His name is among 144 engraved on a bronze tablet listing Minnesota Marines who died in World War I — a memorial easy to ignore on the eastern shore of Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis.
He was one of 1,432 Minnesotans killed in action during the so-called Great War, one of 1,087 Marines left dead or wounded on June 6, 1918 — the first day of a pivotal battle in the Belleau Wood of France that began a century ago next week.
Sadly, Cpl. Carl Knutson’s nagging fear came true. He’s become just another war statistic, just another lost soldier in the litany of lives sacrificed.
“The individual is lost in armies counted by the millions,” he wrote in a letter to his sister, Nettie, on May 31, 1917, explaining his choice of military branch. “Whereas in the Marines there will be only small expeditionary forces.”
On this Memorial Day weekend, it’s time to try to elevate Knutson’s life from mere statistics — to find the individual lost in those armies counted by the millions.
The oldest son among seven siblings, Knutson was born Aug. 8, 1891, on a farm 120 miles west of Minneapolis in a township called Swedes Forest. Never mind that his father had emigrated from Norway.
No doubt, Carl was expected to stay home on the Redwood County farm near Belview, pop. 300. Instead, he headed off to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa — playing championship tennis, debating about the new Panama Canal, editing a monthly college magazine and graduating in 1913.
He taught high school in Iowa and then returned home, but not to the farm — teaching high school in Delhi, Minn., about 10 miles east of his family’s farm. Everything changed when the U.S. entered World War I in the spring of 1917.
“Well our country is at war,” he wrote Nettie, his elder sister by three years. “My studies have led me to ponder at the spirit and the sacrifices of the individuals who were responsible for our country’s make up. So I have often thought of how I could best do my part.”
He anguished about his “specific” role in world events after President Woodrow Wilson thrust America into war.
“The time was now ripe for me … to show my seriousness,” Knutson told Nettie. “This thing has been working on me for many months and only last Thursday evening did I make up my mind. The folks took it pretty hard at first but the day I left they showed good spirits.”
Before shipping out to the trenches and mustard gas of the Western Front, Knutson stopped at the Capitol in St. Paul. He met with State Auditor Jacob Preus, who would become governor in 1921. He was also the brother of Knutson’s tennis doubles partner at Luther, Herman Preus. Knutson figured Preus’ recommendation couldn’t hurt. And he was promoted to corporal within six months.
“I appreciate the responsibility and the gravity of my future,” Knutson wrote. “But I am ready to meet them.”
In an April 1918 letter home, reprinted in the Redwood Falls Gazette, Knutson said: “Our company is now standing by waiting to embark. The way those prospective tanks climb the embankments and plow through rocks and barbed wire would indicate that they will do some quick work when they get into action. We are getting closer to the western front as the days go by.”
By late May 1918, German troops had moved within 45 miles of Paris. The three-week Battle of Belleau Wood became the first large-scale action for American soldiers, with Marines leading Gen. John Pershing’s counteroffensive to halt German advances. Within six months, Allied forces would win the war.
But the 1,087 Marines killed or wounded on the first day, June 6, represented more casualties than the Corps had suffered in its first 143 years. The Battle of Belleau Wood is considered the Gettysburg of WWI. Many of the Marines fell that first day when German machine guns cut them down as they attempted a frontal assault through chest-high wheat fields.
Carl Knutson was just one of the 1,811 U.S. soldiers who died that June in the Belleau Wood. Attached to a replacement battalion, he was thrown into battle before any officials knew it.
“In the fast moving pace of combat he was rushed into a unit before any paper work could document his transfer,” said Jeffrey Grosscup, a Vietnam-era Marine officer from Minneapolis who has researched Knutson extensively. His wife is the fallen Marine’s niece.
“Knutson hadn’t been with his combat unit long enough to be known or missed,” Grosscup said.
When the letters stopped coming home to Minnesota, the family worried. But Knutson’s name wasn’t listed as missing or killed. Nettie wrote Marine brass a year letter, saying: “This dreary suspense is hard on his parents and all of us.”
More than 13 months after Knutson was killed, his body was found with his dog tags in a common grave. His remains were sent home three years after he died.
He’s now buried in Row 3, Lot 66 at the Rock Dell Lutheran Cemetery in Redwood County.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918.