Nels T. Wold was a brave, young soldier, an American with Norwegian fighter's blood born in 1895.
It seems fitting during this month of July after celebrating our nation's independence that I would write about a person whose name is emblazoned on the front of Crookston's American Legion. Nels T. Wold was a brave, young soldier, an American with Norwegian fighter's blood born in 1895. Looking at portrait studio shots of this good looking young man born in Winger, Minnesota, Nels appears full of promise. He reminds me of my own maternal grandfather who was born around the same time in Sheyenne, North Dakota. The Tiedemond Wold family, who settled in a dominantly Norwegian area of Winger, Minnesota were originally from several valleys to the northeast of Telemark area, where my own Norwegian ancestors were from.
I was told on good authority that Valdres men were known to be excellent fighters in Norway. Later in WWII, the men (and women) from Telemark would also show how they handled being under Nazi captivity. Not well at all. The Norwegians as a rule are all about freedom and independence because for too long they were subordinate to the Danish and later under Swedish rule. In fact, some of the first to respond during the Civil War to the rallying cry in Minnesota were fresh-faced immigrants from Norway. I have read diary accounts from another distant Telemark relative who lived in the Alexandria, Minnesota area who actually survived the prison camps of Andersonville, near Atlanta, Georgia. My point is that the perfect storm was created in Nels T. Wold's short life to make him a worthy recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor that was accepted posthumously by his older sister in 1919. There are only three Minnesota soldiers who have been distinguished and recognized for their valor in battle. Nels T. Wold is one of Polk County's own.
You see, by the time Nels was 17, he was an orphan along with his other siblings. Nels was born on Christmas Eve in 1895 to Klara (Tharaldsrud) Wold and his father's name was Tidemand (variety of spellings for that name). His father, besides being a farmer, was a blacksmith and owned a boarding house in Winger, to the southeast of Fertile, Minn. Sadly, Tidemand's wife Klara died in childbirth with their 12th child, or so I have read in a June 2013 McIntosh Times newspaper, Vol. 124, No. 48. This is the part I'm not sure about after looking at the census for 1895 and 1905. When I research people from so many years ago, I feel like I am dealing with a huge jigsaw puzzle. The outside, straight edged pieces are the facts I discover first from birth or death certificates or from the census records that have been digitized. Later the inside pieces to the puzzle get murkier and harder to find, just as foggy and confusing as the day when Nels died in battle in Cheppy, France on Sept. 26 in 1918.
For some inexplicable reason I wanted to be sure I had the correct names for Nels' siblings and in exact birth order. Was he number eight in the Wold household? After 118 years have transpired, it should not matter, right? Even though Nels came from a big family, I believe it mattered to his sisters and brothers who had already suffered enough loss with their parents' deaths in 1902 and 1912. Again I saw such variants of these Norwegian sounding names that I suspect Nels' siblings wanted to have more Anglicized names the older they got. Nels' oldest sister was named Nicoline T. (1884), Erik T. (1886), sister Ingvald I. (1887), Alma T. (1888), Tidemon F. (1891), Ingeborg F. (Inga) (1892), Tonetta F. (1894), Nels T. (1895), Josephine (1897), Paul Olander (Ole) (1898). If only I could find the census for 1915, it would reveal who the other two or three younger siblings were after Ole.
As it is, I know from Kathy, a high school classmate of mine, that Nels T. Wold was her Great Uncle and Ole was her maternal grandfather. Kathy and her husband recently visited the Canal Walk in Indianapolis, Indiana where a beautiful, huge monument was erected by the U.S. House and Senate to honor all the Congressional Medal of Honor holders. She saw her great uncle's name Nels T. Wold with the following Citation: "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 5th 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 my friend's photos, Nels T. Wold's name plate was two over from Corporal Alvin C. York who was later portrayed by Gary Cooper in a 1941 movie titled "Sargeant York." Why did the pacifist York live after his heroic feat during the battles in France while Wold did not? This cannot be explained in this life especially the fact that Nels gave up his life just weeks before Germany's surrender. There has to be a back story to this sacrifice which is what compelled me to find out more from what I read in the digitized version written by WWI military historian Clair Kenamore. He actually wrote a separate chapter on Nels T. Wold titled "Nels Wold's Glorious Death." I'm still trying to understand the composition of that battle Nels fought after he had been on the ground in France for five months. Reading Kenamore's account, I learned a lot about trench warfare, hand grenades, bayonets, foxholes, and rations. The American soldiers entered late in the war, the British, French and other allies had been fighting for their lives for three years already.
The American boys were aghast that in the countryside only French women (not men) were doing the work of farmers from seeding to harvesting. The women had been forced to take over virtually all the farm work while their men were at war or dead already. The men in Nels T. Wold's regiment also couldn't comprehend the British need for tea for breakfast. If you want to read more about the different battles fought by the 35th Division of the U.S. Army, Google Clair Kenamore's book titled "From Vauquois Hill to Exermont." I'm thankful for the Internet and the discoveries I have made with digital versions of e-books or other scanned documents to help me put this story together.
While settling into the rhythms of fighting in France, I read elsewhere what Nels wrote to his sister Inga who was married to Gus Gilbertson living in Finley, North Dakota. Nels wrote in a light and airy way hoping to allay any fears his relatives back home might have of his being too brave in the fight, "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." He did not go into detail that he would actually be positioned 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.
I read elsewhere that an American commanding officer referred to Nels as the "Big Swede." Perhaps others who know nothing about Scandinavia could not tell the difference between a Swede and a Norwegian. To an American born Norwegian who wanted to visit Norway one day, the land of his ancestors, that would have been considered a slam. From that description alone, I am sure that Nels did grow up to be muscular with years of farm chores, chopping wood and handling heavy iron at his father's blacksmith shop. However, from the portrait shots that I have seen of him, it is difficult to tell if he was tall in stature or not. One thing I might surmise from the several photographs is that even though Nels was from a big family, they were not poor.
Usually the first settlers who came to a Midwest community similar to Winger, had enough tenacity and wherewithal to do well financially if they were smart and industrious. I'm sure all the Wold children worked hard to maintain their family farm because that is what the census lists as Tiedemond Wold's occupation…farmer. Yet the early settlers were forced to be a jack of all trades. Nels' Norwegian father was born in May 1853 in South Aurdal, Valdres and immigrated to the U.S. in 1883. He married Klara Tharaldsrud in 1884, so I can gather that Nels' parents came over the Atlantic on the boat together with other relatives and made their home in Winger. They were to be married only 18 years before Klara died in childbirth in 1902.
Tiedemand with so many children from his first marriage to take care of at that time remarried an Osse (Aase) Lee in 1906. They had at least one daughter Karen Wold (Hanson) who was born in 1908, maybe other children as well. My classmate Kathy had met Karen Hanson while getting some photos of Nels T. Wold. Kathy now laments that she did not ask more questions about her Wold family history. From what I gathered, Nels loved his new mother Aase after she had stepped into an already close knit family. I do understand my friend Kathy, since I also share in the same remorse about missed opportunities of talking to older relatives or not asking enough questions while they were still alive.
Yet there may be some older family members, for whatever reasons, who do not want to talk about their past (especially war vets) or reveal a history where secrets are best left in the dark. There may be some black sheep in the family that dishonored the family name with alcoholism, bigamy, incest, rape, murder, horse theft or bank robberies. But for me, the challenge of finding the missing puzzle pieces makes it all the more intriguing. As far as I know on my dad's side of the family there exists some unexplored areas. All I have heard is that my Danish great grandpa suffered from alcoholism while the rest of the family languished as a result.
In the case of the Wold family there may have been a dark truth to keep quiet, a tragedy that besmirched the Wold family name. This may have led to deeper sorrow for 22 year old Nels and perhaps why he was ready to die and go to glory.
What I was trying to find out was who else traveled from Norway on the vessel across the Atlantic Ocean which took 5-6 weeks to cross in the 1880s. Was Erik Wold, who owned a general store in Winger in 1878 and 1879, the father to four sons all born in Valdres, Norway? The oldest being Nels T's dad Tideman, (1853) Herman (1861), Eric E. (1862) and Magnus (1868)? The reason I kept asking this question was because of the Crookston Times newspaper article headlines that I found in 1904 and 1905. Granted the headlines even back in those times may have been overly sensationalized in order to sell papers. However, I have reason to believe there were some very sad things that happened in Nels T. Wold's family that created the perfect storm for Nels to want to be victorious in battle and bring honor back to the Wold family name again.
To be continued next week.