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"It's like a puzzle" -- Amateur historian uncovers the Dunn County doughboy's story

Douglas Ellison, former mayor of Medora and current proprietor of Western Edge Books, has a history of digging up information on some of history’s forgotten heroes. Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press
Douglas Ellison, former mayor of Medora and current proprietor of Western Edge Books, has a history of digging up information on some of history’s forgotten heroes. Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press

In a long forgotten archive, on a dusty shelf in a library on the other side of the world, a single entry in a record sparked a search for answers-who was the Dunn County doughboy?

When the Press delved into the records, it quickly became apparent that Dunn County had a World War I veteran whose service was unrecognized.

John H. Coombes was going to be a hard man to track down. Personnel records and newspapers of the day reported Coombes killed-in-action during a pivotal battle that General John Pershing hoped would break the German lines and capture the fortified city of Metz. Sadly, it appeared that Coombes' story had come to a close as he took his final breaths on a distant battlefield and beneath a foreign sun.

Then a discovery called the entire story into question. In a French record of German and American prisoner exchanges, a single entry stood out. "John A. Coombes, du Dakota du Nord Killdeer, libéré après l'armistice." (John A. Coombes, of North Dakota Killdeer, released after armistice)

Now at an impasse, the Press reached out to the public for assistance. What became of the Dunn County doughboy?

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Amateur Historian Uncovers Truth

In the days and weeks following the publication of that article, sources came forward with an interest in helping give "a voice to this forgotten hero," and within days a host of information gleaned from records, census reports and more began to answer that question.

Douglas Ellison, former mayor of Medora and current proprietor of Western Edge Books, has a history of digging up information on some of history's heroes.

In 2017, Ellison published a book "Theodore Roosevelt and Tales Told as Truth of his Time in the West" and previously worked tirelessly to have a Medal of Honor recipient recognized after discovering his unmarked burial site.

"Who cares? Well, history cares," Ellison said. "I think history should be accurate, as accurate as possible, which is why I tried to go back to the original sources. This story piqued my interest, and I got to work."

Amateur historians and genealogists have been fortunate beneficiaries of the advancements made in digitizing archives and low-cost DNA analysis. The rapidly expanding wealth of online resources such as www.ancestry.com and www.newspapers.com , which offer subscription services to research family histories, have also provided hobbyists with the ability to research anyone, from anytime.

"It's like a puzzle. You start out with a single piece, and it's blurry and doesn't paint a full picture," Ellison said. "But once you find the next piece and the next, the picture starts to form."

Digging through the archive, "Soldiers of the Great War - North Dakota," Ellison found a listing for a private killed in action named John H. Coombes. From there he was able to get Coombes service number. With that new source of information, Ellison was able to find a trove of information concerning the Dunn County doughboy.

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"He didn't die during the war," Ellison said. "I found his tombstone that showed the same service number. It showed he died in February of 1949. There was more to the story than that, too."

Further digging uncovered that Coombes moved with his parents from Iowa to rural Dunn County between 1900 and 1910. He enlisted in Company F, 1st Infantry, North Dakota National Guard at Mandan on May 9, 1917. Coombes served in Company F until Jan. 18, 1918, when he was collected into a new company for the big battle near Metz.

"His military records showed he was wounded twice and gassed severely during an offensive at Aisne-Marne," Ellison said. "He returned home after being a prisoner of war."

An internment record marked his burial at Fort Snelling National Cemetery and denoted that Coombes had a Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster. That internment record provided Ellison with more avenues to research information on Coombes.

"In February of 1942, less than two full months removed from the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Coombes registered for service in World War II at the age of 43," Ellison said pointing to the registration card denying Coombes service request. "He's a guy who was badly wounded, thought dead, prisoner of war and he's standing up again saying, 'send me.'"

Although Coombes wasn't in fighting form at the onset of WWII, he found a way to serve his country nonetheless by working as a defense contractor in Minnesota.

Tough Luck Kids

1943 would be a tough year for the Coombes family as first reported by the Minneapolis Morning Tribune three days before Christmas of that year.

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"Attempts to reach the second floor by the stairs were blocked by fire and smoke, although the men hurled several pails of water onto the flames...Firemen administered oxygen and first aid to the youngsters before an ambulance arrive to take them to the hospital...All the children of Mr. and Mrs. John H. Coombes were saved after a fire swept their home."

The fire that destroyed the Coombes home and injured the children and pet dog would be the first in a series of misfortunes. Shortly after the fire, John H. Coombes suffered a "paralytic stroke" which left him unable to work.

That is where the story leaves off for now. Knowing the full story of the Dunn County doughboy has finally brought closure to a silenced voice, but it also opened the door to many more questions.

What became of the Coombes children? George, Paul, Mary Lou, Ella, John and Ruth Ann? Do the descendants of John H. Coombes know about the heroic deeds of their ancestor?

"I think this story will be done when we find a descendant, perhaps even a photo of John Coombes," Ellison said. "At least now we know what became of our Dunn County doughboy."

If you have any information surrounding the Coombes children or descendants, please let us know at jmiller@thedickinsonpress.com .

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