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September 21: Coming Home

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The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. The guns fell silent on November 11, 1918. During that time, 35,448 North Dakota men served in the Armed Forces. Over 1,300 of them did not survive. There was sadness across the country as families held funerals for their loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice. There was even greater tragedy for the families of those who never returned from the war. Without a funeral, there was no sense of closure.

One such soldier was Virgil Erickson. In 1917, Virgil enlisted as a private in Company D of Devils Lake. He was quickly promoted to corporal. He arrived in Liverpool, England in January, 1918. There he was transferred to a machine gun company in the 26th Infantry, already serving in France. The 26th was stationed near Saint-Mihiel, where it was involved in fierce fighting. Virgil was hit by shrapnel. He died of his wounds on October 2, 1918. He was twenty-five years old.

Virgil’s family was one of the many unable to properly say good-bye to a son and brother. They waited for three years before his body was finally returned home. On this date in 1921, readers of the Devils Lake World learned of Virgil’s funeral. The pallbearers were members of the local American Legion post. One of them was his childhood friend who also enlisted, and who was with Virgil when he was wounded. Virgil was survived by his parents and sister.

Coincidentally, the same newspaper also shared news of another North Dakota veteran who had been killed in France. Like Virgil, Roy Netherly’s family had to wait three years before they could have a funeral for him. The newspaper announced that Roy’s family learned his body would be coming home. Members of the American Legion were making plans to participate in his funeral. Following the funeral, the American Legion honored Roy by naming the local post for him.

Four and a half million American men served in the Armed Forces. 116,516 of them died. Many of them were buried in Europe. There are over fourteen thousand American graves at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery alone. Many of those were never identified. Two North Dakota families were among the lucky ones who finally found closure after they lost their sons.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Sources:

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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