(An eighth article in our series commemorating the Centennial of the end of World War I)
By Joseph Jastrzembski
When the great powers of Europe went to war in 1914, they drew not only on their own populations but those of their subject colonies around the globe. This meant that the armies of Europe represented myriad cultures and ethnicities, including West and North Africans, residents of the subcontinent of India, Chinese, and islanders from the West Indies. In fact, it is said that five continents were represented on the battlefields of Flanders.
The troops that made up the American Expeditionary Force were no less ethnically diverse than those already in Europe. Yet, these soldiers were drawn not from an American empire but from the great pools of immigrants who came to the United States in search of economic opportunity and political freedom. Probably no state embodied this concept more than North Dakota on the eve of American entry into World War I.
On the eve of the war, 71 percent of all North Dakotans had been born in a foreign country or had one or both parents who had been born in a foreign country. Added to the familiar Norwegians and Germans from Russia were Ukrainians, Poles, Czechs, Dutch, and even Japanese and Lebanese Syrians. As a result, many of the North Dakotans who answered the call to military service were first-generation Americans, naturalized citizens, or individuals still undergoing the naturalization process.
Peter Dreyer Johnson, for example, was a first-generation American born of Norwegian parents in Cooperstown in 1891. A farmer, he was also a member of the North Dakota National Guard, which made him among the first North Dakotans to see action when in July 1917 President Wilson called Guard units into federal service. Johnson served in the 41st Division, made up of National Guard units from several western states. The 41st participated in major engagements throughout the war, including Chateau-Thierry, Saint-Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
Some 4,195 North Dakota guardsmen fought in the war. More typical were soldiers called into service through the draft, following the passage of the Selective Service Act of 1917. Although over 160,000 North Dakota men registered, only some 44,000 were found liable for military service.
Such a one was Harold Oscar Dyste, another first-generation American born of Norwegian parents in Forman in 1892. He was inducted into the Army in 1918 and participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Discharged as a corporal in 1919 from the 129th Machine Gun Battalion, he later took over the family’s grocery business, founded by his father and uncle, and still in business to this day as Dyste’s Food Pride.
Among the naturalized American citizens who served in the war were Russian-born Tony Sklorenko and Syrian-born George Abdalla. Sklorenko, a machinist, enlisted in Bismarck in the North Dakota National Guard in 1917. He was wounded slightly during the Aisne-Marne offensive of 1918 which saw over 10,000 American casualties. Among the wave of Syrian and Lebanese homesteaders who came to North Dakota in the early 20th Century, Abdalla was born in the mountainous village of Mashta al-Helu in Syria in 1889. Called into service in 1918, he left his farm, arriving in France in June. Unfortunately, he was killed in action in September and was buried, with more than 4,000 other American casualties, in the St. Mihiel American Cemetery in France.
Non-citizens also participated in the war effort, as the Selective Service Act required all men, regardless of citizenship, between the ages of 18 and 45 to register. Classified as a “declarant” or one who had declared his intention to seek citizenship, Greek-born Christ Collis didn’t wait for a draft notice but joined the North Dakota National Guard in New Rockford. Arriving in France late in December 1917, he served for the duration of the war.
Another North Dakota National Guardsman and declarant was Dutchman Cyriel Cones, who enlisted in Minot on July 18, 1917. Wounded just over a year later, he served in all major American operations and was cited twice for gallantry in action for which he received two Silver Stars, one of the military’s highest awards for bravery. He returned to Minot and became a charter member of the George Larson post of World War Veterans, a progressive veterans’ organization founded in 1919 and dedicated, among other goals, to women’s suffrage, the right of collective bargaining, and Wilson’s Fourteen Point peace plan.
Although the American roots of many North Dakotan soldiers were shallow, their wartime service demonstrated that patriotism had nothing to do with ancestry and everything to do with loyalty, commitment, and sacrifice.
(Joseph Jastrzembski is a Professor of History at Minot State University.)