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The missing "doughboy" of Dunn county

About 116,516 Americans died on foreign soil fighting in World War 1.

"Two armies that fight each other are like one large army that commits suicide." — Henri Barbusse, 1916

On the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, silence fell on Europe for the first time in 1,564 days. The bloodshed and carnage of the Great War had ceased and in its wake, 20 million markers would denote the final resting places of a generation. Following the war, many veterans returned home and slipped into near obscurity with no monument to their courage.

John A. Coombes, of Killdeer, was one such veteran. A Private First Class in the United States Army, his service saw him gallantly participate in multiple battles across the Alsace-Lorraine region of northeastern France during World War I. Wounded twice, gassed once, captured as a prisoner of war and released, Coombes experienced intimately the horrors of war. That's where his story ends on paper. Following the war, like many who served during that time, there are no further records of what became of Coombes.

The Dunn County Museum uncovered an old plat map showing records for a John H. Coombes, presumably the veteran's father, owning a 160-acre plot of land North-East of Killdeer. Official German prisoner of war records also list a prisoner, John A. Coombes as a captive from "North Dakota's Killdeer." Little else is known of the service of the Dunn County "doughboy"—a term used to refer to US service members during the war— nor what became of the man.

"It's hard to find records from that period, and there is conflicting information on Coombes," Cathy Trampe, of the Dunn County Museum, said. "His story appears to be very interesting."

Online military service records indicate that on April 7, 1917, Coombes departed by train for training aimed at building up physical fitness and confidence; instilling discipline and obedience; and teaching the fundamental military skills necessary to function in the army. Within eight months he would be on foreign soil, charging enemy lines and under constant enemy shelling.

On June 9, 1918, Coombes was restructured into a new unit and sent to the front lines near Saint-Mihiel. The move was part of a plan by General John Pershing in which he hoped that the Americans would break through the German lines and capture the fortified city of Metz. During the battle, Coombes would be wounded for the first time while struck by shrapnel from a 17cm mittlerer Minenwerfer artillery shell. Two months later, recovered and back on the front lines he would suffer his second wound of the war when a night time gas attack forced him to evacuate to a nearby French hospital.

On Aug. 22, 1918 Coombes would be captured by German forces during a battle in the small forested area known as Bois-le-Prêtre near Metz.

The last record of Coombes is an official Red Cross release stating that he was released in a prisoner exchange a month after the armistice in December of 1918.

That is where the story appears to end, except for the recent discovery of an article published in the Dickinson Press in September of 1918 which announced that the family of John A. Coombes received a letter from the war office stating that their son had died during battle.

Much like the war itself, the circumstances surrounding Coombes' ultimate fate have been muddied by time. What truly became of Dunn County's "doughboy"? If you have any information surrounding the final fate—and resting place—of Coombes, please let us know at jmiller@thedickinsonpress.com.