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Mechanic Jens Laursen: Co. 'M', 339th Infantry

Updated: Apr 6


(Mech. Jens C. Laursen, Passport application, 1919, National Archives)


Jens C. Laursen was born November 25, 1894, his parents, Christian and Annie, both Danish immigrants who had settled in a rural area just outside Detroit. Jens was the second child of Christian and Annie—there were seven kids all together—all who were raised on the Laursen farm. The Laursen children attended a local school, with Jens graduating from high school in 1913. Jens went to work for a neighbor as a carpenter’s assistant, and though an adult, he lived at home with his parents and siblings. The young man registered for the draft in June 1917, with the registrar noting he worked as a carpenter, and was described as of medium height, slender build, and with dark blue eyes and light hair. Jens lived with his parents for almost another year before being ordered to report to Camp Custer in May 1918. The soldier was assigned to Company ‘M’, 339th Infantry, and because of his skills as a carpenter became one of five soldiers designated as the company’s mechanics. Mechanic Laursen, along with the rest of the Americans in the 339th Infantry shipped out to England, and from there, to Russia. Laursen, because of his position, often found himself and a small team separated from the company, tasked with transporting supplies and building materials to whatever location Company ‘M’ was defending. And this is what he and Mech. Charles Dial were doing on March 31, 1919 when they ran into a platoon of Bolshevik soldiers. Sadly, Dial was shot and killed, but in the confusion, Laursen had been able to dive into the deep snow and crawl away. The Bolos pursued Laursen, as he left an easy-to-follow trail in the snow, and it did not take long before they surrounded him, forcing him to surrender. Laursen recalled, “After being searched they took me into the woods on the right flank, where there were about 100 Bolos, and there I treated some of the officers, who were on horseback, with what cigarettes I had.”[1] Jens Laursen was thrown into a build, where he noticed he was not alone. There, just a few feet away, the 35-year-old Bryant Ryall, a senior official for the American Y.M.C.A. Bryant Ryall had been captured less than an hour before Laursen. Ryall and Laursen were given a frozen fish and a loaf of frozen black bread that evening. The next morning the two were taken to a building where, as Laursen remembered, “their clothes were taken from them and dirty, ‘cootie’ – infested clothes substituted.”[2]Laursen and Ryall were marched to another building and once inside, added to a small group of Allied prisoners, including Sgt. Glenn Leitzell (Co. M) and Pvt. Freeman Hogan (Co. M). On April 1, 1919, the three soldiers, Laursen, Leitzell, and Hogan, plus Bryant Ryall received rations for the day, consisting of half a can of horse meat, salt fish, and 12 ounces of black bread. The Americans then met a senior Bolshevik officer, Aleksi Kuropatkin. The Russian officer questioned the Yanks about the Allies’ defensive positions but they refused to divulge anything. The prisoners were informed they were going to be sent to Moscow, and soon after learning this, were driven southward, walking almost 20 miles that day. That night the captives struggled to keep warm, and then were back on the road before sunrise. They hiked 30 more miles south to the town of Emtsa. Here, they were locked inside a boxcar. That afternoon their train left Emsta, heading south, bound for Plesetskaya, where they were fed barley soup and rye bread. Then, their train continued southward, reaching Moscow, arriving on April 12, 1919. They were taken to a large building, housing many other prisoners; English, French, and Scots, including a fellow 339th comrade, Pvt. George Albers (Co. I). Surprisingly, the newcomers learned they could move about Moscow as they pleased. Rations were served at 10:00 A.M., usually consisting of cabbage soup, plus either some salt fish or horsemeat, and a 12-ounce chunk of black bread. The rest of the time they were free until 5:00 P.M., when the same type of food was served again. Leitzell observed, “All food was rationed. Those that did strenuous work got a half pound of bread a day; those who did light work got one-fourth pound, and they maintained their army this way, in other words, fight or starve.”[3] The five Americans did what they could to get by. Amazingly, they were able to find work, earning 25 rubles a day, sometimes digging graves for the people who had died of starvation. They also met an American woman, the wife of a Bolshevik government official, who did what she could to provide extra food and items. The Bolsheviks allowed the five Americans freedom to move about the city, as the fledging Red government to show the world they were not at war with the United States. The Americans took advantage of this situation to the point of wiggling their way into a private club only open to Bolshevik officials. Here, among the Reds’ high-ranking statesmen, the American prisoners found books and newspapers to read, and for a few rubles they could purchase bowls of hot soup and roasted horsemeat. Senior Y.M.C.A. officials intensified their attempts to free the American prisoners. One of these executives, Louis Penningroth, suggested to the Bolsheviks that he be allowed to take some American and British prisoners home, and fortunately, the Reds decided to allow the prisoners’ release. On May 19, 1919, Laursen and the other Americans were taken to the Finnish border and allowed to cross. Jens Laursen recalled, “We were a happy bunch when we got over the Finnish Front lines.”[4]

Jens Laursen returned to the U.S. and was discharged in 1919. He immediately moved in with his parents, who now lived in the Detroit area, and quickly got himself a job as a carpenter. Jens' construction skills were furthered by his abilities to draw up blue prints. He quickly earned a promotion as an architect for Haber-Kern-Barry Co., a position he would hold for the rest of his life.[5] Jens continued to live with his parents until marrying Dorothy Butler. The couple settled in the Detroit area, and though they did not have any children, were surrounded by many family members. Jens passed away February 2, 1955. Dorothy, who was eleven years younger than Jens, married again. However, as she aged, Dorothy requested to be buried beside Jens. She died in 1998 and was buried besides Jens.

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[1] Moore, Joel, ‘M’ Company, 1920. [2] “Wolverine Held by Reds 6 Weeks,” Detroit Free Press, 18 July 1919. [3] Moore, Joel, ‘M’ Company, 1920. Moore, Et al., The History of the American Expedition, 1920, 278. [4] Moore, Joel, ‘M’ Company, 1920.

[5] Detroit, MI, City Directory, 1941.

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