Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


When an old man dies...

Posted 12/01/20 (Tue)

There’s an African proverb that states “when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. It essentially means that when someone is gone, so is their story.

That’s why 21 years ago this month, a National Guard friend, Dennis Ihringer, and I sat down and recorded interviews with his grandfather Otto Ihringer, who was one of the early settlers in Bordulac, a small town in Foster County near Carrington.

Otto wasn’t just a farmer. He was the last World War I veteran in North Dakota and I remember Dennis and I sitting in a hotel room in Carrington one night talking about this and we both agreed that when Otto is gone, his story goes with him.

At the time, Otto was 104 years old and he had told Dennis that he would agree to be interviewed and recorded.

In blunt terms, he said he didn’t have much time left and so he wanted the rest of us to know what he went through in France in the fall of 1918.

My impetus for pursuing this project and writing a book was because earlier in 1999, he had received the Chevalier of the Legion of Merit award from the French government. Personnel from the French Consulate came out from Chicago to personally present the award. The Chevalier award is the highest award presented by the French government.

Otto’s story is unique because for a time he worked in a lumber camp in Alberta. And when the war broke out, he was one of hundreds of Americans who went to a U.S. recruiting station in Lethbridge, Alberta and signed up.

He fought in France and was in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, as well as other battles in which he nearly died.

After the war, he was part of the occupation of Germany for a time before coming back to the United States.

His story is unique also because most war stories are told by generals and colonels. In this case, Otto was a private first class. He was actually in the trenches and saw No Man’s Land and was exposed to a chemical attack by the Germans.

Additionally, Otto possessed numerous photos from the war whose copyrights had expired, which meant we were free to use them in our book.

One of the most striking things he told Dennis and I was during the chemical strike, he couldn’t breathe. There was a stream nearby with evidence of cattle grazing. Rather than dying from the gas attack, he went to the stream, under enemy fire and drank some of the polluted water just to stay alive.

In another instance, he was sought for the occupation after when the war ended because he spoke German. It was easy for him to fit in and communicate with the German people.

Otto told us a lot about the war. We recorded our conversations for six weeks and on the seventh week, he passed away. We didn’t get to talk about all the things we wanted to discuss, outlined in our first meeting, but there was enough information to write a book.

So I spent the next 10 months hacking away at my typewriter and drinking strong coffee, while Dennis was securing the financing so that we could create a publishing company and print the book ourselves.

During that entire time, I kept thinking how accurate is this information going to be? He was an old man, felt free to talk, he often went off on tangents and at times seemed almost too willing to answer questions.

Was he exaggerating, did he really remember those specific dates and times when battles went down?

As luck would have it, we found a history professor at Minot State University who is now the dean of the history department. His name is Dan Ringrose and he lived in France for 11 years.

We asked him to critique the manuscript to see if indeed, Otto’s testimony was accurate. And it was so we went ahead and published “Dakota Doughboy, the Otto Ihringer Story.”

This isn’t a pitch to sell books. This is a plea for World War II veterans and Korean War veterans to tell their stories of their sacrifices and how they managed to get through the sorrow of war.

Each Soldier, Sailer, Airman or Marine has a story to tell and I firmly believe those stories are as unique as that of Otto ihringer.

If you are a veteran from World War II or Korea, tell your family, tell a journalist, tell the historical society, tell your pastor.

It’s important because we want to make sure that history remains accurate and that someone doesn’t fill in the blanks when they lose track of what happened.