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Cherished letters full of hope, pain

In just four months, Dick Bakker went from managing a grain elevator in Renville, Minnesota, to deadly combat in the Argonne Forest. He wrote 32 descriptive and gut-wrenching letters home during his tour of duty. The letters provide a unique insight into life in the training camps and along the train routes as America rushed troops and equipment to the Western Front. His story includes heart-breaking letters from Dick’s mother, as the Bakker family struggled to cope with the tragedy of war.

Educated to the eighth-grade in a one-room country schoolhouse, blond and blue-eyed Dick, the second son of Walter and Grace Bakker, was engaged to be married to his sweetheart, Tetje Sietsema, a local farm girl he had met at Sunday school. But the throes of war would find their way into the Bakker family’s life. On May 28, 1918, Dick was ordered to report to the National Guard armory in Olivia, along with 68 other young men from the county. That night, the recruits were honored with a reception in the armory auditorium. After the ceremonies and a movie, a formal dinner was served while the auditorium hall was cleared for a dance. In the early morning, a 14-coach troop train steamed out of the Olivia depot headed for Camp Lewis, Washington, carrying more than 750 young men from six local Minnesota counties.

Dick Bakker, of Renville, entered the Army in the spring of 1918. His family was notified that he had been killed in action at the end of the year. Contributed photo

Camp Lewis was a beehive of activity. While the troops trained in close-order drills on the parade grounds, the sounds of Springfield rifles and machine guns could be heard on the firing range. Horse-drawn field artillery trained in columns. The art of trench warfare was taught in the outlying areas. There was a bunker used as a gas chamber to train the troops in the appliance of their gas masks. Amongst these sounds of war, a marching band on the parade grounds aroused the troops with inspirational songs of the era.

On June 19, less than three weeks after he had arrived at Camp Lewis, Dick Bakker departed on a 16-coach train carrying 500 troops headed for Camp Kearny near San Diego, California, now known as Marine Base Miramar. In the summer of 1918, the 14th “Sunshine” Division trained at the camp. After a month on the rifle range, Dick departed for the East Coast as a member of the 18h Infantry Brigade. The brigade arrived at Camp Mills, New York, after a six-day train ride. Their stay at Camp Mills was brief while they were inspected and equipped for overseas duty. After four days, the 80th left port for overseas duty aboard a convoy of 12 ships escorted by a U. S. cruiser and U. S. destroyer. The troops arrived in central France at the end of August, where Dick Bakker would spend the next three weeks in the small town of Grossouvre. Dick was now a member of the American Expeditionary Forces—the United States Armed Forces fighting in Europe.

Dick Bakker of Renville was engaged to Tetje Sietsema when he was killed in action. Contributed photo.

On Sept. 20, Dick was transferred to the 77th Division where he was assigned to Company E of the 308th Infantry. Hunkered down in the rain-soaked, forested area around La Croix Gentin, two miles behind the jump-off trenches, Dick penciled a message to the folks at home, “I am near the front now and I expect to go within a few days. That may not sound very good to you but I have no fears and am ready to meet death at any time, but I expect to be back. Well if I don’t write for a while after this letter you know where I am and I sure won’t have any time or chance as you know that but I will write more if I can. As ever, your Son and Bro, Dick W. Bakker.” The letter would not reach the farm near Renville until late November, a few weeks after the Armistice was signed. Mother Grace would hold it close in the years to come.

As a member of the 308th Infantry, Dick saw combat in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. He was brutally slain on the morning of Oct. 3, 1918, on Hill 198 as part of a patrol led by 1st Lt. Karl Wilhelm. The patrol was attempting to re-establish contact with the main Expeditionary Forces under orders from Major Charles Whittlesey, 308th Infantry commander. The previous day, the 308th had advanced ahead of the main forces and was cut off by the Germans in the Charlevaux Ravine. The unit would later become known as the Lost Battalion. That morning, the patrol was ambushed by a nest of German machine gunners. Only 18 survived from the 50 that went out.

For the Bakker family, the Armistice must have been a bittersweet event. At this time, the Bakkers had not received Dick’s last two letters revealing that he had gone to the front and was in combat. While the town and the rest of the world celebrated, the Bakkers were among those who waited for the confirmation that their son was safe. After an unbearable month, the message from the war department was delivered on Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. in the harsh cold of the Minnesota winter. It came in the form of a Western Union telegram at the town bank terminal. The bank operator telephoned the Bakker family. Fifteen-year-old Josie answered the phone, which she handed to her father. Josie never forgot the gut-wrenching feeling when she realized the significance of the call. In later years, Josie remembered that her mother went outside into the cold Minnesota winter and wailed upon receiving the fateful news.

Dick was initially buried in Grave Number 9 in Temporary Cemetery #745 at the bottom of the ravine with the other men from the ambushed patrol. The recorded date of this first burial was Oct. 11, 1918. He was wrapped in a burlap blanket and buried in his uniform in a wooden box. The sole means of recognition were his army identification tags. A cross was planted to mark the grave. Embalming was not administered, leaving the body to decompose rapidly.

Dick’s final resting place at a American military cemetery in France. Contributed photos.

On March 26, 1919, Dick’s body was disinterred and reburied in Grave #13, Section 5, Plot 1, in Meuse Argonne Cemetery #1232. The condition of the body upon disinterment was reported as: “Burial good. Buried in blanket. Body slightly decomposed.” Identification tags were found on the body. No other means of identification were found. A cross was placed on the grave that showed the grave number 13 and identified the body as Dick W. Bakker, PVT, U.S.A.

Early in 1921, the War Department contacted the Bakker family by letter to offer them the option to bring Dick’s remains back to Minnesota. The family declined. No explanation was provided as to the reason for this decision. One can only speculate that the thought of bringing home decomposed, unidentifiable remains after three years of waiting was just too repugnant for the family to endure. Almost one year later, March 9, 1922, Dick Bakker’s remains were again disinterred and reburied in Grave 5, Row 16, Block B, in the Meuse-Argonne American cemetery in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France. The Meuse-Argonne American cemetery is currently maintained by the American Battle Monuments Committee, and it is among the most beautiful and meticulously maintained cemeteries in the world. Dick’s final burial records state that the body was badly decomposed, skull shattered, features unrecognizable – a sad fate thrust upon a brave soldier by a terrible war. May he never be forgotten.

To read more about Bakker and his experience in WWI, check out Kent Decker’s book “The Journey, An American Soldier in WWI.” More information on the book is printed in the ad below.

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