Armistice Day, World War I, and the Birth of the Minnesota Red Cross

Minnesota Red Cross volunteers supported World War I efforts. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

By Nancy O’Brien Wagner

This Sunday morning, at eleven o’clock, you may hear the ringing of church bells pealing out over the state. This tribute marks the centennial of Armistice Day – the end of World War I, which occurred on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month– November 11, 1918.

Nowadays, we celebrate November 11 as Veteran’s Day – a holiday to acknowledge the impact and efforts of all of our nation’s veterans. This year, however, it seems appropriate to draw special attention to the history and legacy of World War I – or the Great War as it was called then.

It is impossible to over-state how significant World War I was to our country. Beyond the military events, the War impacted our economy, our transportation system, our politics, and our culture. One of the greatest legacies of the War was the impact on the development of the American Red Cross.

Though the American Red Cross was founded in Washington D.C. in 1881, its presence and impact throughout the nation had been sporadic. During its first three decades, local and national Red Cross volunteers had responded to floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes, and the Spanish-American war of 1898. By the 1910s, the organization was muted – and the Minnesota Red Cross chapters were frail- if they existed at all. World War I changed that.

Within weeks of the U.S entering the war, the critical importance of the Red Cross was evident. In May 1917, the Red Cross was placed under the direction of President Woodrow Wilson’s War Council, which directed organizations and industries needed in the war effort. Across the nation, millions of people donated and signed up to volunteer for the Red Cross. In Minnesota, hundreds of thousands joined the Red Cross. They stepped forward in a spirit of can-do optimism, loyalty, and sacrifice. Most of those worked locally, but others served overseas.

“I summon you to comradeship in the Red Cross” – U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s call to service. Poster by Harrison Fisher, 1918. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Locally, Red Cross volunteers operated canteens for soldiers at the railroad depots, offered support to soldiers’ families, and organized recreation events for soldiers at Fort Snelling. They offered classes in First Aid, Elementary Hygiene, and Home Dietetics. For overseas, Minnesota members sponsored Base Hospital No. 26 in Allerey, France, and raised nearly $50,000 to supply the hospital with equipment and bandages. Members sent new and used trucks, ambulances, and cars to Europe. In addition, volunteers produced 5,842,078 surgical dressings, knitted 94,439 sweaters, produced 14,522 garments for refugees, and packed 38,551 “comfort kits” with shaving supplies, cigarettes, chewing gum, and other essentials.

For many local volunteers (who were mostly women), this effort expanded their social circles and built up their sense of community: As one Red Cross scholar said, “The big thing…in this Red Cross work has been the bringing together of women of all nationalities, all social strata, all creeds, and all religions onto a common, harmonious unit.”

In addition to local efforts, hundreds of Minnesotans served as Red Cross volunteers in Europe. Red Cross volunteers established and offered service from 551 stations, including 24 hospitals and 12 convalescent homes for soldiers and 130 canteens. They established emergency depots of medical supplies for the American Army and for French hospitals. The Red Cross also produced and supplied all necessary splints, nitrous oxide anesthetic, and oxygen for the Army. There were also reconstruction and re-education efforts for crippled and disabled men, recreation and welfare service, hospital service, hospital farms and gardens, moving pictures for hospitals, grave photography, civilian relief, relief of French soldiers’ families, children’s relief, and anti-tuberculosis relief. The largest group of Red Cross volunteers was nurses, who faced particular dangers. Nurses Miss Anna M. Dahlby of St. Paul and Miss Mary H. Cummings of North St. Paul both died while on duty.

The red poppy is the flower symbolic for remembering those who fought in WWI and the wars following, especially overseas. Photo by Lynette Nyman

After the war ended on November 11, 1918, the Red Cross continued to its war-related work. Overseas, the Red Cross helped at hospitals, camps, and transportation depots. Locally, Red Cross volunteers continued to staff booths at train depots to assist soldiers as they traveled home, and completed paperwork to apply for support services. While many Red Cross chapters shuttered or closed completely, other chapters in larger cities began to shift their attention to address issues such as public health (the Spanish Flu) and natural disasters (the Cloquet Fire). Both the St. Paul and the Minneapolis Chapters offered continuous service from 1917 on- and mark that year as their true foundation date.

In Minnesota, many of the women who served overseas and lead local Red Cross efforts used their strengthened problem-solving, organizational, and networking skills to tackle local needs. Many became active in the Women’s Overseas Service League, and others took an active role in promoting the women’s right to vote and the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Local museums, hospitals, libraries, schools, orchestras, and charities all benefited from this generation of generous and civic-minded women.

In the decades since, the Minnesota Red Cross has continued to respond to both international and local needs, evolving to fulfill new roles such as blood services, and shifting out of old ones — no more knitting sweaters.

When you hear the bells toll this Sunday, recall both the relief and joy at the conclusion of the Great War, but also mark the creation of the Minnesota Red Cross – and the spirit of optimism, loyalty, and sacrifice that continue to define us as Minnesotans.

Happy Armistice Day.

Nancy O’Brien Wagner is a local historian and author of Alice in France: The World War I Letters of Alice M. O’Brien. She is the proud granddaughter of two World War I soldiers, and great-niece of two World War I Red Cross volunteers.

Veteran becomes Red Cross volunteer

Story by Kathleen Todd for the American Red Cross Minnesota Region

Sharon Azan (Credit: ARC/LynetteNyman)

On  Veterans Day, the American Red Cross honors people like Sharon Azan.

In 1985, Sharon Azan was stationed in Naples, Italy, with the United States Air Force when she got a call from the American Red Cross. Five thousand miles away, Azan’s uncle had passed away, and her family contacted the Red Cross to relay an urgent message about his death.

It was that one phone call—all those years ago—that recently prompted Azan to connect with the American Red Cross in Minnesota. Now, she’s training to become a Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) volunteer.

“I figured this was a good time for me to help someone else,” Azan says. “I am so appreciative of what the Red Cross does and what it stands for.”

For more than 100 years, the Red Cross has been hard at work supporting the men and women of the American armed forces. Today, no matter where American armed service members are in the world, the Red Cross is dedicated to delivering emergency communications messages through the American Red Cross Hero Care Network, which is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Minnesota State Veterans Day Celebration 2016 (Credit: ARC/LynetteNyman)

The Red Cross provides around 370,000 services each year to active-duty military, veterans, and their families—including more than 3,000 in Minnesota last fiscal year. In addition to emergency communications, the Minnesota Red Cross provides courses and workshops to help military families cope with life after deployments.

The Red Cross invites you to say “thanks” by signing and sending cards through Holidays for Heroes to U.S. military and veterans. Click here for information, including where cards to send cards, the program deadline, and other important guidelines for the cards.

Holiday Cheer For American Military Heroes Up North

By Dan Williams, Executive Director of the American Red Cross Serving Northern Minnesota

The American Red Cross Holiday Mail for Heroes program boils down to messages of thanks and well wishes to people who are serving or have served in the American armed forces. While the number of cards signed, gathered, and distributed is large — more than 15,300 this year in northern Minnesota — our Red Cross volunteers, and other important helpers, ensured that every local service member or veteran received a bundle of cards wrapped in a ribbon with a gift tag attached.

Each bundle was special. Each card was special.

I think the cards are so special that I want to take the opportunity to share a few of the messages with you.

Many of the cards had patriotic themes, and great artwork. Some of them had extremely heartfelt messages. And, some were even written from the perspective of the family dog.

This card could not be more perfect.

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Imagine, a holiday message from a WWII veteran! Thank you, Jerry, for your service!

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A great card with a great message.

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Bridget from Esko has it right!

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Sometimes the best message is just ‘thanks.’

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Making it happen

Holiday Mail for Heroes is part of our local Red Cross Services to Armed Forces. We have learned through this undertaking, during this year and past years:

  • People in our communities genuinely thank and support our military service members and veterans from the bottom of their hearts through the Holidays Mail for Heroes
  • People in military service members, or who are veterans, genuinely appreciate the gratitude and support provided by the Holidays Mail for Heroes

brainerd-hsAcross northern Minnesota, in 2014 we collected, sorted, and distributed just over 7,000 cards to local service members and veterans. In 2015, we expanded our efforts to include a handful of senior living facilities and county veterans services officers, which resulted in the distribution of more than 12,000 thank you messages. This year, as of December 21st, we were up to 15,385 cards distributed to nearly 4,000 military members and veterans from our chapter!

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Holiday Mail for Heroes would not happen without a delightful mix of community and corporate involvement. Some key contributors returned to this project. For example, nearly all students from Brainerd High School made cards again this year. Thanks to Beth Bastain for making this happen! The quality and thoughtfulness of the messages and artwork in their cards, reminds me that the future is in good hands with our youth. And, when I think of youth, I must mention the great students from Bryant Elementary in Superior, Wisconsin. For the fourth year in a row, our Red Cross chapter received incredible cards from the students there. Thanks to Principal Kate Tesch for her leadership!

umdWe had great support from businesses as well, with over 5,000 blank cards printed up for use at public events hosted by Essentia Health, Bent Paddle Brewing, ZMC Hotels, and Thrivent Financial.  We could not have made this happen without their support. Another company that made a massive difference this year is DeCare Dental. Through their locations in Gilbert and in Eagan, they signed over 4,000 Holiday Mail for Heroes cards.

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Our colleges were incredibly supportive as well, with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Athletic Department, and Greek Life Club being key partners.  The College of St. Scholastica was incredible as well, with support ranging from the Hockey Cheerleaders to the Sisters at the adjacent Benedictine Monastery.

Click here to see more of the most special Holiday Mail for Heroes cards of the year. Click here to learn more about Red Cross Services to Armed Forces.

Most of all, if you’re a military veteran, thank you for your service. If you have veterans you’re close to, please pass along our thanks to them as well.

Happy holidays to everyone!

Hero Care App connects military families

rco_blog_img_herocareapp_img_7073The American Red Cross has a new mobile app for military families and veterans. The Hero Care App provides instant access to vital Red Cross services anywhere in the world. Whether you’re a military member, the parent of a child in the military, a military spouse, or a veteran, this free mobile application guides you to valuable resources and services that can help alleviate stress and provide important information at your fingertips.

With the Hero Care App you can...

  • Request Red Cross emergency services including an emergency message or assistance with emergency travel or emergency financial aid.
  • Securely and easily access information about their service member in the case of an emergency, including updated information as they move or change duty assignments.
  • Access non-emergency Red Cross behavioral health assistance including financial assistance and free local workshops for military kids and spouses.
  • Find local resources and information provided by trusted community partners like Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), Blue Star Families, Military Child Education Coalition, United Way, Goodwill, Easter Seals, and others.
  • Locate information on key government resources such as MilitaryOneSource, VA Benefits and Services, Department of Labor VETS, the VA Caregiver Support Program, and SAMSHA Community Health Support Services.

In addition, with the Hero Care App you can connect with other Red Cross apps, such as the Emergency, First Aid and Blood apps.

To download to the Hero Care App to your smart phone or tablet, search for ‘American Red Cross’ in your app store, text GETHEROCARE to 90999 to receive a download link, or go to redcross.org/apps. The Hero Care App is available in English and Spanish.

Red Cross Women in France during World War I

Dee Smith, 36, served with the American Red Cross as secretary in Paris, during World War I. Photo from the Minnesota Historical Society collection.
Dee Smith, 36, served with the American Red Cross as secretary in Paris, during World War I. Photo from the Minnesota Historical Society collection.

During World War One, people in Minnesota made a major contribution to The Great War effort. Minnesota women were among them. At home, they did many things to help, such as darn socks, make bandages, pack comfort kits, and offer first aid classes. More than 120 of them chose to be close to the front lines in Europe. Their names included Ruby, Marion, Grace, Marguerite, Julia, Aileen, Verna, Leila, Mary, Alice, Helen, Dee, and Rose. Their jobs were many, such as canteener, secretary, nurse, supply-truck driver,  and social worker. They, like the men they helped, held steadfast.

As part of ongoing remembrances during the war’s centenary years through 2018, we share below an exceprt from “Awfully Busy These Days: Red Cross Women in France During World War I” by Nancy O’Brien Wagner and published in the Minnesota History Magazine, Spring 2012.

Late train arrivals were just one of many wartime annoyances. Flies, lice, fleas, hives, chilblains–nearly every woman complained of these. Food shortages, food and coal rationing, and high prices were popular topics, too. Marion Backus wrote: “Between cooties, fleas, and hives I am having an interesting time. The last two bother me most…the only things I miss are pie and cake. When I get home am going to eat a dozen pies right straight at one lick, and then a strawberry short cake.”

Alice O’Brien dismissed these discomforts with suspiciously adamant protests.

All your letters carry messages of Sympathy such as–I must be working so hard–not enough food–not enough sleep–feet must be sore, etc. etc. I am sorry if my letters have given you that impression because it is not a true one. Of course we do work hard but we love it and nothing is as healthy as hard work. We have fine beds, and I assure you we use them a lot. I have never been better in my life–never–and I have everything I need.

Everything but intact socks, it appears. In July Alice wrote, “Mugs [Marguerite Davis] came into the room last night and said that she realized, for the first time, how far we were from home. You bet we’re a long way off when I started darning.” She went on to request that socks be sent from St. Paul. They arrived four months later, in the hands of Grace Mary Bell, an acquaintance who had signed on as a canteener. She described the meeting for Alice’s parents: “I delivered safely into her hands sundry articles at which point she devoutly remarked ‘Thank the Lord, I can stop darning!'”

Cases of homesicknesses developed, too, though few would admit it. Dee Smith wrote from Paris with insightful candor:

The whole idea here is anything to keep the morale of the men as high as possible, & everyone is so proud of them that no one begrudges them a good time. It is fine for the girls, too, tho no one ever seems to think they may get lonely and discouraged. I have met an occasional one who was frankly homesick, & don’t doubt there are others who are, but keep it to themselves. I think I might be if I didn’t have lots of work, but I haven’t time to think of being homesick. I sometimes even forget there is a war.

Alone in a foreign land, fighting a war with an uncertain outcome, these women were determined not to let their comrades or their country down. Helen Scriver summed up these attitudes: “My conclusions are always the same, namely if others can speak this language, I can, if the rest can life in these houses, so can I and if the rest can hold their jobs, I must be able to hold mine. It is a good philosophy.”

World War I-era, 1914-1918, Red Cross poster in the Minnesota Historical Society collection.
World War I-era, 1914-1918, Red Cross poster in the Minnesota Historical Society collection.

Helen’s steadfast determination was common, and the volunteers’ unflinching efforts made the work of the American Red Cross possible. For example, nurse Marion Backus was transferred to Evacuation Hospital #110 in Villers-Daucourt in September 1918. After a long day of travel, she went on duty that night and stayed on for two weeks. “If anybody had told me that I could take care of more than two ether patients before I came over here I would have laughed and thought them joking. But now I can watch 45 in one ward, 36 in the next and never wink an eye.”

In the fall of 1918, Marguerite Davis and Alice O’Brien watched as train after train of men unloaded at their camp near Chantilly. “We are awfully busy these days,” Alice wrote home. On September 7, their friend Doris Kellogg reported that, with just three other women, they served 1,157 meals in their canteen in three-and-a-half hours; on September 18, they dished up 1,300 meals, and on October 20, more than 1,600.

Good humor, resourcefulness, and flexibility were invaluable traits for Red Cross volunteers. When asked, these women dropped their work and jumped to do whatever was needed. Margaret MacLaren enlisted as a hospital worker, then began running a canteen. Soon, she was driving a supply truck. Minneapolitan Winifred Swift volunteered as a physiological chemist at Red Cross Hospital #2 in Paris, helping to research the nature and treatment of gas gangrene. “During the heavy work following the offensive in spring 1918 and summer, research work was abandoned to give more hands for the task of caring for the wounded…all spare moments were given to relieve the nurses of such work as might be done by those less trained.”

To read the full article, click here.
To learn more about the American Red Cross during World War I, click here.

We’re ready to help military kids manage stress

reconnection-workshop-a-spot_cropThe American Red Cross has two new workshops that help children of military families to manage challenges that are specific to their lives. The workshops, Roger That! Communication Counts and 10-4: Confident Coping, teach essential life skills for military kids and teens to better manage stressful social situations.

“All kids face challenges,” says Diane Manwill, a behavioral health expert with the American Red Cross. “They are growing up and learning to navigate social situations. However, challenges faced by military kids may be compounded because military families move more frequently and family members may be more absent due to military deployments.”

Each of the workshops is composed of two modules with activities designed for children 8 to 12 and teens 12 to 18 years old. The Roger That! Communication Counts workshop focuses on the importance of developing quality interpersonal communication and listening skills. Operation 10-4: Confident Coping focuses on bolstering strengths present in older military children to help manage stressful situations. The new workshops are part of the Red Cross reconnection workshop series.

“My children have participated in these workshops and they make a difference,” says Kelsey Liverpool, co-founder and president of Kids Rank. “It helps because it gives children of military families a place where they can talk, where they feel safe, be with other people who understand what they are going through and learn how they might better adapt to their situation.”

Red Cross volunteers, who are licensed behavioral health professionals and trained to work with children, facilitate the workshops. All professionals have undergone extensive background checks as required by the Department of Defense for adults working with children. Additionally, a second adult is also available during these workshops for support and assistance to the groups.

“We were very proud to support the Red Cross in the development of this program over the past year along with many other subject matter experts in the field,” says Dr. Mary Keller with the Military Child Education Coalition. “We know that community-based initiatives, like this, make a positive difference for our military kids.”

For more information about this free and confidential program, go to redcross.org/reconnectionworkshops.

Wonderful is a life filled with volunteer service

Story by Ellie Decker, American Red Cross Volunteer Services

AliceTomaschko
Red Cross volunteer Alice Tomaschko recently received her 60-year service pin in Austin, Minn. Photo credit: Carrie Carlson-Guest.

“I’m never speechless.” But after receiving her 60-years of service pin from the American Red Cross, followed by a Volunteer of the Year Award, Alice Tomaschko was without words. Her fellow volunteers, who attended the volunteer recognition event in Austin, Minnesota, were not. They had much to say about Alice. They described her as a mentor, friend and inspiration. Looking around the room it was clear that Alice had made an impact during her decades of Red Cross volunteer service.

A few days later, I talked more with Alice about her life and volunteer work with the Red Cross. Throughout our conversation Alice laughed. She told me about her children, and late husband, and how volunteering always had been a part of her life. Wonderful is the word Alice uses to describe her life, a life filled with service. Simply, she enjoys volunteering.

Alice started volunteering with the Red Cross in 1955 when she was pregnant with her first daughter. First, she volunteered at local blood drives. She used a typewriter to record donor information. Later, she trained to work with military families, which she describes as one of the greatest things she has done with the Red Cross. Through volunteering with Service to the Armed Forces, Alice witnessed the help Red Cross gave to families. Alice’s husband and his family experienced this assistance firsthand when the Red Cross helped her husband get home for his grandmother’s death. That help is why she chose to volunteer with the Red Cross.

Alice’s work has continued to help people in multiple ways. In addition to those who received Red Cross services, she has helped other volunteers. Being described as a mentor, she says, is the best compliment she could ever receive. Even though it’s impossible to measure the impact Alice has had on others, her impact is here to stay. (She even helped plan the volunteer appreciation event.) The reverse is true, too: the Red Cross has had an impact on Alice. “I’ve had absolutely one of the best lives with the Red Cross I could imagine.”

For more information about becoming a Red Cross volunteer, click here.