In light of the coronavirus pandemic, this week’s topic struck me as particularly relevant.
As many people probably remember from their high school history classes, World War I was fought in Europe from July 28th, 1914 to 11:00 on November 11th, 1918, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. But, the United States did not join the war until April 6th, 1917. For nineteen months, American forces joined British and French forces in the assault on the German’s Hindenburg Line.
During those nineteen months that the U.S. was at war, Mason County totaled 32 deaths. 17 of these were from the usual causes, the brutal realities of trench warfare at Chateau-Thierry, St. Quentin Canal, the Somme, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The other 15, nearly half of Mason County’s wartime deaths, were from a silent enemy.
The first wave of Spanish Flu in the spring of 1918 was nothing extraordinary. Like the standard flu that we’re all used to, the elderly and sick were most at risk. Unfortunately, after the first wave had subsided, the world went back to its normal business too fast and without appropriate protective measures. The virus mutated into a vicious killer and swept across the world.
Historians estimate that deaths from the Spanish Flu number anywhere from 25 million on the low end to 100 million on the high end, the problem being a lack of records in poorer countries, and unlike in the first wave, over 99% of these deaths were young, healthy people. And nowhere escaped, not isolated villages in the Canadian Arctic, not islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and certainly not the Ohio Valley. West Virginia reported 2,818 deaths in the fall of 1918, and Ohio reported nearly that many just in the vicinity of Camp Sherman and Chillicothe. The state total numbered well over 10,000.
The Spanish Flu’s impact on our region has never been fully studied, but it certainly took its toll. I don’t have an exact number, but about every third entry in the county death records for October to December 1918 lists influenza as the cause of death. Testifying to the sheer number of deaths is the fact that there were three deaths just on my mother’s side of the family, and those are just the ones I’ve confirmed. Two, my 3rd great-aunt Maria Rizer-Spencer and her brother Jesse Rizer, were 32 and 29 when they were buried on Middleport Hill.
The third death in my family was another 3rd great-uncle, Jerry Dailey, of Hartford, though he did not die here in Mason County. In 1918, he enlisted in the army and was assigned to the 72nd Infantry being trained at Camp Meade. He and Norman Lee, of New Haven, made the trip together, and everything was just fine until September. Then, that deadly second wave began its sweep through the base.
According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the disease arrived on September 17th. By the time the pandemic peaked at Camp Meade on October 20th, over 10,000 cases and 700 deaths had been reported. Two of those deaths were Norman and Jerry, who died just three days apart. A third was Earl Blain of Wyoma, at Camp Meade as part of the 154th Depot Brigade.
That’s them in the photo above. My 3rd great-uncle is standing left, and the other two are Norman and Earl, though I unfortunately don’t know which is which. Just three young men letting their families know that there were familiar faces in camp. Unfortunately, odds are, this was the last photo taken of them before they died in October.
Before the war was finished, another twelve local soldiers would die of Spanish Flu. This Memorial Day, we remember Randall Burris, Willard Camp, Samuel H. Childs, Carl Eckard, James Flora, George Hill, Clarence Mason, Kenneth Meadows, Dwight Oliver, Guy Spencer, George Stewart, and Lynford Yonker, along with the other 17 Mason County men that were killed in the First World War.
I can only hope that in honoring their service and sacrifice, we can learn something from their experience. As West Virginia and other states reopen, we must continue to follow the recommended precautions such as social distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands often, sanitizing surfaces. Otherwise, we are repeating the mistakes of our ancestors and run the risk of an even deadlier second wave of this pandemic.
Information from the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the WV Encyclopedia, Ohio History Central, the WV Veterans Memorial Database, and local death records.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.