Plains Folk

The Death of Albert T. Vandervaal

 

The Great War was over, but early in 1919, sad news continued to arrive home from the front. On 16 January the Sioux County News published a letter from a local man, Corporal George Halsey. Halsey wrote from Belgium, explaining that he had not had time to writer earlier, but was inspired to do so when a copy of his hometown paper came to hand.

 

Halsey had arrived in France on 23 July with Company B of the 361st US Infantry. He spent some time in reserve, but in September was moved toward the front, passing batteries of naval guns that had been brought inland to support a “monster drive.”

 

Halsey was in the Argonne Forest when the big guns cut loose with a barrage “so terrific,” he writes, “that we couldn’t see three feet ahead of us on account of smoke and were unable to hear the commands of our officers shouted at us at a distance of two feet. I never witnessed a more spectacular array of fireworks before in my life.”

 

Halsey and his comrades had entered the fray just at it turned in the Allies’ favor, with the Germans pushed into retreat. Unfortunately, as his unit was shifted to the Flanders front, he lost a comrade from back home in Sioux County. “I regret to say,” the corporal writes, “it was here my friend, Albert T. Vandervaal, was killed by machine gun fire.”

 

The armistice in place, Halsey is turning his thoughts back toward matters at home, commenting on an ongoing county seat fight. This brings into relief the state of affairs in Sioux County, a place of transition. A decade earlier the Standing Rock Sioux had been subjected to allotment, with their so-called “surplus lands” being taken away and awarded to white homesteaders.

 

Halsey and the deceased Private Vandervaal were of settler stock. Vandervaal was not brought home for burial, but lies in Plot D Row 4 Grave 1, Flanders Field American Cemetery.

 

He was the second local man from the Cannonball community who had died in action—the first being much more noticed. He was Albert Grass, killed in action in France in July 1918. A Sihasapa (Blackfeet Sioux) of exceedingly distinguished lineage, Albert Grass would be carried home to Cannonball for burial with honors—a story to tell later.

 

George Halsey’s letter to the Sioux County Pioneer is one of many written by soldiers from North Dakota serving in the Great War and published for the interested public. These letters constitute a body of documentation from real people on the ground. They may or may not be representative of the general experience, but they are real, and compelling.

 

I have the honor to lead a group of North Dakota State University students who are harvesting such letters from the country newspapers of our state, reflecting on them, and writing about them. As scholars, we will try to put the letters into context, bringing community and family history to bear, and we will read the letters critically, sorting out the things said and unsaid.

 

What I try to emphasize in such a line of research is that the critical reading of documents is not some picky exercise, but rather a matter of empathy—getting to know the writers, trying to see things as they saw them, representing them fairly to the twenty-first century. This is work that is both daunting and stirring.

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