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World War I, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and Doughboy Wesley R. Johnson

10/14/2014:

On this date in 1918, American soldiers were in combat during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which began September 26thand continued until the Armistice, November 11th. North Dakotan Wesley R. Johnson served among the U.S. troops. Johnson was one of North Dakota’s youngest soldiers in World War I, being just seventeen when he joined Company M of the National Guard.

When Johnson enlisted in August, 1917, he was underage and under weight. All volunteers had to be 18 and weigh 140 pounds. He was tall enough, at 70 inches, or five-foot-ten, but weighed only 122 pounds. Before his physical, he drank enough water to get up to 126 pounds. Through a mistake, doctors wrote down “ 138 pounds ,” which they considered close enough to 140, so he was allowed to enlist.

Despite his youth, Johnson had completed his sophomore year at U.N.D., and his parents gave their permission for him to enlist. After basic training, Johnson shipped out on the Leviathan troopship, reaching Liverpool on Christmas morning. Johnson later crossed over to France in a cattleboat, and then went to the front lines on March 2 nd, 1918.

Wesley Johnson was in the awful trenches for the next nine months, with only ten days off, serving in the 26thInfantry, First Division, of the American Expeditionary Force. He fought at Soissons, at St. Mihiel, and in two engagements of the Meuse-Argonne campaign. In one battle, his company was so battered by enemy guns that only 35 soldiers remained unharmed of 230, while in another battle his reinforced company lost eighty percent of its men.

In the Argonne, Johnson’s company was ordered to attack strong German positions in a forest that hid innumerable machine guns. In a sudden assault, Johnson’s company eliminated two of the guns and captured 24 more, then holding on until reinforcements arrived.

Johnson soldiered on through the Armistice, surviving all those “gloomy days” unhurt, except for a mustard-gas burn on his left hip. Perhaps it was his slender body-frame, at 122 pounds – the very obstacle to his enlistment, that allowed Johnson to escape the enemy’s “deadly aim.”

When Johnson arrived home in April, 1919, he was taller, standing 6 feet tall, and heavier, weighing 156 pounds, despite enduring blood, mud, barbed wire, poison gas, and artillery fire.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources:

“Yanks Hear of Oyer,” Grand Forks Herald , October 14, 1918, p. 2; and “German Forces Abandon Gobain and Laon Massifs; Famous Plateau Captured,” Bismarck Tribune , October 14, 1918, p. 1.

“Blood, Mud, Concrete and Barbed Wire: The Meuse-Argonne Offensive,” Education Materials Index, "
" www.armyheritage.org , accessed on September 13, 2014.

“Johnson’s War Record Great,” Grand Forks Herald , February 9, 1919, p. 16.

“Soldier Son, Wounded, Returns To Hundred Per Cent American Family,” Grand Forks Herald , April 30, 1919, p. 5.

Wesley R. Johnson, “War Experiences of a University Student as a Doughboy,” Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota , volume 10, 1919-1920, p. 93.