Pete Liljedahl had everything going for him. At the State Cloud Normal School—presently St. Cloud State University–he lettered in four sports, and after leaving school in 1915, became a popular and well-respected coach in the Little Falls school system. In 1918, Pete was drafted into the United States Army, where he served in France.
This is his story.
Petrus N. Liljedahl was born in St. Cloud, Minnesota, on September 20, 1891. His parents, Gustaf and Betty Gafvert Liljedahl, were born in Sweden and came to the United States in 1881. In St. Cloud, Gustaf owned a paint business and later became superintendent of buildings and grounds at the Normal School and at Technical High School. At Calvary Baptist, St. Cloud, he served as superintendent, choir director, and organist.
Seven children were born to Gustaf and Betty: Hulda, Judith, Frances, Mabel, Lillie, Frank, and Petrus (Pete). Frank was a clerk at the Grand Central Hotel in downtown St. Cloud before entering the U.S. Army during World War I as a 1st Lieutenant.
In high school Pete was known as the state’s best football and basketball player. He was also an all-state forward in basketball at the Normal School and, according to a newspaper story, “had some flattering offers from the larger colleges.” Pete was also a star athlete in baseball and track. After attending college for three years—without graduating– Pete secured a job with the Little Falls school system where he coached and taught manual training. A reporter for the St. Cloud Daily Times said, “There was great rivalry between the Little Falls teams and the St. Cloud teams, but after the clouds of battle were declared the local gladiators would be heard saying, ‘You’ve got to hand it to Pete.’”
When the United States entered World War I Liljedahl tried to enlist but was turned away. In February 1918, he joined 60 men from Little Falls who were drafted into the Army.
Pete Liljedahl’s journey from Little Falls to France represents a path that thousands of young men and many women made between 1917-18 when Americans joined the allied forces overseas. The Little Falls group left Minnesota in February 1918 for basic training at Camp Dodge in Iowa, and at Camp Logan in Texas. On May 22, 1918, Pete’s Company sailed for Europe on the U.S.S. Leviathan, arriving in France eight days later. Liljedahl was a member of Company H, 131 Infantry, 33rd Infantry Division, A.E.F.
After traveling several days by train, Pete’s company stopped at Hocquincourt, a small French town in the British sector, where his platoon was quartered in a barn. Here, the Americans joined forces with British and Australian soldiers and fought alongside them for weeks thereafter.
On August 9, 1918, Pete’s company was ordered to the front and to go “over the top” at 5:31 p.m. After four hours of desperate fighting on foot the Little Falls coach volunteered to reconnoiter in No Man’s Land—the area between allied and German trenches. While walking toward the Germans in the vicinity of two heavily-fortified positions near Amiens, France, a piece of artillery shrapnel struck Liljedahl, killing him instantaneously.
In a letter from Pete’s commanding officer to Liljedahl’s father he said that the soldier was “always courageous and devoted to duty. He was willing at all times to perform any task that might be in his way, no matter how hazardous.”
Pete Liljedahl died on the day that the German high command called the “Black Day of the German Army” due to the number of soldiers captured, killed, or wounded. As part of the Somme Front, the battle was a major campaign that would lead to the war’s end.
Following his death, the Little Falls Daily Transcript said the young coach was “of a very pleasing personality and was loved and respected by all who knew him, and especially endured himself to the high school pupils, who will feel a deep and sincere respect at the news of his death on the battlefields of France. (Sept. 23, 1918).
More than 1000 men from Morrison County were drafted during World War I. Pete Liljedahl was among 63 Morrison County men who gave up their lives during World War I—ten of whom died in battle. Little Falls alone lost 24 service men who died either in combat or as a result of the influenza epidemic that swept the camps during the war. (For a town of 5,500, this number represents a supreme sacrifice.)
~ Bill Morgan
Bill Morgan is a local historian and former American Studies professor at St. Cloud State University. He has written extensively on central Minnesota history for the St. Cloud Times, with one of his favorite topics being architecture.
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 30, No. 4, 2017.