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Remembering the World War I soldiers who succumbed to the 1918 flu pandemic

1918 flu pandemic (russellstreet/WikiCommons)
May 25, 2020

The 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic surged in the military training camps and foxholes of a brutal world war – the perfect incubation conditions for an influenza historians now believe got its start not in Spain, but in U.S. military camps.

The flu first traveled with U.S. soldiers to European battlefields, it is surmised, where in the crowded fighting conditions, it found even more ideal conditions to spread, mutate and become more deadly. It felled young men in their prime, the very demographic of those fighting.

Then, it returned to U.S. shores with these same troops, erroneously called the Spanish flu because of early reporting on the deaths from Spain.

So many soldiers succumbed at Ohio’s Camp Sherman outside Chillicothe that the city tried to barricade itself from infection, but then had to loosen those restrictions as the bodies piled up and makeshift morgues had to be created in the city.

A recent Ohio History Connection article by Karen Robertson details the horror:

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“Camp Sherman quickly became a very dark place during the summer and fall of 1918,” Robertson writes. “About 5,686 military personnel fell ill, with 1,777” eventually dying from the flu.

On Oct. 12, Akron’s Malcolm Crosby, 23, died of the flu at Camp Sherman’s base hospital. His gravesite, in Akron’s Glendale Cemetery, is recorded on a virtual cemetery of scores of 1918-1919 influenza victims, most of them in Akron, created on the Find A Grave website by Kathie Weigel “Zella.”

English-born Pvt. James Jackson of Struthers, Ohio, enlisted in September 1918. By Oct. 8, at just 21 years old, he was dead of the flu, buried in Mahoning County’s Lowellville Cemetery.

Another virtual cemetery at Find-a-Grave records 36 babies who died of the 1918 influenza and are buried in Cleveland’s Calvary Cemetery. At Calvary, 985 people were buried just in the month of November 1918 — a record 81 on Nov. 4, 1918, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

The confluence of war and disease had a calamitous impact not just at home, but also on the U.S. war effort.

“At the height of the American military involvement in [World War I], September through November 1918, influenza and pneumonia sickened 20% to 40% of U.S. Army and Navy personnel,” according to a 2010 Public Health Report by independent scholar Carol R. Byerly.

“By the War Department’s most conservative count, influenza sickened 26% of the Army — more than one million men — and killed almost 30,000 before they even got to France,” Byerly added. “On both sides of the Atlantic, the Army lost a staggering 8,743,102 days to influenza among enlisted men in 1918.”

For the country’s fighting men exposed to a war in which combatants faced previously unimaginable levels of firepower lethality and poison gas, often without the capacity to evacuate the wounded, the overlay of a deadly pandemic added a new and horrific risk.

Byerly reports the flu hit U.S. troops overseas at “the climax of the American military effort” and that it “ultimately killed more American military personnel than did enemy machine guns and artillery.”

So as we grieve our fallen in our hometowns and with our families, during a Memorial Day without parades but with plenty of memories, let’s spare a thought for these brave and beset men and their families. Take a moment to think what it must have been like, felt like, to survive terrible battle only to face a pandemic that was as selective in taking young men then, as the coronavirus seems to be today in felling our revered elders.

Pay your respects at the graves of Pvt. Jackson in Mahoning County and Malcolm Crosby in Akron, or visit some of the little babies buried at Cleveland’s Calvary Cemetery. And then think of the thousands like Jackson and Crosby who sacrificed and fell in service — and the many, unlike them, buried overseas.

These are sobering reflections to add to the respect and honor we pay every Memorial Day to all who served, not just those who fell for our great nation, but also those who fought with them and survived, who brought the memories, and guilt, home with them. We honor and remember them all.

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© 2020 The Plain Dealer