April 13th……..“SAY, GRANDPA, DID YOU EVER KNOW AN AMERICAN SOLDIER FROM WORLD WAR ONE? WHAT DID HE DO DURING THE GREAT WAR”?
A loud succession of domino-like, “clankety-clang” sounds emanated from the iron couplers on the long line of Pullman Coach railroad cars. They, in turn, were being obedient to the massive, steam-engine locomotives that yanked them forward from the loading platform at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Beautiful and 17 years young, Lizzie, accompanied by her future mother-in-law, were fervently giving hugs and their “God Bless You” to tall, lanky, blue-eyed John P. Madsen. That late summer day of 1917 was a momentous event for this young patriot with Danish blood in his veins. While Lizzie and Mrs. Madsen honored John, even John’s hometown of Ringsted, Iowa honored her ancestral elders by holding forth the same title of recognition from their original town in Denmark by the same name. Obviously, many a good Dane had come to America to help farm the fecund black soils of that handsome new land they all called home. A good man who loved life and his nation, young John had answered the call to serve “Uncle Sam” in any way possible during that current global conflict known today as World War I (One). Rather than carry a rifle, though, John and up to 28,000 others would carry a different tool of war to defeat Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm and the German Army.
With a piercing screech of the steam whistle from that “Iron Horse” locomotive, John, heeding his sergeant’s growl, blew a kiss to his mother and fiancé as he hopped aboard that west-bound troop train. With his duffel bag stowed nearby, John gingerly made his way down the pulsating aisle of their Pullman Coach car and managed to snuggle his long legs, the best he could, into a window seat to take in the view of his first time adventure going west. A journey of this length was going to encompass at least three days, or more, so it was best to make the best of it and relax. The never-ending expanses of prairie land passing by, coupled with the consistent “clickety-clack, clickety-clack” of the railroad tracks beneath him, caused John’s eyelids to become heavier and heavier until he crossed the threshold to dreamland with his Army-issued campaign hat pulled down over his face.
After crossing the mighty Rocky Mountains, John Madsen’s eyes were still like wide saucers in sheer awe of the immense majesty of those mountain peaks that scratched the very skies above them and tickled the bellies of the clouds that dared to drift too low to earth.
Cruising now, down the windward slopes of the Rockies, the rugged terrain slipping by the train soon turned into the marvel of a conjuncture with the powerful Columbia River of Washington State. Peering from his window seat, our young Army Private could’ve spit right into that roiling river; they were that close as the iron rails before them bent and curved round each bend of that impressive river whose waters were heading west, also.
The multiple day journey of John’s troop train made the young Danish-American that much more lonely for his darling mother and his bride-to-be that he had left on that railroad platform at Fort Snelling. That tender-hearted young soldier couldn’t wait to be billeted upon arrival at Vancouver Barracks near Fort Vancouver, Washington so he could get off his first of many letters back home.
By this time, in his rail journey, the handsome Columbia River, that divided the states of Oregon and Washington, had become like a friend to John and his fellow “doughboys”. Even the train, itself, seemed to be struck by the awe of what they saw next as the revolutions per minute of the steam engine’s wheels began to slow as they arrived onto the scene of the largest spruce wood sawmill in the world.
Within sight of this immense sawmill campus were the sparkling blue waters of that same Columbia River that John had enjoyed from his train window. The winking waves of the river, flowing past towards the Pacific Ocean, seemed to say, “Well, “doughboy”, you’ve got your work cut out for you now”!!
The elegantly attired Army Colonel Brice P. Disque convened an assembly of these robust young Americans to share with them what their weapons of valor would be as they employed them to defeat the Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm and his German Army. Holding a large trumpet-like megaphone, and in a booming voice, the Colonel exclaimed, “Men, your weapons, in this Great War, will not be rifles, but saws, sledgehammers, axes, and the like”!!!! “Engineers have found that Sitka Spruce, which fills the hills of these Pacific Northwest forests, is ideal for building not only our American military aircraft, but also for our allies of Britain, France and Italy”!!!
From that day on, John, and his fellow Army pals became loggers, truck drivers, mill workers, etc. and were affectionately called, “The Straight-Grained Soldiers”.
Sitka Spruce was known for its being a light wood, straight in its grain (which made it very strong) and, its ability to not splinter when struck by bullets. From this resilient wood source were made our American Curtiss “Jenny” aircraft, the British Sopwith Camel fighter aircraft, the French Spad fighter aircraft and others. Under the leadership of Colonel Disque, The Spruce Production Division exceeded their production goals and produced 143 million board feet of spruce for airplane manufacturing.
All work and no play made for pretty dull “doughboys” while working in the military employ of “Uncle Sam”. A tent-city sprang up around the Spruce Mill and some of those tents were used for feeding the hungry mouths of thousands of young men who gave their all in the forests and wood mill each day. Baseball teams were organized for fun during off-duty hours and even musical gatherings became a fun way to while away the evening hours or off-duty times. The Headquarters Office for Colonel Disque and staff were located across the Columbia River in Portland, Oregon with logging and mill sites scattered throughout Oregon and Washington.
The day after the Armistice was signed, on November 11th, 1918, all wood mill production ceased and young John Madsen was among the thousands of young “straight-grained soldiers” that were soon heading home. Marriage ensued for John and Lizzie with a family of five children blessing their lives. The Madsens lost their little son, Walter, at the young age of four years in 1928 and then John lost his beloved Lizzie who was taken in death in 1946. Fast forward to the late 1940’s and early 1950’s when John, via our family friend, Harry Bauman, came to work on our Noorlun farm as a hired hand for our daddy, Russell. Those tender, Danish blue eyes of his were now weakened with age and John had to wear super-thick “coke bottle bottom” glasses to make his way around in daily life. Yet, those long, lanky legs, that had carried him around the Spruce Mill, in his Army days, still made him a giant in our lives. And you know, his being a giant wasn’t merely from his physical height……….it was his ever grateful, ever inspiring and ever positive view of relishing each day of life God gave him (from 1892 until 1978) that touched the life and soul of this Norwegian Farmer’s Son.