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At the forefront of U.S. history

    Fred Swanson died on Nov. 9, 1993 at the age of 98, two days before the 75th Armistice Day (now Veterans‘ Day, commemorating the end of the First World War). As the last World War I veteran in Stevens County, he remembered the first Armistice Day He fought in the battle of Meuse-Argonne, the largest American engagement of that war, with the highest U.S. casualty rate of any single battle (a young corporal named Harry Truman also fought there). Like many of those who were “over there,” he probably wondered what all the fuss was about. It was a bloody, frightening affair many survivors would have just as soon forgotten. Stevens County has the largest collection of WWI documents, posters, letters ribbons, draft cards and other various items in the state (including “Fred” a wax soldier in full uniform) thanks largely to the foresight of one woman: Ida Hancock. In 1921, then-governor J.A.A. Burnquist appointed her to chair the War Records Committee. Of her exhibit, the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote: “In awful silence of their pose, watchful, spirit-like which time and tragedy made sacred to the memory of the past.” The war began with the assassination of the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which led to a declaration of war against tiny Serbia, which led to Russia, looking not only to protect a fellow Slavic nation, but also to regain some prestige from her loss in the Russo-Japanese War, who declared against Austria, which led to her ally, Germany, declaring against Russia, which led to Germany also declaring against Russia’s ally, France, which led Germany to cross into neutral Belgium, in order to have a better position to attack her. A British declaration came on the heels of this violation. The speed the conflict spread shocked even the participants. It amounted to a geopolitical poker game where all bluffs were called (within a few months, the far flung nations of Turkey and Japan would join on opposing sides). After the German torpedoing of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, a British merchant ship which also carried Americans. Public opinion began turning against Germany The German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare along with the decoding of the Zimmerman telegram – a German attempt to bring Mexico into the war by promising to help her take back her “lost territories” from the United States -caused president Wilson ask for, and receive a declaration of war on April 4, 1917. Even for those years when the United States steadfastly declared her neutrality in the “European Madness,” Steven’s County had immediate involvement. Her grain and horses were shuffled off to both sides of the front. Fleeing Belgian refugees found themselves in the care of county farmers. All sides of the conflict had family in Stevens County and received letters from both sides of the trenches. This war had a profound effect on Stevens County long before active belligerence. In May of 1915, for example, Jake Rudnicki, a Morris cobbler, but who was born in Tamrow, Austria, learned that his sister and brother-in-law had vanished after a Russian attack on their town. In March of 1915, Carl Kruger of Morris received a letter from his stepson in Germany with stories of alcohol substituting for gasoline, of potato peelings being gathered from house to house for the purpose of distilling them, and of city parks being converted into fields for crops. JM Morrison, editor-in-chief of the Morris Tribune wrote, rather prophetically, in a May 14, 1915 editorial. “If Germany can murder American citizens just because they are passengers on a British merchant ship (The Lusitania), then surely Germany would be permitted to carry out the next threat of her tentative program and be permitted to torpedo-and torpedo without warning-neutral ships trading with her enemies. Permit that and the intercourse between nations would cease and the world would lapse into barbarism.” A mere week the after U.S. declaration, the city of Hancock already had a patriotic rally planned in support of the war effort. By the end of April 1917, 40 Stevens County boys had already enlisted in the Army and Navy. By October, the first troops had arrived in France. In order to save wheat for the war effort, “Liberty Bread” was made with alternate grains such as cornmeal and oatmeal. Casualties came early. By September, 1917, J.J. Devenny of Morris lost his cousin, R.R. Kennedy, in a training accident in Oklahoma. By the time of the November 11, 1918 Armistice, 22 Stevens County residents had given their lives. A “wild west” type of hysteria gripped Morris with the burning and shooting of a strung up “Kaiser” on Atlantic Avenue the night of the war ending. While Fred Swanson may have passed away in 1993, war veterans clung to life until this year, almost 94 years after the Armistice, with the death of Florence Green, who served as a waitress at a British compound in 1918, at the age of 110, a year after the death of the much-celebrated Frank Buckles, the last U.S. veteran. The last of the last of the last have departed. The First World War is truly a part of history now. In an interview in the Hancock Record of Nov. 19, 1982, Mr. Swanson recalled of his days in Camp Grant, Ill., “They trained us night and day for a few weeks before shipping us overseas.” And of his days on the front: “The smell of dead men and horses all about. It’s something you should forget but don’t.”

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