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'Our united effort': Hamline's World War I ambulance company

When the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Hamline had an enrollment of only 400 students. The university’s response to the war effort, however, belied its modest size. Among other things, it formed an ambulance company that was decorated by the French government for distinguished service on the Western Front.

By Jack K. Johnson

We are in a great fight, and our united effort is what counts. I made the greatest decision of my life when I decided to join the service. I am mighty proud to be here.” Harold Curtis, a Hamline student from St. James, Minnesota, penned those words to his family in April 1918 from “somewhere in France.” He had been in the country for only a week, but his journey had taken a year.

It began one day in late March 1917. Europe’s Great War was the topic in chapel. President Woodrow Wilson had declared American neutrality, but U.S. entry into the conflict appeared imminent. Gregory Walcott, a philosophy professor, stood up and called for volunteer military training at Hamline. That afternoon, Curtis and a hundred others gathered in the gymnasium to begin drilling. 

When America declared war two weeks later, patriotic zeal swept the country. Any lingering sentiment on campus for neutrality vanished. A dozen students promptly enlisted. About 30 signed up for a place in the Officers’ Training Camp at Fort Snelling. Sixteen students from farms were allowed to return home to speed food production, receiving the grade earned to date. Track and baseball schedules were canceled because enlistments depleted the teams. Women, aided by the Red Cross, organized classes in first aid and nursing. Hamline’s president, Samuel Kerfoot, Class of 1889, reported in the Alumni Quarterly that by the end of the school year, nearly half of the men at Hamline had enlisted in some form of military service along with 10 percent of the faculty. “Never,” he affirmed, “have we been more united to accept large responsibility and sacrifice with unselfish devotion.”

Colleges everywhere saw similar activity, but Hamline added something more: an ambulance company.

Its creation was as improbable as it was speedy. Lewis Herrick, professor of Romance languages, had been the first in Minnesota to submit a report to the Intercollegiate Intelligence Bureau, a national initiative organized to match skilled alumni, students, and faculty with positions in government service. On May 10, the War Department telegrammed Herrick, authorizing Hamline to sponsor an Army ambulance unit of 40 men for immediate service in France. Word spread quickly when Herrick announced it, prompting 80 men to sign up by the end of the day. Not one to dillydally, Herrick boldly telegraphed Washington: “Hamline Unit Complete and Ready for Service.” The final roster included star athletes and student leaders. Sophomore Harold Curtis was among them. After getting Army physicals, they were sworn in and ordered to stand by.

Ready or not, Herrick’s timing was perfect. Although the U.S. already had ambulance units organic to its divisions, the Army wanted to form a United States Army Ambulance Service (USAAS) to aid French forces. Volunteer ambulance units, such as those of the American Field Service and Red Cross, were already transporting the wounded for the French and Italian armies, but they were operating at capacity.

On June 16, 1917, President Kerfoot hosted an emotional farewell banquet at the downtown Saint Paul Athletic Club. Afterward, everyone marched to the train station, joining a spirited Red Cross Drive parade along the way. Amid cheers and tearful goodbyes, they boarded a special coach and departed into the night.

‘France in six weeks!’

Their destination was Allentown, Pennsylvania, where the Lehigh County fairgrounds had been converted into a makeshift USAAS training center named Camp Crane. About 40 colleges and universities—all larger and better known than Hamline—had sponsored one or more ambulance sections for the USAAS. When Hamline’s contingent arrived on June 23, they were marched off to their billet—a sanitized sheep barn that was shared with units from Iowa State, Cornell, and the Universities of Washington and California. “France in six weeks!” was the slogan as 3,200 ambulance men crowded into Camp Crane. The Hamline unit was designated as Sanitary Squad Unit (Section) 568.

By September, Section 568 was primed and ready. The first contingent of 20 sections had left for France in August, but then weeks passed with no further word about departures. Frustration grew in the camp. Thanksgiving came and went. Then Christmas. Daily routines had become contrived, with long marches, work details, and endless drilling to fill the hours. The unusually cold, snowy winter didn’t help. Morale kept sinking.

The problem was rooted in the USAAS’s hasty formation to aid the French. It was initially estimated that 120 new sections would be needed immediately overseas, but after the first contingent rushed off to France, differences of opinion and faulty assumptions at high levels within separate armies on two continents stalled USAAS departures until early 1918.

The new year unleashed an emotional roller coaster. After on-again, off-again notices that they would sail soon, Hamline’s commander dropped a bombshell: Section 568 would remain on post for three more months. Members who opted to become “casuals,” however, could go promptly to France. As casuals, they would be discharged from Section 568 to fill individual openings in other sections. 

It was a punch in the gut. The men wanted to stay together as a unit but were fed up with Camp Crane and desperate to get “over there.” Kerfoot called Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist, who wired Sen. Knute Nelson and Rep. Clarence B. Miller in Washington. Nelson and Miller told William C. Gorgas, surgeon general of the Army, that the USAAS had not only broken faith with the Hamline volunteers but with the good citizens of Minnesota who had been following this unit’s progress with pride. It worked. To everyone’s relief, the Hamline unit could remain intact and depart forthwith.

On March 28, they sailed on RMS Olympic, a British liner converted into a troopship, to Brest, France, where they trained for three more months and became acquainted with French culture and language. On July 3, they finally became true ambulanciers when they were attached to the French 28th Infantry Division based near Lunéville in the Vosges Mountains of northeastern France. For the next eight months, they lived and worked side-by-side with French soldiers. 

In early summer 1918, German forces launched a massive, last-ditch offensive intended to break through Allied lines defending Paris. They had initial successes, but by August, the initiative passed to the Allies. The bloody 47-day Meuse-Argonne Offensive that autumn finally pushed enemy forces past their last fortified defenses, cutting them off from essential supply lines. 

Hamline’s ambulanciers were in the thick of this Allied advance. Working on the front lines east of Reims in the Aisne and Meuse-Argonne sectors September 2 to October 4, in what became the Fourth Battle of Champagne, and in the Meuse-Argonne sector October 19 to November 2, Section 568 and the 28th Division pressed forward under intense fire into territory previously occupied by German troops.

Everyone’s mettle was tested as they transported the sick and wounded through perilous, devastated landscapes. It was a race with mortality as shells whizzed overhead and in plain view of the enemy. They lived in dugouts and cellars and shared the roads with endless columns of horse-drawn artillery, supply wagons, and war-weary troops moving to and from the front.

Writing to a Hamline friend, Norm MacLean told of being a nervous wreck after his ambulance was “practically destroyed by shell fire.” Bob Van Fossen wrote, “We don’t dare keep more than two or three men here [in our dugout] at a time as one shell might get them all.” Harold Curtis wrote: “[We are] supposed to be 24 hours on-duty and 24 hours off, but the last drive we went three days straight, with no relief. The Boches [German soldiers] are shelling this place hot and heavy. ... Sometimes I am so worn out that the bursting of shells nearby does not wake me.”

By November 2, the section was occupying former German positions north of Reims, not far from the Belgian border, when a lull came and their division was withdrawn from the front. They were camped west of Épernay on the banks of the Marne when word spread on November 11, 1918, that an armistice had been signed. Bells rang out in the distance. It was over.

For the work carried out under heavy bombardment of explosives and gas during the battles of October 19 to November 2, Section 568 was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star. Ten members of the unit also received individual Croix de Guerre medals for bravery under fire. After assisting with hospitals at Metz and Thionville, the unit embarked for home on May 7 aboard the battleship USS Rhode Island.

On June 9, during commencement week, several of the men presented to Hamline their two unit banners—one made by Hamline women before they left for Allentown, which they had carried throughout their service, and one with the prized Croix de Guerre medal attached.

Four men from the section had been killed in action, and two were wounded. Among the dead were three from the original Hamline group. Private Wallace Ramstad from Crookston succumbed to a gas attack, and Private Glenn Donaldson of Winona and First Sergeant Warren Gammell of Madison, Minnesota, were killed when their ambulance took a direct hit from German artillery. Donaldson and Gammell were posthumously awarded the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, a decoration for bravery second only to the Medal of Honor. Ramstad received the Croix de Guerre.

The men of SSU 568 entered the war with high expectations and certitude, clambering for a spot they thought would take them quickly into action. None fully understood what he had volunteered for, but all felt the cause was just.

In a letter to his father written shortly after the armistice, Harold Curtis reflected on his service: “I am mighty proud to be an American today, and am glad ... you readily gave your permission when I felt the call. ... I am heartened by what we could do, [but] our unit suffered a ten percent loss, which is heavy. I have seen much ... and learned much.” He and most of his comrades had survived, but no one who drove an ambulance on the Western Front came back from the war unscathed. Life for them would never be the same.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in Minnesota History, the quarterly of the Minnesota Historical Society, (64/8) Winter 2015–16. Excerpted and edited with permission.