A victim of chemical warfare
As the nation debates how to respond to the deadly use of chemical weapons in Syria, Larry Aasen finds himself thinking about one of the last Americans who died as a result of a chemical weapons attack: his uncle Oliver Brenden, a farm boy from near Hillsboro, N.D., stricken by mustard gas nearly a century ago in the waning days of World War I.
Brenden came home, but he received little medical care as he suffered and despaired for two years in a small bedroom at the farm home.
“He could not help his dad or his brothers with the harvest,” Aasen said. “He had been a very good athlete, muscular, but he became very thin and had little energy.”
He died in 1922, the year Aasen, 90, was born.
“He died in Minneapolis, at a veterans’ hospital or something like that. He went there to die, and he did.”
Brenden was buried at the small St. Olaf Lutheran Church near Taft, N.D., just north of Hillsboro. Four soldiers, veterans of what was called the War to End All Wars, fired a gun salute over his grave. Members of the Hillsboro American Legion post gave his mother a folded American flag.
“His mother and father, my uncles and my mother never forgot Oliver Brenden,” Larry Aasen said. “I knew Oliver’s three brothers. But I never got to know him.
“Our family knows about chemical warfare.”
‘Gas seeped everywhere’
The Meuse-Argonne offensive was the last great offensive of World War I, beginning on Sept. 26, 1918, and lasting until the armistice that ended the war on Nov. 11.
It was the biggest battle in American history to that point, and 120,000 of the 1.2 million U.S. troops who took part were killed or wounded, many suffering terribly from poison gas — which was used by both sides.
“The fighting was unrelentingly brutal,” historian Edward Lengel wrote in “To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918,” published in 2008. “German forces mowed down advancing Allies with a blizzard of bullets from machine-gun nests, artillery barrages churned up the battleground, (and) deadly mustard gas seeped everywhere.”
Mustard gas attacked the skin, eyes and respiratory systems of victims. Heavier than air, it settled in trenches and shell holes where soldiers sought refuge.
Aasen said he’s “always been told it was German mustard gas” that doomed his uncle to an early death. “But I’ve read some, and I know both sides used it.”
The nations of the world sought to abolish the use of chemical weapons in 1925 with the Geneva Protocol.
“Now everybody is talking about Syria,” Aasen said. “I just got back from two meetings, we were supposed to be talking about other things, and it just erupted about Syria.”
He said he supports the idea of “a surgical strike” against the chemical weapons capability of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
“They’ve got that stuff over there, and a lot of it,” he said, “and I think we have to go in and destroy the mechanisms for sending it out.”
‘I miss the farm’
Aasen, who lives in Connecticut, has a photograph of his uncle carrying a duffel bag and walking away from the farm, on his way to war. The photo is blurry and shows only the back of the young man. It was taken by his mother, using a Kodak box camera.
“He was a bugler in the Army, but he saw a lot of combat, too,” Aasen said.
Aasen said his mother kept a large, oval portrait of her brother in her living room, and she told stories about him. Oliver was outgoing and very popular before he was drafted and left for war, she said.
“He was a very athletic guy,” Aasen said. “He used to stand on a motorcycle and ride all around Hillsboro. One day, he fell off it, and his mother gave him hell, so he stopped.
“They had a baseball team out there by Taft, a bunch of farm boys playing ball on Sundays. They didn’t have any gloves, so maybe it was softball they played.”
Oliver sent letters home from France. Aasen has read them. “There was a lot of censorship,” he said, but it was clear his uncle didn’t care for the war.
“There’d be things like, ‘I can’t tell you where we are, but the weather is good. I miss the farm. The food is terrible.’ And he said, ‘These French people don’t know how to farm.’
“He was homesick, I know that.”
When he got home, “he was really a sad sight,” Aasen said, recalling what he was told by other members of the family.
“He had a girlfriend before the war. She was obviously very upset, very broken up. But she nursed him those years he was home. It was hard to get a doctor or nurse out there…
“We have very strong feelings about chemical weapons in my family. It’s hard even now to talk about it. It was such a waste of good men.”