* find Smith in North Dakota, at the home of Axel and “Minnie” Larson.
On the same page, we find many other familiar names, including Isaac-Anna and family, several Samuelson relatives, the Mann’s, the Amundsons, and Atley Peterson.
World War I
Expanding on the one-paragraph “digest” above, of Smith Larson’s career as a US Marine, as assembled by North Dakota Military Men, 1917-1918, are several dozen “muster rolls” containing Smith’s name. These rosters were apparently produced each month by each unit. Most months the report is quite routine, and contains little or no specific information about Smith. Occasionally, though, there is considerable detail, abbreviated in ways not always easy to decipher.
Smith first enlisted on March 27, 1906. Until December 1906, he was stationed at the Navy yard at Mare Island, California. From January 1907 until April 1909, he served aboard the cruiser USS Milwaukee. Except for a couple of cruises in 1907 and 1908, partially documented in Smith’s postcards to Mabel Johnson, the Milwaukee was harbored in reserve status at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. From June 1909 until March 1910, Smith’s station was shown as the Puget Sound shipyard itself. He was discharged March 26, 1910.
Of more interest is Smith’s second enlistment, beginning April 23, 1918. World War One had been ravaging Europe for four years. A bloody trench-war stalemate had dragged on for most of that time along the Western Front, especially in France. Most of the sixteen million total war dead (military and civilian) had already been killed.
The US was only now entering the war, after pursuing a policy of isolation since the beginning. Hundreds of thousands of US Army troops, and a smaller number of Marines, were pouring into France to join an enormous offensive against the Germans’ Hindenburg Line.
In the summer of 1918, Private Larson sailed to Europe as part of the 55th Company, 2nd Batallion, 5th Regiment, to join the American Expeditionary Force. The muster roll for September 1918 is the most detailed of all. It is the “Supplemental Roll, Company ‘G,’ 5th Regiment.”
The Battle of Saint Mihiel was the first major operation of the war in which US forces took the lead. It lasted only four days, was partially successful, but the Americans suffered over 7,000 casualties (dead and wounded). It appears that Private Larson was not wounded, but spent two days “sick in hospital” at the end of this battle, then transferred into the “Replacement Battalion” (Repl Bn) on September 18.
According to the Ancestry.com index, Smith’s name does not appear on any rolls for the next three months. It is possible he returned to combat action in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, the last, longest, and bloodiest engagement for American forces in WW1. The battle lasted from September 26 until the armistice was signed on November 11. US forces lost 15,000 dead and 100,000 wounded. No doubt record-keeping was difficult or impossible in the midst of such chaos, hence the missing reports.
Another interesting and detailed roster is dated July 1919, the month Smith sailed for home. This roster is titled “Addenda Roll, AEF” (American Expeditionary Force).
I’m guessing about a lot of these abbreviations, but it appears that the dates have to do with time Smith spent in hospital, and being transferred from one hospital to another. Note that from Sept. 17 to Sept. 24 1918, he had diagnoses of enteritis and bronchitis. Then on the 24th, “tr(ansfer?) to HT.” I don’t know what HT stands for, but let’s assume for a moment that it is at least out of hospital, and possibly back to a combat unit.
The next date, November 5, is near the end of the Argonne Forest offensive, and the diagnosis is “Exhaustion.” Another hint suggesting further combat after Smith’s first period in hospital.
Another roll from the same month (July 1919), shows Smith as part of Marine Guard Company #70. His rank is now Private First Class, and is shown “Trans(ferred?) to Camp Hosp(ital?) #85″ on July 17 (two days before sailing). No diagnosis or other information is given. He was discharged at Quantico, Virginia on August 21, 1919.
That’s all for now. Hopefully, the official military record, when it arrives, will fill in some of the blanks.
We have established that there were close connections between Smith Larson and his cousins in the Nesseth family. (So far, I have not found word of contact between any of Smith’s siblings and this branch). Smith was even listed as a member of Louis Nesseth’s household in the 1910 census. He must have taken the picture, now in Carmen Stifstad’s collection, of Kari Larsdatter (sister of Ole Larson) and her kin, also around 1910. For a larger view, click on the picture.
As mentioned earlier, Kari immigrated with her husband a few years after Ole came with his mother and two other sisters. It seems that Ole’s descendants pretty much lost track of the Nesseths between Smith’s death in 1922 and the late 1980′s, when cousin Carmen and cousin Aline met.
Note the two girls standing dead-center, Grace and Ina Nesseth, daughters of Louis. Turning to the “Louise Larson” albums,
The above must also be from around 1910, which would put their ages at 8 (Grace), and 10 (Ina). And those postcards they are admiring must have been sent to them from Smith on his travels as a US Marine in 1906-1910. Smith also sent cards to another young cousin, Mabel Johnson (mother of cousin Carmen). In fact, Smith was fond enough of Grace and Ina to name them as beneficiaries should he have died in the line of duty.
Thanks again to cousin Carmen, who located Smith Larson’s obituary from January, 1922.
To be sure, there are some misconceptions in it, as well as some new information. “Earl, ND” is not recognized by Google maps, but I found references that place it very near the Larson homesteads. Smith had three brothers living in that area, not one, and the sister must have been Aunt Lucy, who was apparently staying with, and keeping house for, Grandpa Isaac and his family.
The new information I refer to is the timing of losing his leg: only two months before his death. Still unclear is the underlying cause of his frequent hospitalization both in the military and later. This article speaks of “chronic heart trouble and a rare blood disease” (Leukemia? Diabetes? Some effect of poison gas?). From the muster records, we have mention of enteritis, bronchitis, and exhaustion. Also, Smith was 45 years old at his death, not 42. One also wonders who the “several visitors” were: Larsons? Nesseths? or Marine buddies?
Here is the probate notice for Smith, which Carmen found in the archives of the same newspaper.Carmen also sent copies of three of the postcards mentioned earlier. The story is becoming clearer, but more details still promise to emerge.
Saturday, September 26th, 2009
Smith’s official military records, which I received from the National Archive, contains less information than I hoped; in particular, less about his actions in Europe than the muster rolls revealed, and nothing to shed light on the sudden decline in his health while overseas. Things that it did contain include a record of his first enlistment in 1906.
And when “The World War” came around, it turns out that Smith was first denied reenlistment.
The appeal succeeded, as we know. With apologies to cousin Aline, who I’m sure used the best available sources, I am quite certain of this birth date of 22 April 1877, rather than the one in “Larsons and Slettens” (14 April 1876).
It also provides at least a piece of evidence (not too reliable) that Smith was actually living and farming in North Dakota prior to the war. Couple that with the statement in his obituary (even less reliable), that Smith “disposed of his farm” to reenlist, and one might look to the year 1918 for the transfer of that land to Isaac. However, Isaac had already built his house on Smith’s land prior to 1914.
Tuesday, September 29th, 2009
It seems that in the course of one four-day battle (perhaps more), Smith Larson went from a healthy, able-bodied Marine private, to a terminally ill veteran with an uncertain diagnosis, bouncing from one hospital to another for the 2-1/2 years until his death. Not “wounded,” though, and board-certified as “not disabled.” Hmmm. The unwritten thread running through all this is a piece of family lore asserting that Smith was a victim of poison gas. Could this be true, and suppressed in the military record? Could it even be that he was exposed to gas released by his own forces?? Just the thought of it compounds the irony of his failure to qualify for disability benefits (see below).
To summarize what we know about Smith’s medical history: From his birth on 22 April 1877, until 17 Sept. 1918 (following the WW1 Battle of St. Mihiel), no health information whatever has surfaced as of yet. That only proves how little we know. In his Marine records from 1906-1910, the full 4-year hitch, I found no medical notes other than a couple of “no sick days” at various posts. However, for the eleven months following Sept. 1918, we have a flurry of clues. First, revisiting a couple of the “muster rolls” posted earlier.
The one above shows that Smith was in combat for all four days of the St. Mihiel offensive, then on the next day “sick in hospital” for two days before transferring to Replacement Battalion on 18 Sept.
The entry below is different from most of the muster rolls, in that it details a period of several months, and seems to concentrate on medical events.
I’ll try to translate the abbreviations; accuracy not guaranteed: 16th Company: Field Hospital #16 jd (joined?) 9/17/18 from Command, Enteritis, transferred 9/19/18 to Base Hospital #45, Base Hospital #56 jd? 9/19/18 Bronchitis, Base Hospital #45 jd? 9/19/18 Enteritis acute, transferred 9/24/18 to HT? I was thinking HT might stand for something meaning an active unit, but “Abbreviations.com” lists “Hospital Treatment” and that also makes a lot of sense. But if that is so, it seems there would be more abbreviations about what hospital and where.
After a gap of about six weeks, we pick up the thread: Field Hospital #1 jd? 11/5/18 from Command, Exhaustion, transferred 11/5/18 to Field Hospital #16, Field Hospital #41 jd? 11/10/18 from Field Hospital #1, transferred 11/11/18, Base Hospital #59 transferred 12/14/18, sailed 7/19/19 on Kroonland, arrived 7/30/19.
If all, or even some, of those entries are hospitalization records, Smith apparently spent at least Nov. 5 to Dec. 14 staying or being transferred from hospital to hospital, and also the period of Sept. 17 to Sept. 24. The period from Sept. 24 to Nov. 5, ominously, is unaccounted for. Still unknown whether Smith was hunkered down sick somewhere, or in the thick of combat so intense that record-keeping may have broken down, in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne (the “Argonne Forest”).
There is one more hospitalization record, coming two days before Smith sailed for home. It appears on one of the muster rolls, and also on this little card.
The other document confirms that the “CH” stands for “Camp Hospital.”
Finally (well, actually dated five days earlier than above, but still the final insult), there is this finding of the disability board.
How ironic is that? All it mentions is hemerhoids (sic), -preexisting(!) Disability denied.
On a much lower standard of reliability, we have his obituary from the LaCrosse newspaper. It states that Smith suffered from “chronic heart trouble” and “a rare blood disease.” Not very informative. Also that his leg was amputated two weeks before his death. An interesting clue, however tragic.
Perhaps more important, the obit also says Smith was “in the hospital practically all the time since his discharge.”
Sunday, October 4th, 2009
Here is a little positive note to end on. It may well be considered “too little, too late,” after he was unjustly denied disability. Several months after he was discharged (for the second time), Smith received a Good Conduct medal.
Judging from this and other documents, the award seems to be pretty much automatic for any serviceman who served a full tour, then reenlisted at some point, as long as he committed no “offenses.” Just the same, it’s nice to find something other than sickness and hospitals in his record. I wonder if some cousin of ours still has the medal?