Published in the Redwood Gazette November 11, 1993, written by staff writer Vicki L. Gerdes
FRANKLIN – Seventy-five years ago today, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, an historic treaty was signed which would put an end to what was then referred to as the “the war to end all wars.”
And on that same day, Ed. J. Wilkinson received word that he would be going home to the wife he had married just six months earlier.
Three children, 15 grandchildren, 32 great-grandchildren and one great-great-granchild later, Wilkinson was feted Wednesday night with a special dinner and ceremony in his honor.
Wilkinson, 97, is one of an estimated 30,000 World War I veterans who have survived to see the 75th anniversary of the Armistice Day which ended the first war to have ever been fought on a global scale.
The Lyon County native grew up on a farm between Echo and Vesta, the oldest of seven children.
Scarcely a month after his marriage to wife Lily, Ed was drafted by the U.S. Army to serve his country as a member of the 622nd Field Signal Battalion.
He departed by train from North Redwood in June 1918.
Wilkinson remembered how, as the train continued on its journey to New Mexico, it would frequently stop to pick up new recruits.
“There were 12 carloads of us by the time we arrive (in New Mexico),” he said.
The first night after their arrival, the new recruits took one look at the meal which had been prepared for them, and promptly dumped it in the mess basket.
“The food was all right, but everything was all mixed together in one (helping),” Wilkinson recalled. “That first time no one would eat it, but the mess hall manager said, ‘Wait three days — it won’t be empty.’ And he was right — he knew what would happen once we got hungry enough.
After three months of basic training at Camp Cody, Wilkinson and his fellow soldiers were ready to make the trip overseas.
“They drilled us hard,” he said.
But they never got the chance to prove their fighting skills.
Shortly before getting their orders to ship out, the battalion was quarantined with influenza – which was a deadly epidemic which ravaged the camp and left few untouched.
“Carl Hultquist (from Belview) and I were the only ones who didn’t get it,” Wilkinson said.
Day after day, the group would eat and sleep outdoors, to prevent stale air from infecting those who had not yet fallen prey to the flu’s symptoms.
Though temperatures frequently reached 100 degrees during the day, the air would cool rapidly at night. Soldiers were given two planets to go underneath them, and another two for on top.
The fact that there hadn’t been any rainfall in the area for three years created another problem.
By moring, the wind had kicked up so much sand up on top of them that the blankets were difficult to lift off, Wilkinson said. The drifting sand s also made meals rather unpleasant.
“The wind would come up, and kick the sand up into our food,” Wilkinson said, adding that they were required to eat their meals regardless — sand and all.
Besides the sand, the two things Wilkinson remembered most about Camp Cody were the “rattlesnakes and cactus.”
In fact, Wilkinson remembered a time when, as usual, the line for the latrine (bathroom) was excruciatingly long, and suddenly, everyone inside came racing out full tilt.
One of the men had found a rattlesnake by one of the urinals.
“We had to wait until someone went in and shot the snake before we could go back inside,” he said. “It was a long wait.”
Still, he survived all these misadventures, and three months later, was among those who left Camp Cody to receive their discharge papers.
“By the time the quarantine was over, so was the war,” Wilkinson said.
As the flu epidemic had by that time spread throughout the U.S., the group traveled from camp to camp until they reached on which wasn’t quarantined, in Camp Dodge, Iowa. They spent the next few days waiting for their official discharge.
Upon returning home, Wilkinson resumed farming in the Vesta-Echo area.
With the “four good horses” which his parents and Lily’s parents had kept for him while he was at Camp Cody, Wilkinson resumed the occupation upon which he had embarked prior to being drafted, at the age of 19 — farming.
He also worked on the road rews which helped to build State Highway 19 from Morton through Gibbon.
Wilkinson recalled how culverts in those days were made big enough to enable cows and cattle to us them as paths to cross under the highway.
In the early years, the Wilkinsons moved around from farm to farm, as the depressed farm economy caused one operation after another to close down.
We would start a job, and stay a couple of years, then the farm was sold or the bank foreclosed…we had to move three or four times before I bought my first farm by Franklin, in 1939,” Wilkinson said.
He and Lily stayed on that farm until 1961, when they moved into Franklin.
Thirty-five years later, Ed still lives in his own home and drives his own car, though he admitted that, since Lily died three years ago, “it’s damned lonesome sometimes.”
He spends his time on various woodworking projects, when he’s not visiting with friends and family.
Thought slightly embarrassed by all the attention, Wilkinson was nevertheless honored when he received word that he and the other men who survived to see the 75th anniversary of the end of World War I would be receiving commemorative medals.
The Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, a private, non-profit foundation based in Chicago, Ill., had created a medal patterned after the World War I Victory Medal given to all those who had served in the U.S. Armed Forces during that war.
Surrounded by a laurel wreath with symbolizes honor, the medallion is also encircled by a blue band bearing the inscription “75th Anniversary of World War I” at the bottom. The blue color signifies loyalty and devotion to duty. On the reverse side is an oak branch, representing strength and acknowledging the sacrifices and contributions of the veteran who fought for the freedom of this country.
The inscription, “They Came on the Wings of Eagles” comes from the historic World War I American Memorial Monument, located in St. Nazaire, France. Also inscribed on the medal are the words “A Grateful Nation Remembers” and the commemorative dates, 1918-1993.
More than 150 people came to the Cedar Mountain Elementary School cafeteria Wednesday night to watch Wilkinson receive his medal.
As his daughter, Faith Bock, said in her address to the group, “We feel very privileged that we’ve had him with us for so many years.
“Sometimes he has asked ‘Why me? Why am I the one who is left?’ But we are very grateful that he is still here with us.”
Besides Wilkinson, there are sever other known World War I veterans in Redwood and Renville counties, who have also been awarded one of these medals:
Arnold Miller, 93, of Wabasso.
Charles Selle, 94, of Buffalo Lake.
Frank Gaasch, 96, of Morton.
Harold Dirks, 96, of Olivia.
Richard Schuetz, 96, of Buffalo Lake.
Axel Christopherson, 96, of Morgan.
Carl Davidson, 100, of Belview.