In December of 1917, George M. Cohan’s little ditty, “Over There,” was sold to a New York publisher for $25,000. Representing a payment of $161 a word or $138 a note, it became the highest payment per word for any composition up to that time.
This leaped significantly ahead of a $2-per-word payment for an article written by Theodore Roosevelt, its next closest rival. And compared to a complete Puccini opera of that era, “Over There” topped it by a whopping $10,000.
The song promised that with drums rum-tumming, the Yanks were coming, and they wouldn’t come home until it’s over, over there. This came to symbolize America’s commitment to the war and the patriotic fever of the American soldier.
By the middle of January of 1918, the North Dakota boys were over there. Companies of the 1st and 2nd North Dakota regiments, splintered and scattered, were quickly sent as replacements for the weary, battle-depleted troops who arrived with Gen Pershing back in July of 1917. It was only a matter of time before the causality lists came back with familiar names from North Dakota.
Private Louis Ousley was from Wilton. With his brother Lawrence, he had joined Company A of the Second Regiment, originally stationed to protect the railroad bridge at Camp Frazier in Bismarck before shipping off to France. While it was true that other soldiers from North Dakota had died with the Canadian forces or from disease, it was on this date in 1918 that Louis Oulsey became the first soldier from North Dakota regiments to be killed in action.
Ousley was with a small detachment in an advanced positon in “No Man’s Land,” a killing zone situated between the trenches of the battling forces, when they came under heavy machine gun and artillery fire. As they retreated, the lieutenant leading the squad was severely wounded. Ousley tossed his weapon to another solider and, oblivious to the rifle and machine gun fire, he raced back and hoisted the officer on his shoulder. Stumbling through the mud and debris, he picked his way through the shell craters. As he neared the safety of the American trenches, he was hit with a burst of shrapnel. His comrades completed the rescue of the officer and then secured Oulsey’s lifeless body. The wounded officer survived, and North Dakota’s first casualty was a hero. As in Cohan’s song, “Hoist the flag and let her fly, Like true heroes, do or die.” For Private Louis Ousley, it was over… over there.
Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis