Ed Dahlgren of Aroostook County, Maine

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Ed Dahlgren

Ed Dahlgren

Stephen O. Muskie

From Yankee magazine September 1981

He grew up in Aroostook County, Maine, and when he came home in August of 1945, President Truman awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Over the subsequent years, most of them spent working 60 hours a week in the potato fields, his kids often pulled the medals out of his bureau drawer but they never knew what he’d done to receive them. Intuitively, they never asked…

Congressional Medal of Honor Citation: “On 11 February 1945, Second Lieutenant (then Sergeant) Edward C. Dahlgren, U.S. Army, Company E, 142nd Infantry, 36th Infantry Division, led the 3rd Platoon to the rescue of a similar unit which had been surrounded in an enemy counterattack at Oberhaffen, France. As he advanced along a street, he observed several Germans crossing a field about 100 yards away. Running into a barn, he took up a position in a window and swept the hostile troops with submachine gun fire; killing six, wounding others and completely disorganizing the group…

He always could shoot. He grew up in Aroostook County, Maine, and when he wasn’t picking potatoes, or packing them in a warehouse, he was fishing or hunting, a good enough shot to shoot the heads of two partridges one after the other with a .30-.30.

But when the war ended in Europe and he returned to the States in August 1945, he couldn’t shoot at all. He came on leave to his sister Ruth’s house in South Portland. He was thin as a rail, having lost over 40 pounds from his 5’9″ frame. He couldn’t eat. His hands shook so that water splashed when he drank. Sometimes his body trembled uncontrollably. He stammered.

His sister Ruth knew it had been bad. His letters had read like a history of some of the most terrible fighting in Europe: Salerno. Cassino, where he had been shot through the shoulder. Rapido River. Anzio. The invasion of southern France. Winter in the Vosges Mountains. Germany and the Siegfried Line. Austria. Once he was on the front lines for 130 days without a break, in combat every day. “I just wore out,” he told her. “I just wore out.”

On his second day at his sister’s he dropped a kidney stone, doubling over with a pain more severe-than any he had felt during the war. He went to the VA, who told him he’d have to prove it was related to the war, and he couldn’t, though he knew it had to be. He developed jaundice. His skin paled and yellowed. He lost more weight. But he was home. And soon, on August 23. in the nation’s largest mass awarding of the Medal of Honor, he would join 27 other soldiers in receiving America’s highest award for valor in combat.

“…His platoon then moved forward through intermittent sniper fire and made contact with the besieged Americans. When the two platoons had been reorganized, Sgt. Dahlgren continued to advance along the street until he drew fire from an enemy-held house. In the face of machine-pistol and rifle fire, he ran toward the building, hurled a grenade through the door, and blasted his way inside with his gun. This aggressive attack so rattled the Germans that all eight men who held the strongpoint immediately surrendered…”

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.

“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.”

We then drove across the street to the Legion Hall, a low, unpretentious building across the street from the town’s bottle redemption center. A sign on the door announced that this evening was Beano night. “7 o’clock,” a sign said, and to be sure people got the message another one below it read, “That’s P.M.”

“We can make $100 a night from Beano,” Ed said. “We use it to give free meals every day. It doesn’t matter if they’re veterans or not. I’m awfully proud of this Legion.

“I think there were some men who were sorry the war was over. Leastways they harp on it enough. And there are a lot of veterans who think the country owes them a living. I don’t think so. There were quite a few Medal of Honors that came back and were set up with jobs, had houses built for them. But I had nothing given to me. I knew there were men who did as much as I did and never got a medal. A lot of times it’s who sees you. It’s being in the right place at the right time. It’s true. I think it is, anyway. “You find no Medal of Honor likes to be called a winner. We don’t think of it as something that we’ve won. But it keeps us remembering the men we served with. Even today the strongest comradeship, the only real comradeship I feel, is with men who’ve seen combat.”

“… He moved to the rear of the house and suddenly come under the fire of a machine gun emplaced in a barn. Throwing a grenade into the structure, he rushed the position, firing the weapon as he ran; within, he overwhelmed five Germans.. “

The afternoon sky is a deep blue, a sky suited to the prairies. After lunch we drive into Caribou. “To tell you the truth, I don’t come up here much,” he says. “It’s a little embarrassing. I haven’t changed that much. And I’ll be walking down the street and someone will say, ‘How are ya, Ed?’ and they’ll shake my hand and talk and I won’t know them from a hole in the ground.”

Somewhere in Caribou is a street named for Ed Dahlgren, but he doesn’t remember where it is. Some years ago there was a lot of speculation that the new Air Force Base would be named for him, but it was named instead for Ed Loring, an Air Force pilot killed in Korea.

There are smaller honors. He is the official flag raiser for Mars Hill. Last year when his hometown of Woodland had its centennial he was named Grand Marshal, and rode in the parade through the tiny town.

There are fewer farms now, on the land north of Caribou, but besides that the land is little changed. There were dirt roads years ago when Ed was a boy, and the roads are still dirt.

His father farmed 25 acres, just enough to get by. Six months before Ed was born, in the midst of harvest, his father ruptured his appendix and died. Ed’s mother sold the farm to her brother for $7,000 and took her young daughter and infant son to an apartment in Colby. They were all Swedes living in the area, and nearly all of them were related. Soon after, Ed’s Uncle John lost his wife, who was Ed’s mother’s sister. An arrangement was made. “My Uncle John had two children too, so my mother agreed to keep house for our room and board. I was five then, and I lived there until I was 21 and I can still remember the day we moved into his house as clear as if it were yesterday.”

We make a few turns and stop in front of his Uncle John’s farmhouse. It is a large house beginning a steady decline into ruin. “My Uncle John was a closed man, taciturn, he couldn’t show if he was proud of me or not. He died two years after I came home. Some children have their hands out, you know, but I never took from John. My mother used to say, ‘If you’re looking for a helping hand, look on both ends of your arms. You’ve got two,’ She died when I was in training, of cancer of the lip. When she died she had enough to bury her, that’s all.”

We drive a little way down the road. He shows me the original church. He shows me the potato house where he used to work. We go past the old school he once attended, linked to his home by a seven-mile trolley ride. “If you missed it,” he says, “it was a long walk home. Many a night I made that walk.”

We cross over into Woodland, to his mother’s father’s farm. “My grandfather Anderson had 360 acres,” he says, “but he had a lot of sons and when he died he left most of it to them,” He points out a stream he used to fish from. “Ha,” he says, “that’s Mud Brook. I used to get some big trout there.”

He is silent for a few moments. “My friends in Texas used to write to me to come down, you know. I should have gone. I would have been all set. A fellow named Wilson and I were good friends. He was a smart one. His home was Port Arthur, Texas. His people were oil people and he used to say, ‘When I go home I’m going to buy the biggest and longest Buick ever made,’ And he did. We called him Pops and we served together a long time.

“The first winter I wasn’t feeling good. Then the first thing you know I got married and started having kids right away. Before I knew it I had a flock of youngsters. It’s a lot to think about before picking up and moving out, right? Have to have something to eat, to wear. It’s probably just as well. There’s a lot worse places to live than here. Leastways we don’t have much crime. It could be Worse. Could be a lot worse.”

“… While reconnoitering another street with a comrade, he heard German voices in a house. An attack with rifle grenades drove the hostile troops to the cellar. Sgt. Dahlgren entered the building, kicked open the cellar door, and, firing several bursts down the stairway, called for the trapped enemy to surrender. Sixteen soldiers filed out with their hands in the air. The bold leadership and magnificent courage displayed by Sgt. Dahlgren in his heroic attacks were in a large measure responsible for repulsing an enemy counterattack and saving an American platoon from great danger.”

It’s been two years since he’s seen his father’s farm, where he was born. We drive down a dirt road, crusted with ice. He tells me to stop, and we skid for 25 yards, coming to rest against a snowbank. In the distance he points out the old Dahlgren homestead, where his grandparents settled and raised ten children. “My grandfather bought the farm for 100 pounds of buckwheat meal” he says.

“Is that true?” I ask.

“It’s true,” he says. “There was a log house on the land and he bought it all. They were sailing people from Sweden. They settled first in Boston, then got their women from the old country and came up here.”

We get out and walk down the road. “There’s my father’s potato house,” he says, and points to a concrete wall surrounded and nearly hidden by poplar trees. He can’t find his father’s house. “There was something here last time,” he says. He peers closely into the brush. He smiles. “There’s the cellar hole,” he says, “that’s all.” Then quietly to himself he says, “It doesn’t take long for things to grow up.”

He says he’s cold, and we get back in the car. We come to the crossroads, and he asks if I want to take the long way to Woodland or the quick way back to Mars Hill. He answers for me. “We’ll go home,” he says. We talk about hunting and fishing, and he says the worst thing about his kidney stones is he never knows when they’ll strike. He’s had ten operations, and so many attacks he’s lost count. Once he was fishing a wilderness stream, miles from anywhere and he took a stone. “I just lay on the ground and cried like a baby,” he says. “I lay there all night, until I could move. Sometimes, I admit I feel sorry for myself. But I keep getting up and putting my clothes on, so I guess I have nothing to kick about.

“And I’ve worked with a lot of people in my life,” he says. “When you can work in an area as long as I have and you can look anybody in the eye and say I haven’t cheated you, I never did anything intentionally to harm you, then I can go to bed at night as far as anything I’ve done in my work and I can go to sleep. At least I’ve got that much to say. Not as a Medal of Honor, but as a man.”

And then we are at his house. “I guess this is the last interview I’ll do for awhile,” he says. And he shakes hands and we say good-bye. That night flying aver the barren Aroostook fields I thought how often we say we have lost our heroes. I don’t think we have. I think they have just come home, to live among the rest of us.


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