U.S., Mower Co. marks 100 years since entry into World War I

Published 10:30 am Thursday, April 6, 2017

“Reader of these lines […] you the future historian seeking the highlights in a city growth will want to know how Austin sent her soldiers to the Great War …” – Austin Daily Herald, Sept. 27, 1917.

Thursday, April 6, marks 100 years since the United States officially entered World War I. And 100 years ago today, families in Mower County, as with every other county across the nation, realized someone they knew might go to war.

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Prior to the United States’ entry into the Great War, as it was known, Europe had been devastated by three years of carnage. Villages across the continent had seen entire generations of military-aged men decimated as countless were killed on the bloody battlefields of places like the Somme, Ypres, and the Marne.

With America’s entry into the war came the call for men to enlist or register for the draft.

“What’s indicative of Mower County’s response was that despite this being a low-density population rural county, we still had that many draftees,” said John Haymond, director of the Mower County Historical Society, pointing to a photograph of about 250 to 275 men in uniform.

Along with the call to arms came the activation of National Guard units.

“Mower County had a National Guard presence before (President Woodrow) Wilson issued the draft order,” Haymond said.

Three Damm brothers, George (left), Thomas (center) and Olaf. Olaf Damm was the first Mower County casualty of World War I. Photo courtesy of the Mower County Historical Society

Three Damm brothers, George (left), Thomas (center) and Olaf. Olaf Damm was the first Mower County casualty of World War I. Photo courtesy of the Mower County Historical Society

Company G of the Second Minnesota Infantry, consisting of men from Austin, were among the Mower County men called into action. Company G, commanded by Captain Alfred Page, was assigned to the 34th Infantry Division.

With activation came training and deployment overseas.

Austin resident Walter G. “Happy” Hartman, who was sent to France with Company C of the 316th Engineers, kept a diary while overseas. In an entry dated Sept. 23, 1918, he talks of seeing an air fight, describing it as “thrilling.” That sentiment changed in an entry dated Sept. 29, 1918, in which Hartman wrote, “We are in direct fire of machine gunners and snipers […] Our artillery puts up a barrage, and we go over the top. And believe me, you sure think of all the good and bad you ever done. […] In this attack we had four killed and 35 wounded.”

While Hartman survived the war, not all of Mower County’s service men were that fortunate. 1st Lt. Olaf B. Damm of Company G became Mower County’s first casualty when he was killed in an accident while the unit was stationed at Camp Cody, New Mexico, on Aug. 20, 1918. His brother, 1st Lt. George Damm, survived the war.

VFW Post 1216 in Austin was named in Olaf Damm’s honor.

Mower County lost 64 men during World War I, including 13 who were killed in action and 13 who died from their wounds.

“For a county of our size in 1917 and 1918, that was a very large portion,” Haymond said.

Get more on World War I

Interested in learning more about Mower County in World War I? Riverland Community College Professor Dean Ulland will be presenting “Mower County in World War I” 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Monday, April 10, at the Hormel Historic House. Ulland will cover topics ranging from the draft in Mower County to volunteer efforts to how perceived disloyalty was handled. The program is free for members of the Hormel Historic Home, Friends of the Library, and Mower County Historical Society; $5 for non-members. For more information, call 507-433-4243.