Oct. 3 marks the 99th anniversary of when a German machine gunner set his sights on and shot at Mankatoan Leo Lorentz and the U.S. Army lieutenant to whom Lorentz reported as a battlefield runner.
The machine gun’s bullets killed Lorentz instantly, along with his lieutenant. Lorentz died near Suippes, France, in his late 20s, part of an advance of his Infantry Company to a line held by the German army. Field observations detailed heavy machine gunfire and shelling from the enemy side that morning. Many of his fellow infantrymen also died during this bloody advance.
Almost a century later, most Mankatoans probably go about their busy lives with little thought of the local men and women who served their country during the times when the United States participated in wars overseas, at least since the 1900s. Instant news reports can be almost too numbing to help keep Mankato’s military service past in perspective.
World War I seems so long ago. Looking back, it appears to have been so unmercifully violent, incorporating new forms of killing machinery and chemical weapons. Black and white images of the war are speckled and scratchy and the causes that started the war nearly impossible to pin down.
But the wartime service of many city residents over the years holds deep roots in Mankato’s history.
A simple walk down a street or sitting down for a meal downtown or up on the hilltop, for instance, creates the opportunity when you might see in passing someone who had a friend or family member who suffered a war injury or paid the ultimate price. Or you may experience a brief encounter with someone new to you, a wartime veteran, not knowing fully that his or her backstory includes one or more tours of duty in places of conflict, serving alongside soldiers like Leo Lorentz and others who died in battle like him.
Lorentz’s job of a runner (or carrier) — long before any high-tech gadgetry improved combat communications — required him to physically run and carry messages back and forth to the officers commanding the troops in the field during the heat of battle. In a letter mailed to his mother, Margaret Lorentz, after his death, an Army chaplain wrote: “Your son lived as a man and died as a hero.”
Earlier the same year in August, she received a previous letter. This one from her other son, Wendall, part of an American Army company assisting the French Army fighting the Germans nearby Soissons, France.
“I have been looking for my brother Leo all over, but have not run across him yet. I sure would like to find and have a talk with him.”
Shortly after mailing this letter, Wendall, older brother of Leo, died Aug. 29, 1918, five hours after receiving an injury to his spine from a piece of shrapnel. He was assigned to perform as a guard on duty while in the trenches.
The brothers died in combat in France 36 days apart from each other.
Naming the Mankato American Legion Post “Lorentz” became a way to always honor the sacrifice of the local two brothers. The Post continues to do so even today. In 1919, it was the 11th American Legion Minnesota Post chartered after World War I.
It’s common knowledge that new occupants will take over the spaces in the building on Walnut Street that once housed Lorentz Post 11 of the American Legion. But the Post will carry on with its original charter mission while adopting a new sense of purpose, helping provide the latest generations of wartime veterans with camaraderie, connections to services and support, and outlets to become involved in the community on a more impactful scale.
All in the meantime, it will always keep in mind the sacrifices of the Mankato-area residents who served in the U.S. military nearly a 100 years ago, everyday citizens like the Lorentz brothers.
Gary Pettis is a writer, designer and creative marketing professional from Mankato.