Thursday, April 06, 2017

Pvt. Rudy Sandahl's long road home

Rudolph Sandahl most likely looked about how you'd have expected the son of Swedish immigrant parents to look, considering stereotypes. His draft card, filled out on June 5, 1917, when he was 26, describes him as tall, of medium build, with blue eyes and blonde hair.

A coal miner by trade, as was his father, Mandus, Rudy  was employed by the Central Iowa Fuel Co. at Mine No. 1, a big operation that had it not vanished would have been embraced to the northwest by Highway 14 as it now curves down to cross Little White Breast Creek about two miles north and east of Chariton.

Both Mandus and his wife, Carra (Johnson) Sandahl, had settled in Lucas County with their parents soon after arrival from Sweden, Mandus in the mid-1870s and Carra, in the mid-1880s. They married here during 1889, but were living in Creston when Rudolph was born on March 3, 1891. The stay there was short, however, and the five Sandahl children, two boys and three girls, grew up in Chariton.

The young man still was living with his parents in 1917, at 1236 Brookdale Avenue, and would have boarded a train at the new Rock Island Depot first thing every morning for a trip to the mine, then reversed course during late afternoon.


Today, April 6,  marks the official entry a century ago of the United States into World War I with a declaration of war against Germany. The Selective Service Act followed on May 18 and by June most Lucas County men of eligible age had registered.

Rudolph's draft number came up for the first time five months later, on Oct. 18, 1917, when 25 men were needed to meet Lucas County's quota. Rather than going to work, he reported to the courthouse that morning, but his name was near the end of the list and so, that day, he was sent home. 

During January of 1918, however, the call was clear and certain and he boarded a train for Camp Dodge, rather than the mine, on the 8th.

Assigned to Battery C, 339th Field Artillery, 88th Division, Rudolph was sent on after training with his unit to Camp Mills --- on Long Island --- on April 12. He was transferred there to Company F, 139th Infantry, and on the 22nd of that month, set sail with his unit for France. The troops landed in France about May 18 and entered combat during late June.

Letters from "over there" began to trickle home, but ceased as autumn leaves began to fall and news of horrific fighting filled the newspapers.


The Sandahls were by no means the only Iowa family suspended somewhere between hope and despair that fall as autumn turned to winter and the fighting in France intensified.

Finally, on Nov. 30 --- after the war had ended --- a telegram arrived, as The Herald-Patriot reported in its edition of Dec. 5: "Mr. and Mrs. M. L. Sandahl received a message Saturday from the war department at Washington stating that their son, Rudolph Sandahl, had been missing in action since September 26th. It is thought that he might have been captured and it is hoped that when all the prisoners are reported that he will be heard from. He had not been heard from for some time and fears were entertained that he had met with some disaster."

What we now call the Meuse-Argonne Offensive or the Battle of the Argonne Forest had been launched on Sept. 26, but it is unlikely anyone in Chariton was fully aware yet of the horrors of that campaign that had ended the war --- or that 26,000 U.S. troops had been killed during it.

During late January, the Sandahls received a hopeful message, reported in The Leader of Feb. 6, 1919, under the headline, "Happiest People in Chariton:"

"Mr. and Mrs. M.L. Sandahl, of the city, are the happiest people in Chariton, so they tell the Leader. Their son, Rudolph E. Sandahl, who was with the army in France, was reported missing something over four months ago and during that time they suffered all manner of suspense, not knowing whether he was alive or had been captured, but last week they were made glad when they received a message from the war department that Rudolph had just reported for duty, but nothing further than that he was alright. It is probable he had been released from prison."

Despite this reassuring report, no word was received from Rudy himself and efforts to learn more proved futile.

Finally, on March 28, the Sandahls received a telegram announcing that their son, in fact, had died as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive commenced. A day or two later two letters arrived to add more detail. The texts of both were published in The Herald-Patriot of April 3:

Washington, D.C., March 28, 1919
Mrs. Carrie Sandahl,
1236 Brookdale Ave.,
Chariton, Iowa.

Dear Madam:

Confirming telegram of even date from the Adjutant General, I deeply regret to inform you that it is officially reported that Private Rudolph Elwood Sandahl, Company F, 139th Infantry, was killed in action between September 26th and 30th, 1918.

The report sent you stating that Private Sandahl was present for duty Jan 3d was erroneous, and I sincerely regret the additional grief caused by the conflicting reports received.

Deeply sympathizing with you in your loss, I am


P.C. Harris, The Adjutant General

The second letter was from William V. Meridith, chaplain to the 139th:

2nd Battalion, 139th Inf.
Amer. E.F. Feb. 12, 1919

Mrs. Carrie Sandahl
1236 Brookdale Ave.,
Chariton, Iowa

My Dear Madam:

A month or so ago one of the boys in the band handed me a letter relative to your son, Rudy Sandahl. I made what inquiries I could at that time, but was able to find nothing definite and told the boys so. On my leave I went up into the Argonne again and while there, of course, looked at the names on the different graves I passed. I found Rudy's up to the left of Exermont, a distance from the town of perhaps a quarter of a mile, possibly a little less. The grave has been registered by the Graves Registration, and you should have received notification of the fact that the boy was dead, instead of missing. Possibly that has reached you before this.

I cannot tell you how he was killed, but I can tell you how the other boys who are buried in the lot with him, men from his own company, were killed. I suppose that he was one of the party. About twelve of the company, instead of going through the town of Exermont, went around it to the left. As they climbed over a high bank just above the road, a German sniper in a clump of bushes opened fire on them. They dropped to the ground and began firing. Some Germans in the woods farther on saw them and also attacked. Fay, one of the men who was in the group, saw Williams and Hood killed, and dropped behind the bank again for protection. But two of the men got back.

I am sorry that I cannot give you more information. I know what your sorrow must be and how anxious you are to learn all that you can learn. The boys were not buried by chaplains from our division, for we were compelled to fall back and reform our lines to the other side of Exermont. In all probability you have already received some of his personal effects or soon will receive them. They are sent back by the burial officers and eventually come to you. We cannot send them back direct. The grave is on the high ground near the clump of bushes, rather small woods, near where he fell. About twenty men of our division and the first division are buried there together. The identification tag is on the wooden cross and the name plate is securely fastened. I tried to take a picture of the place, but it was snowing so hard that I am afraid I was unable to get anything on the negative.

If there is anything further that I could do for you, or any information that you think I might be able to give, I would be only too glad to be of what assistance I could to you. It might interest you to know that our battalion was the only battalion to get beyond Exermont and that your boy was one of those who did get beyond. He was one of the bravest of the brave, as evidenced by the fight that he and his companions put up, with everything against them, not only where they met their death, but throughout the five awful days and nights. It is the generals that get their names in the papers, but when I think of this war the hero in my eyes will always be the man who carried his pack on the many long night marches in the mud, who lived for weeks on iron rations, and who at last faced without tremor the most hideous things that the powers of evil could contrive. He deserves the praise and the glory.

Yours truly, William V. Meridith
Chaplain, 139 Inf.

Later on that spring, a letter containing a few more details arrived from the American Red Cross:

The grave of Private Sandahl was found on the Argonne battlefield, about 500 yards southwest of the western end of Exermont, France, along the edge of the first clump of woods. No one in the company saw this man killed, but as the grave was found at the same place as that of Private Geo. W. Hood, of the same company, it was presumed that he lost his life the same day and during the time his company was attacking Exermont. His grave was located near the place where fourteen men of the 2nd platoon of Company F, who had become separated from the remainder of the company, had fought with several machine gunners along the edge of a clump of woods about 50 yards northwest of Exermont. The graves of these men were the farthest advanced of any in the 35th Division, which shows that these men must have pushed their way forward further than any other troops in the Division.


As the months passed, the U.S. military began to retrieve the remains of its fallen from graves scattered across the French landscape and make arrangements for their final disposition. Loved ones were offered options --- reburial in one of the new American cemeteries located in France or repatriation to the United States for burial at home.

The parents of PFC George Wesley Hood, the Kansas boy with whom Rudolph had died, decided to allow his remains to be reburied in France; the cross marking his grave may be found in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.

The Sandahls, however, decided to bring Rudolph home to Chariton.

Contingents from Carl L. Caviness American Legion Post No. 102 and the United Mine Workers of America met his flag-draped casket at the C.B.&Q. Depot on the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 14, 1921, and escorted it to the family home, then located on West Roland Avenue.

The Legionnaires and the UMW contingent were in charge of formal funeral services at the home on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 15, with the Rev. E.A. McKim, of First Christian Church, as preacher, then accompanied the remains to the Chariton Cemetery for burial.

Rudy was buried on an east-facing slope toward the south end of a section of the cemetery located between its principal north-south driveway and Highway 14.

Some 30 years later, during August of 1948, the remains of brothers Beryl and Duane Clark, who gave up their lives during World War II and whose remains, like Rudolph's, would be repatriated from Europe for burial here, were buried some distance due north.

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