His life was a mixture of sorrow and heroism.
After looking over translated letters from Orphie Vraa (daughter of Alma Wold, Nels T. Wold’s older sister), I discovered the Norwegian word for Vold (Wold) means “violence” in English. Usually Norwegians who arrived to the New World took their father’s name or the name of the family farm they left behind in Norway. In this case there was a place in Norway that Nels’ father Tidemand had left behind by the name of Vold. Reading through the translated letters from Erik and Nicoline Wold, the Norwegian grandparents to Nels T. Wold, I discerned they were very devout Christians. They prayed for their children’s safety and wrote letters constantly until they died in 1887 and 1888 respectively. These early letters helped in my quest to find out more on the back story to Nels T. Wold, a 22 year old man full of promise who gave up his life for the noble cause of freedom.
No one wakes up one fine morning with the resolve to be the recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. I find it hard to believe that any soldier would willingly go into battle to sacrifice his life just to get the glory. Usually it is only the mourning soldier’s family who would “enjoy” this distinction. I can’t be sure because I am so far removed from anything military, but I think soldiers ready themselves for the ensuing battle with the singular idea of surviving, yet knowing the risks. Nels T. Wold woke up to become a hero on the foggy morning of September 26, 1918, the first full day of the Allies’ furious push to the end the war of all world wars.
According to the 1919 book by Clair Kenamore titled From Vauquois Hill to Exermont: A History of the 35th Division of the U.S. Army, the thick fog messed up everyone. They “lost their sense of direction. [There were] no radios yet and runners got lost, and the American troops got ahead of machine gun units doing damage to the Yanks…” I read a more recent account from a June 2013 McIntosh Times, the following about Nels’ exploits: “With the fog lifted and deep behind adversary lines, Nels’ new mission was to destroy enemy positions. The team located a German machine gun nest in a clump of bushes and deemed too dangerous to attack head-on. Wold volunteered to and received permission to crawl to the position and investigate. The rest of his group took cover while Nels crept to the rear of the emplacement and killed two occupants and captured three. Private Nels Wold’s combat group advanced on clearing ambuscades, sniper posts and gun emplacements…Nels’ success ran out when he met his demise by machine gun fire while penetrating a camouflage screen which concealed the fifth location.”
Nels T. Wold is important to the proud people of Polk County almost one hundred years later. A monument dedicated in 1999 was set up by the U.S. Congress in Indianapolis explains it best. “To recognize the singular importance of the Medal of Honor, Congress has established the Pyramid of Honor. It sets out in increasing rank of importance, the medals awarded for combat service. The Pyramid order begins with the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Air Force Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross. At the pinnacle of the Pyramid is the Medal of Honor, the greatest tribute for individual acts of valor and self-sacrifice.”
I read somewhere that the famed General Pershing had named Nels T. Wold as being among America’s 100 bravest soldiers. A year later in July of 1919, Major General Leonard Wood, representing President Theodore Roosevelt, presented Wold’s Congressional Medal of Honor to Nels’ oldest sibling Nicoline, Mrs. G.R. Dale, during a homecoming celebration for all war vets in Winger. Three years after his death, Nels T. Wold’s remains were removed from his grave in France and placed at Elim Cemetery in Winger.
Another part of the sad narrative, before Nels T. Wold’s glorious end, is signaled in some Crookston Times headlines. While doing keyword searches with the name “Wold” in order to discover any other news articles about Nels, I came upon a shocking headline dated January 21, 1904: “Herman Wold charged with rape of own daughter.” Now THAT kind of banner headline will surely sell papers to the curious or others who love gossip. Imagine the young paperboys running up and down the streets of Crookston calling out this salacious story from Winger, Minnesota. The next headline that showed up was June 11, 1904 “McIntosh Man, Wold, Indicted for Statutory Rape” and from June 25, 1904 reads with even more intrigue: “Wold defense says he is victim of conspiracy.” His fellow Telemark countryman and county attorney Halvor Steenerson represented Herman Wold in the Polk County Courthouse. However, to no avail because the judgment was proclaimed in the July 2, 1904 headline which read, “Wold receives four years hard labor sentence.”
I had to check this out for myself (along with other research questions I had) at the archives at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. I opened up a very heavy, thick book written in different scrawls the court proceedings for each day at Crookston’s county courthouse. It was written in black ink: June 28, 1904, 1:00 p.m. State of Minnesota vs. Herman Wold. After the requisite heading: “Herman Wold having been found guilty of the crime of carnally knowing and abusing a female child under the age of 16 years on June 18, 1904, appeared in the court to receive sentence…you, Herman Wold, have been found guilty, you will be confined in the State Prison at Stillwater for a period of four years at hard labor.” The next and last sentence seemed strange in the context of the whole case because he had been listed as postmaster in Winger elsewhere. “Herman Wold had testified that he had been farming since 1883.” That was the precise year when Nels T. Wold’s father, Tidemand at age 30, had arrived to the U.S. with his younger sister, Inger who was 17 years old and brother Ole Andres who was 15 years. They had taken the ship “Angelo” from Olso, Norway on May 18, 1883 with tickets for Portland, Maine. Within a month they would have found themselves in Minnesota.
After looking thoroughly through the family tree of Nels T. Wold’s father, I realized this is getting complicated and even far afield from the Nels T. Wold story. I did not find Herman as Tidemand’s sibling, so he was not an uncle to Nels like I first thought. However, Herman shared the Wold family name. The Norwegians have a penchant for recycling their first names over and over again (my own Telemark relatives named many boys Sveinnung). Herman was younger than Tidemand and supposedly ended up in Winger the same year of 1883. Are you still with me? Family trees can get complex especially when trying to figure out someone else’s. Tidemand’s father Erik had a first marriage and his family or last name used to be Kjensrud. At some point the family name was changed from Kjensrud to Wold (after the family farm). I learned there was a Herman Kjensrud born in 1871 instead of the Herman Wold I was looking for who was born in 1861. That Herman was listed as an educator.
I read in a Winger book an old newspaper article recounting about the Class of 1885 learning English and Herman Wold was their teacher. That means that young Herman who had arrived from Norway to Winger two years before arrived with a good command of English. Herman had emigrated from Norway to the U.S. in 1877, afterall. Here’s the quote: “Most of them [students] were grown up and it is easy to understand that it was necessary to hire a teacher that could enforce respect. And so Herman Wold was engaged as the teacher and a term of two months was begun. The teacher’s wages was set at $20.00 per month on his own board…” Herman was also the early postmaster and the P.O. shows up on the north end of his property in the 1902 plat map. No one in the Wold family seems to know about this yet I found it shows up in the Crookston Times newspaper and the 1904 court records in St. Paul. If I were to read the actual newspaper account, I might be able to figure out what happened in Winger and McIntosh politics.
Looking closer at a 1902 plat map of Winger, I found that Nels T. Wold’s father Tidemand Wold had acreage east of the town of Winger. Herman Wold owned property in Winger Township 147 North, Range 42. Looking over a 1915 plat map of Winger, I saw that the land was still in Tidemand’s name even though he had died in 1912 (perhaps farmed by his son Eric). What I found most interesting was that Herman Wold’s adjoining land, half of his 160 acres went to his lawyer Halvor Steenerson, the one who represented him in 1904 while Soren Christenson owned the other 80 acres. It would seem that the younger members of the Wold family were shielded from knowing that Herman was involved in this crisis. Talking to Orphie Vraa, who graciously let me look at the voluminous Wold family geneology book. Orphie remembers her mother Alma talking about Herman Wold. The Wold mystery deepens but perhaps created the “perfect storm” for Nels T. Wold.
From the 1895 census records I looked at, Herman’s wife’s name was listed as Sonnera B (Synneva E. Selland). She was born June 3, 1870, so she was nine years younger than Herman. They were married January 25, 1888 in Polk County and their first born child was Gina Wold who was born in 1888. Gina would have been 16 years old by the time of this case in 1904. So then it was maybe Julia E. Wold who was born in 1890 who was allegedly raped in 1904 being only 14 years old at the time. I found there was a third child too. I saw a listing that showed the Herman Wold girls went to the same school as Nels’ brothers and sisters and Julia was five years older than him. I have looked to no avail for any more information about what happened to Herman Wold once he was released from the Stillwater prison in 1908.
I learned from Ancestry.com that Synneva divorced Herman in 1905 and ended up in Grafton, North Dakota to marry Martin H. Moen and they moved with her three children and their own child to farm in the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan area.
Young Nels T. Wold, who at the tender age of nine years old, may have been sensitive to the suspicion surrounding his relative who ended up at the state prison in 1904. If Herman Wold men was related to Nels T’s God-fearing family, it did put the Wold family name and reputation at peril. I noticed that Herman did not participate in church events like Nels T. Wold’s family did. Imagine the whispers among Nels’ classmates at his country school or the gossip around Winger among the adults. Thankfully Nels’ Uncle Eric, who I did find in the family tree along with his father Tidemand, can be found on the roster in the same Elim cemetery plot in Winger as Nels was buried in. As near as I can tell, Uncle Eric died a Norwegian bachelor farmer. No doubt there was hard work to carry on at the Winger blacksmith shop, store or farm place despite what the others were doing or saying.
Fast forward to after Nels graduated with only an 8th grade education and ten years after Herman Wold had gotten out of prison. (Orphie told me that her mother Alma only had a 3rd grade education. She had to take care of the younger siblings when their mother passed away in 1902.) In any case, by March of 1918, Nels was eagerly anticipating entering the war to go overseas. Some young boys even lied about their age to get to go over to the front, perhaps also to get out from the burden of farm chores. Nels was of the right age to do battle, he was physically fit and of marriage material. He probably looked forward to being trained to shoot the 20 pound Chaucat machine gun, the first automatic weapon carried by one soldier. It was French in design but used by the American troops in the last year of the war. Nels would have been used to his own steady rifle to hunt for meat for the family table; he probably had a good eye to ferret out the game that lived in the woods.
Just as review, Nels had already taken many emotional blows within his family by 1917. His mother died in 1902, in 1904 his neighbor-relative Herman Wold (and his family) had been whisked away, his sister Josephine died in 1906, and Nels’ dad died in 1912. Perhaps there was a romantic love lost but Nels may have been too busy trying to help around the farm to have young love interests. However, I did read by March of 1918 when he lived in McIntosh, Nels would go to dances until dawn. He had told others that he had tried to enlist in the Medical Corps. Supposedly the McIntosh newspaper account I read indicates that Nels moved to Minnewaukan, North Dakota to work there as a farm laborer and perhaps to be close to other Norwegian relatives. The romantic in me would like to think there was a young, Norske girl in the Dakota area that Nels was interested in. However, his stay in North Dakota was short-lived, he was called up for duty on April 12, 1918 and reported in to Crookston and was sent off to France by May. Was there a young girl who promised to write letters to Nels while he was in France, besides his sisters and stepmother in Winger or McIntosh area?
I don’t know of any person who looks forward to carrying heavy equipment weighing 60 pounds, mostly machine gun ammunition and walking long miles under a summer sun. Once on French soil, that is what these young recruits were expected to do. This kind of strength training was a feature of war that probably helped them carry off the wounded in the thick of battle. When Nels’ army comrades realized that the invincible fighter had been downed by German machine guns, two men carried Nels one mile to a safe place to die. Nels’ body would later be taken by the burial squad to be buried near Cheppy, France. One man was from Rutland, North Dakota. Chris Antonson (his July 26, 1920 letter can be read behind the glass display case at the American Legion) wrote out the last words Nels supposedly said as he lay dying, “Pray for me boys, and write my folks and tell them I love them all.”
The other man who carried Nels’ wounded body was Corporal Julius Vonderlieth. On November 1, 1918 Vonderlieth was tasked to write Nels’ family about his death. Thanks to scanning and living in a digitized world, I was able to read the beautiful letter addressed to Wold’s stepmother, Aase Lee Wold. Keep in mind that Nels T. Wold died on Sept. 26, 1918, just a few weeks before the war ended. Nels was only 22. I am not sure when his immediate family back in Winger had been officially notified but I also saw the letter that Nels’ sister, Mrs. Gilbertson in Finley, ND had sent to Nels in France dated Oct. 4, 1918. It was returned with “Deceased” stamped on the envelope. We take for granted communication which is so instantaneous now but back 100 years ago, it took weeks, if not up to a month or more for people to find out if their loved ones were dead or captured.
Corporal Julius Vonderlieth wrote “somewhere in France” the following: “My dear Mrs. Wold, I am sure the death of your dear son Nels was a shock to you all. I am sure you must feel very badly. However, you are not alone for all his pals in the Army miss him and feel the loss of a friend and true comrade. 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 this hour of your sorrow I send you my sympathy and a wish that your future days may be bright and happy ones.” Very sincerely J.E. Vonderlieth
Yes, our days have been bright and happy ones because of soldiers like Nels’ sacrifice on bloodied battlegrounds in France. The French are still deeply indebted to the Americans and doubly so for the sacrifices of human life made yet again during WWII. Next time you are inside Crookston’s American Legion, go to the display case showing Nels T. Wold portrait and reflect on the Norwegian Bible published in Minneapolis by Augsburg publishing house. That small now yellowed book was in Nels’ personal effects but God’s promises were deeply embedded in his heart. Perhaps on his mind that Sept. 26, 1918 morning Nels woke up singing to himself the old Martin Luther tune “Onward Christian Soldiers” or perhaps a Norwegian fight song. We will never know on this side of glory. Also, note the 1920 typewritten letter written by his Norwegian comrade Chris Antonson. His memory was a little fuzzy about who Julius Vonderlieth was (he wrote Vanderbilt), the other comrade who carried Nels one mile away from the final battle that brought him down.
Nels T. Wold’s acts of heroism were read to every army unit overseas to embolden the troops the final weeks leading to the end of WWI. I believe Nels’ “superlative deeds of daring, for gallantry beyond the call of duty, and such a merit as to demand a conspicuous and special fame” should be read occasionally now in every classroom so boys and girls can know what true heroes were like.