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A showcase of our most treasured collections selected by VHP staff members. The written descriptions of these veterans’ stories highlight the diversity and dramatic content of our holdings. View additional staff favorites.

Image of Otto LevenOtto Ferdinand Leven

Go to Otto Leven's Collection

Otto Leven served in the army during World War I.  He was of hearty German stock (his parents immigrated to America around 1886) and spent most of his twenty-three civilian years on his family’s farms in Kay County and Newkirk, Oklahoma.  Besides family farm work, Leven spent some summers shucking corn in Iowa and also worked as a pipe fitter for a refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma (where he met his fiancé, Catherine), before being drafted in October 1917.  He was assigned to the 90th Infantry Division and served in the 357th Regiment.     

Leven apparently wrote home copiously.  His surviving letters project earnestness; they are at once charming and filled with enthusiasm.  Their conversational tone and purity might be described as “fresh-off-the farm.”           

Got a letter from Margaret yesterday, she sent me a dandy box of candy too.  Sure lots of homeboys down here.  Sometimes we don’t see each other for a week…I was out digging trenches this a.m.  Have them exactly like you see in moving pictures.  (Camp Travis, Texas, ca. October 1917)

An inconvenience, such as primitive mess arrangements, is described with humor in the same letter:

Sure is some life, eight of us line up in a tent in dust an inch deep. We sit down in the dirt and enjoy our meals.  The last few days have been windy and I’ve eaten more dirt than I ever did before in my life.

The innocence and optimism continue when he is finally in France.  He does, however, bring up the notion that he may not return.

Geo. Bontz’s girl got married, so, it sure is a guesswork isn’t it?  I consider myself real lucky and I’m sure My Catherine will wait for me.  So why should I worry and if I don’t get back I haven’t tied any one down… I’ve often wondered what I’d do when I get back. Sometimes I think I’d like to go back on the farm.  Mamma if Marie wants to study for nursing I say all right. She is old enough to know what she wants.  She may have my Liberty Bonds if she needs them for they ought to be there by the time you get this letter. (France, August 20, 1918) 

Leven was mortally wounded while on patrol on September 29, 1918 and died two days later.  He had just emerged unscathed from the St. Mihiel Offensive.  His last letters home offer the reader an irony created by the contrast between Leven’s generally cheery prose and the harshness of war.  The irony is further defined by Leven’s description of a dream he has where he envisions his mother and sister laying out his clothes.   

The letters, as they stand on their own, are testimony to this young man’s determination, fortitude and discipline.  In Leven’s collection, they have been transcribed by his nephew Andy Leven, who has arranged them in chronological order amid details of war activities corresponding with Leven’s locale at the time.  (The letters may also be found in Leven's memoir.)

Following Leven’s final missive comes the letter informing the family of Otto’s death, followed by expressions of sympathy, details of Otto’s shooting and death, and subsequent tributes to his bravery and good nature.  There are also communiqués regarding Leven’s subsequent exhumation from France and his reburial in Newkirk, Oklahoma, amid the soil he lovingly tilled amongst his hardworking family.   

Chosen by David Sager, Processing Technician.  David received his MA degree in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers University.  He came to the Veterans History Project from the Library's Recorded Sound Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division in 2007.

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  April 3, 2009
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