Ed Dahlgren of Aroostook County, Maine
Late August was a good time to be a hero. The bombs had been dropped on Japan and the formal peace treaty ending the war was just nine days away. It rained in Washington and instead of meeting on the White House lawn the men gathered in the gilded, chandeliered East Room. It would be front-page news across the nation. a final rendering of war stories, 28 tales of both the best and the worst of what war does to man. Reporters asked, “How many did you kill?” until someone snapped. “We didn’t stop to count.” Photographers with big, hot floodlights sent in pictures of dazed, hollow-eyed men sitting stiffly in rows of wooden chairs, looking uncomfortable and slightly scared.
At 10 A.M. President Truman strode in. He called the men to the platform, one by one, in alphabetical order. An aide read the citations of each man, and then the President draped the blue-ribboned medal around their necks, saying he’d rather wear the Medal of Honor than be President of the United States. Then Truman strode out, followed by the Army brass who saluted the men. And the men pondered what General George Marshall had said to them. “Well, what are you going to do now?”
Ed Dahlgren returned to his sister’s house where he went to the movies nearly every day, and took long walks on the nearby beaches. At 9 P.M. on November 5 he got off the train in Caribou. He had come to his real home. He was Maine’s only living Medal of Honor holder but be was met by only his two uncles. He went quietly to his Uncle John’s house in the tiny town of Colby, where Ed had grown up after his father had died.
He stayed close to the house that winter, and worked awhile packing potatoes in the warehouse he had worked in as a boy. His army division had been the Texas National Guard outfit and his buddies, whose lives he had saved, would write, urging him to come down, the possibilities were endless in Texas. Whenever he’d get a letter from Texas he’d write back that he’d be coming. First he had to pull things together.
“…As Sgt. Dahlgren started towards the next house, hostile machine-gun fire drove him to cover, He secured rifle grenades, stepped to an exposed position, and calmly launched his missiles from a difficult angle until he had destroyed its two operators…”
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.