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Otto Ihringer
By Dan Gunderson
March 19, 1999
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A North Dakota man today received the highest award given by the French government. France is making a special effort to recognize U.S. veterans who served in World War I by naming them Chevalier of the National Order of Legion of Honor. Three Minnesota veterans will also be given the award.

Recently, 103-year old Otto Ihringer recalled his World War I experience.

Chevalier of the Legion of Honor  
Otto Ihringer is legally blind and a bit hard of hearing, but his memory is undiminished by the years.

He recalls joining the army as a 22-year old North Dakota farm boy. He says he was issued a rifle and put aboard a ship for England.
Ihringer: We spent the Fourth of July in England. They put streamers on the bus; the first time America's day of independence was ever celebrated in England.
On July 7th, Ihringer landed in France where he was told he would be trained for combat.
Ihringer: Well, instead of us being there to train, they put us in the front line, and that was the first time I went into the battle zone; and I never spent a day outside of the battle zone.

For More Information
The government of France is recognizing World War I veterans in the United States.

Historyof the Legion of Honor
The role of the U.S. in WWI

Source: Embassy of France

For nearly four months, Ihringer was on the front lines, involved in bloody trench warfare.
Ihringer: There was barbed wire and you had to cut paths in there, and seven men went in there and a machine gun - brrrp - and it got seven men; piled up in there, never got any farther. It's things like that you don't forget.
Ihringer says conditions at the front were indescribable. He recalls commiserating with a German soldier who had surrendered.
Ihringer: I says I stood in this damn mud so long I thought my toes grew together, and if I ever got out of here, I'd be walking like a duck. And that wasn't bad enough, then it rained so you didn't even have a dry spot to lean on . And I said "how was it on your side?" He said "the same. " That's all we talked about: war. And one thing: talk about a fella being lousy. They were so damn lousy, your clothes would move. You lay 'em down, the lice would carry 'em away.
The horrible conditions helped distract soldiers from the death that surrounded them day and night.
Ihringer: You could have a pal, and if he dropped dead there, he was a dead man. That was it. You didn't have time to worry more about it. I don't know what you call it, but they knew when they were going to die. and that afternoon .he was an A-1 soldier; and I said "Bull, what the hell's the matter with you? You know those shells aren't going to hurt you." He said "I know but they just got my goat." He said "if I could just live to see the sun come up in the morning, I'd feel safe."
Ihringer says the soldier was dead in the morning - killed by an exploding shell during the night.

Otto Ihringer says his time on the front lines was an emotional roller-coaster.
Ihringer: One time I'd think "boy, I hope if I get a bullet, it hits me in the head and that's the end of it." And then I'd think "dammit, to think that way is kind of cowardice. Dammit, I'm gonna try to see it through." And I did.
Ihringer escaped combat untouched by bullets or shrapnel, but he was gassed during a battle in the Argonne Forest.
Ihringer: I don't know just what happened, but my chest hurt like somebody laid hot iron on it.
The gas left Otto Ihringer desperate for water, but his canteen was empty. The only source of water was a nearby creek littered with dead horses and human waste.
Ihringer: I took my damn canteen on the end of my bayonet and I got some water there and I drank that stuff. And one guy, just to seem me drink it he vomited. For me it was wet and cold. That's all I knew. I didn't know anything about taste.
Otto Ihringer says after growing up dirt poor on the North Dakota prairie, he learned combat put everyone on an equal footing; and he has forever looked at people differently..
Ihringer: It was the biggest lesson in human nature you could ever have. To think the guy who put on the big front wasn't worth a damn, and the guy you thought was no good was the guy you could depend on .
Otto Ihringer spent 14 months in the Army. He still has the records showing he was paid $6.40 a month.

He spent six month in occupied Germany after the war ended, and when he came home, the Armistice celebrations were over. He says when he stepped off the train in his hometown, he was greeted by silence.
Ihringer: And I thought "what in the hell? Isn't there anyone around anymore?" I thought if I'd known that I'd never got off the damn train. Well, about that time here my wife came. She was looking for a letter from me.
Ihringer worked for many years as a mechanic and bulk-oil dealer in North Dakota. He says when he turned 100, he took inventory of his life.
Ihringer: I thought "dammit, I done the best I could to serve my country in peace and war."
But lingering doubts still plague Otto Ihringer, 80 years after the war ended.
Ihringer: What did it mean? Did it do any good? And, then again, you think "well, it must have." So there you go. You don't have the answer to a lot of these questions you'd like to have.
As for receiving the highest award given by the French government, Otto Ihringer says it makes him feel good to know people still care about the sacrifices made so long ago.