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Ed Dahlgren of Aroostook County, Maine

Ed Dahlgren almost never tells war stories. The men he worked with for years don’t remember him ever mentioning what he did to receive the Medal of Honor. His children say they can count on one hand the times he told them about the war. If he mentioned Oherhoffen, France, it would he to tell them a river ran through it and it looked a little like the neighboring town of Fort Fairfield. The few times he talked about the war it would be about the sad, funny things, like trying to sleep in a foxhole filled with water so that he was more afraid of drowning than of being shot. But he had a silver star with clusters, a couple of bronze stars, the Croix de Guerre, and though the children would take them out of his drawer from time to time, they never knew what he had done to receive them, and intuitively they never asked.

We are driving north, on the way to visit the original Dahlgren homestead, and the farm where he was born, and the house where he grew up. He has not been there for several years and I can tell he is looking forward to the outing. He’s a polite man, and because he’s asked about the war, he tells about it, and later his son Michael, an immigration officer in Madawaska, will say that is probably the most his father has ever said about those years.

“I was a platoon leader. When you have so much to think about, you forget being scared yourself while it’s going on. After it’s all over. that’s when you get scared. But if you’re just a private following along, you get the most frightened of all. We saw an awful lot of combat, but I had two or three men in my outfit that as sure as I’m sitting here never fired a shot all during the war. They were petrified. We’d be advancing across terrain and they’d hit the dirt as soon as there was gunfire. They weren’t any good to me, except they took up a little space. But I had to admire them for staying up there. One of the poor fellows joined the outfit the same day I did — a great, big midwestern boy from Iowa. We were the only ones then that weren’t from Texas, Our company commander owned a grocery store in Sweetwater, Texas. His first sergeant had been his clerk. They were all family, and then there was me and the big fella from Iowa. He never fired a shot. He made it to the third day from the end of the war and he got killed. We were in the mountains of Austria when the word came down the line to cease fire. Prisoners came streaming by, and we knew it was over. But I kept thinking of the poor kid. If he could just have made it a few more days.

“My first combat was in the mountains of Italy. We were attacking uphill, fighting crack, superior German forces, And the Germans were fine soldiers. It was nighttime fighting in the mountains, and there was a lot of shelling. Before I saw combat I didn’t know how I’d be. But once I saw action I knew I’d be okay. I wouldn’t crack. I just didn’t think I’d come home.

“I’ll never forget my first New Year’s Eve in combat. It was cold, and snow and rain fell all night. We were trying to take Cassino and losing a lot of men. I said if I ever get home, every New Year’s Eve I’ll stay where it’s warm. And the first New Year’s Eve I was home, they wanted me to go to a party. I said no, I’ve got a good book and a warm stove, and a good light, and I’m going to read until I get tired, and then I’m going to bed. And I haven’t been out too many New Year’s Eves, I’ll tell you.

“Once we went four months without a break at the front. This was in the Vosges Mountains and it was rough going. When we got to a point where there weren’t too many of us left, they said we’re going back. We had less than one platoon and I was in charge of it. I thought they’d give us a real break. We came back at night, walking ten miles through the rain into a valley. We marched into town and along both sides of the streets men were lined up, replacements for our company. A first lieutenant says to me, ‘Sgt. Dahlgren, go up and down the line and pick your men. Pick 40, and keep the men you have with you now.’ We spent that night in a barn, and the next morning we had a full platoon and were sent back to the front. I never forgot that. I thought we’d have a rest of a week or two. Instead we went back with a whole green company, everybody’s first combat except for me and a few others.

“I got men to follow me, though, because I was always willing to go ahead. That wasn’t what I was taught, it was just my philosophy. I think a lot of my men came back because I’d pull back and try a different approach rather than attack a suicide position. I always tried to lead them into the best odds possible. I wasn’t after glory. I figured if they wanted to replace me, they could. But we didn’t see too many high-ranking officers where we were.

“At the end, there were only seven left from what we started out with some were wounded and the others were cooks. And to think of all the hundreds brought in as replacements, so many I never knew.”

We pass a Bonanza Steak House on the left in Presque Isle. It is noon and Ed is hungry. “I love the baked stuffed haddock,” he says. So we stop.

“… After reorganizing his unit he advanced to clear hostile riflemen from the building where he had destroyed the machine gun. He entered the house by a window and trapped the Germans in the cellar, where he tossed grenades into their midst, wounding several and forcing 10 more to surrender. “

All day and all night trucks rumble through the town of Mars Hill, Maine, a junction town of 2,000 where routes 1 and 1A intersect hard on the Canadian border. It’s where Ed Dahlgren came 35 years ago to work as a state seed potato inspector, where he married a hometown daughter of a potato farmer, where he stayed to raise four children. He retired prematurely a few years ago because of his angina and the incessant kidney stones. He worked much of his career before the small farms folded, and erosion threatened the land. He had the towns of Bridgewater, Mars Hill, and Monticello, and where there are perhaps 40 farms today, he had 150 to inspect. He’d have to check each seed potato farm for fungus and rot at least three times a season and to cover the ground he’d leave after sunrise, and not return until dark. He was used to working 60 hours a week, used to the comfortable fatigue around the dinner table and when he retired he didn’t know what to do with himself. (He was thankful. though, for the special Medal of Honor pension that pays all medal holders $200 a month.)

He’d walk the mile into town, dally at the post office, stop at Al’s Diner for coffee, go to the Legion Hall overlooking the Prestile Stream. He’d build a fire slowly in the black cast-iron stove at the Legion Hall, picking the wood carefully from the wood bin in the hall, and then he’d walk home, past the sub shop, and the two game rooms, and the two barbershops.

“It’s better now,” he had told me. “A group of us meet in the afternoon at the Legion Hall for cards or pool. It’s not that I’m bored, but it would be rough going if I didn’t have anything to do.” Whenever he can he visits the veterans in the nursing homes.

We had stopped first at the small office of the seed inspectors. Two men wearing Agway hats were playing cribbage. The radio was on low, By the door were piled sacks of potatoes. “How are you, Eddie?” asked a man who had trained with Ed, and had worked with him for eight years. Ed shrugged. “Not bad,” he said. “Considering. I just had the flu, Every root in my hair was sore. I lost 12 pounds in three days. Of course,” he added, “I could afford to lose a few. But I had two more stones the same time. Passed them
last Friday at 1 o’clock.”

The seed inspector winced. “I never had one, and I don’t want one.” He turned his attention to me, “I’ll tell you this about Eddie,” he said, “I rogued [culled bad potatoes] for seven years before I took this job, but I learned more from Eddie in one week than I did roguing. I’d grown up on a farm but be showed me diseases I’d never seen before.”

Updated Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

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