Battling a war while fighting an epidemic: Remembering Ozark County’s WWI dead
Editor’s note: This Memorial Day tribute is adapted from “Called to the Colors: Ozark County in WWI,” edited by Mary Sparks and published in 2017 by the Ozark County Historium. The book can be purchased for $10 at the Historium (when it reopens following its closing due to pandemic precautions), or it can be ordered by mailing a check payable to OCGHS to P.O. Box 4, Gainesville, MO 65655 or purchased online at ozarkcountyhistory.org or (add $5 each for postage).
For those who celebrate the true meaning of Memorial Day, this holiday honoring America’s war dead is a solemn, poignant time. But because it comes during the nation’s current struggle with a pandemic reminiscent of the virulent influenza pandemic that raged during the First World War, Memorial Day 2020 acquires even deeper insight. As the death toll from the COVID-19 virus mounts – on Tuesday it totaled 89,407 in the United States and 311,847 deaths worldwide – it hurts to imagine how much more terrible it must have been a century ago when a deadly disease – Spanish influenza – attacked the whole world while an equally deadly war raged.
These are the stories of the 12 Ozark County men whose names are listed as World War I deaths on the Ozark County War Memorial on the courthouse lawn – plus three others who have been identified since the monument was installed in 1991. Sadly, most died of influenza before they ever saw combat.
Two terrible years …
America officially entered World War I on April 6, 1917, and as far as we can tell by searching Ozark County Times archives, the county’s first victim of that war, William Freeman of Zanoni, died eight months later, on Dec. 7, 1917. But he didn’t die in combat. He died in Oklahoma of influenza-related pneumonia.
In its Dec. 14, 1917, edition, the Times reported that “a telegram received here Saturday evening from Ft. Sill, Okla., stated that William E. Freeman, one of Ozark County’s soldier boys who had been transferred from Camp Funston to Ft. Sill, had died at that camp and that the body would be shipped to the home of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Freeman, at Zanoni. He is supposed to have died of pneumonia.”
Freeman died less than three months after he left Ozark County on Sept. 19 with 30 other “Ozark County boys” who were taken by car (eight of them) to West Plains, where the inductees boarded a train bound for Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, according to the Sept. 21, 1917, edition of the Times.
The camp, designed to house 40,000 soldiers in the Army’s 89th Division, had dozens of two-story barracks where each huge “sleeping room” had 150 beds. Ozark County soldier O. D. Barner, wrote home that the soldiers slept on “iron beds with springs and mattresses.”
The soldiers themselves filled the mattresses with straw, according to a Feb. 27, 1918, letter from another Ozark Countian, Fred Hampton.
On April 3, 1918, another Ozark County soldier, Lawrence Cates, died of bronchial pneumonia at Camp Funston, less than six weeks after he left home. He was 25, the son of Mr. and Mrs. William Cates of Noble. The body was shipped home and buried in the Peters Cemetery.
Just 24 days later, Ozark County lost its third service man, Roscoe Beard, who had enlisted in the Navy on March 30, 1918, and was dead less than a month later. He was 25. The son of J. U. Beard of Gainesville, he died April 27, 1918, of “lobar pneumonia” at the Great Lakes Training Station in Illinois. In its May 3, 1918, edition, the Times reported, “The body was shipped and arrived at West Plains on Monday morning where it was taken in charge of by relatives who took it to the home of his sister, Mrs. Glen Luna, on Sand Ridge. Burial was made in the Sally [Sallee] Cemetery.”
It was around this time that the scattered cases of influenza began coalescing into a storm of disease that would soon circle the globe, killing millions. According to John M. Barry, author of “The Great Influenza,” this new and deadly strain of influenza started in early 1918 in Haskell County, Kansas. Several Haskell County men were serving at Camp Funston – along with, by then, 50,000 other American troops.
Barracks and tents were overcrowded, and the winter of 1917–1918 set records for cold temperatures. On March 4, 1918, a Camp Funston cook fell ill with the flu. Within three weeks, more than 1,100 soldiers were sick enough to be treated at the camp hospital. Pneumonia developed in 237 of the men, and 38 of them died, possibly including Lawrence Cates.
During that time, men from Camp Funston traveled to other bases and even to Europe. By early April 1918, this strain of flu had reached Brest, France, where American troops had been disembarking. But neither the American military nor its Allies would admit the flu was a problem, so newspapers said little about it. Then, in May 1918, the flu reached Spain, a neutral country, and Spanish King Alphonse XIII fell seriously ill. Newspapers in Spain wrote a lot about the deadly disease, causing it to become known as “the Spanish influenza.”
The flu wasn’t a new disease. One of the differences this time, though, was that so many young, healthy people died.
Author Barry said the flu came back to the U.S. in a “second wave” beginning in early August 1918 when sailors infected with influenza arrived in New York Harbor on ships from Sweden and Norway.
Camp Devens: 100 deaths a day
This time it struck hard first at Camp Devens, northwest of Boston, where several Ozark County men had trained before shipping out. Fortunately, most of the Ozark Countians were already gone by August 1918. Forty-five thousand men were training at Camp Devens, and it took medical authorities awhile to realize the illness sweeping through the troops was the flu. By the time they realized they needed to start quarantining patients, it was too late.
On Sept. 24, 1918, more than 1,500 men, ill with the flu, reported to the Camp Devens hospital, which had been built to accommodate 1,200 patients. About 350 patients there had developed the worst pneumonia doctors had ever seen. The hospital called in 250 more doctors. But doctors and nurses also became sick and died. One young nurse who reported to work in the morning was dead by evening.
Camp Devens began averaging 100 deaths a day.
The Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois also erupted with flu about the same time. Eventually, the flu hit almost every U.S. training camp. Medical authorities warned against sending men to France, but military officials ignored the warning, except that they didn’t ship men who showed obvious symptoms before departure.
The troop transports became “death ships,” Barry wrote. Undoubtedly, some of the Ozark County men who would die overseas from influenza were on those ships.
The military did not want to publicly acknowledge how severe the flu had become, so many deaths were reported as pneumonia. Actually, many got the flu first, and then pneumonia finished them off.
Because of the severity of the influenza outbreak, U.S. Provost Marshal Gen. Crowder canceled the draft calls for the week of Oct. 7-14.
Rapid-fire death notices
In its Oct. 18, 1918, edition, the Times reported the deaths of brothers Claude and Frank Riggs of Hammond. Both died of influenza in military training camps: Claude, 24, died Oct. 8 at Camp Johnston in Florida. Frank, 26, died two days later at Camp Merritt, New Jersey.
In a 2017 letter to the editor of the Old Mill Run, Gladys Imogene Hodges said she had heard lots of flu stories from her father, a friend of Dr. George Taylor of Almartha. Among the many flu victims Dr. Taylor had treated was a fellow physician, Dr. Ernest Kyle. Hodges wrote that some people thought Dr. Kyle caught the flu from opening the coffins of Frank and Claude Riggs after their bodies were shipped home. A family member wanted to see them, Ms. Hodges said, and “no one would open the coffins.” Finally, Dr. Kyle, 39, the father of five children, opened them.
He died from influenza and pneumonia on Nov. 16, 1918. Of course it can’t be known whether he contracted influenza by opening the soldiers’ caskets; it was also known that Dr. Kyle “never refused to visit any patient when called upon to do so,” according to a story by the late Dean Wallace in the Old Mill Run. Dr. Kyle’s mother, Susan, 60, died four days later, on Nov. 20.
By the time the news of the Riggs brothers’ death reached Ozark County, four other Ozark Countians had died – John W. Wright of Nottinghill, Thurlow Mullins of Bakersfield, and Gilmore Gillette and Virgil Y. Mahan of Pontiac – but the news hadn’t reached home yet. All died overseas.
Wright, son of Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Wright, “had almost reached the front when stricken with pneumonia and died Oct. 2,” according to a memorium published in the Times. His brother, Fred, survived the war.
Mullins, 21, son of James and Susan Mullins, had been inducted on May 17 and was sent overseas in July. He died Oct. 6.
Gillette, 23, son of Joseph and Betsy House Gillette, was inducted into the Army in August 1918 and was sent to France in September. A friend, Mort Farel, told his family he knew Gilmore was alive when he arrived in Brest, France, on Oct. 2. But he was dead by Oct. 10.
Mahan’s Oct. 10 death wasn’t mentioned in the Times until the Pontiac correspondent wrote, in the Dec. 6 items, “J. W. Mahan received word last week that his son, Virgil, had died in Liverpool, England.” Other soldiers had said Liverpool was a stop on their way to France.
The Times’ Toledo community correspondent wrote in the Nov. 1, 1918, edition that James Duckworth, 27, had died Oct. 18, 1918, at a camp in Michigan. He was the son of Eliza Jane and William Goforth Duckworth. In a Times story, the U.S. Surgeon General had warned people to avoid big groups, but after Duckworth’s body was shipped home, a large crowd gathered for his funeral in the Otter Creek Cemetery.
Also in the Nov. 1 edition of the Times, the Longrun correspondent reported that Florence Derrick, had received a telegram saying her son, LeRoy Peacock, 24, had died several weeks earlier, on Sept. 26, in a French hospital where a medical worker described him as “so ill” when he was admitted.
Two other Ozark County soldiers also died of the flu about that same time:
William H. Anderson, 30, who had listed himself as a farmer when he registered for the draft in Rockbridge, died Oct. 25, 1918, in France. A note on Ancestry.com says that when Anderson left for the war, he said he wouldn’t come back. His was another death the Army chalked up to pneumonia, but the note on Ancestry said he died of flu.
Ethmer Green, 24, of Elijah died Dec. 14, 1918, in France, of pneumonia. He arrived overseas Oct. 6, 1918, and worked in an ordinance repair shop depot. His commanding officer wrote that he was buried in a “pretty little cemetery” with his fellow soldiers and “a delegation of French people, with flowers” in attendance. After the war, his body was reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery.
The names Charley Egan and Wagoner Mahan also appear in the list of World War I names on the county’s War Memorial, but neither death was reported in the Ozark County Times. Egan’s Missouri service record shows he was inducted into the Army at the Presidio, California, on March 31, 1914. After he died on Oct. 4, 1918, of wounds received in action, the military notified “Mrs. Queen Victoria Egan of Dora.” It’s believed she was his mother.
Egan served overseas with the 16th Infantry of the 1st Division from June 17, 1917, until his death. That means he was among the first U.S. troops shipped to France after war was declared April 6, 1917.
Mahan’s first name was Hansen, not Wagoner. The misnaming probably occurred because his job in the 90th Division was as a wagoner. He is buried near Thornfield in the Bradley-Mahan Cemetery, where his headstone says he was killed in action on Oct. 25, 1918. He died near Nantillois in the Meuse region of France, so Mahan must have died in the battle of Meuse Argonne, which began Sept. 26, 1918, and continued until the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, just 17 days after Mahan died.
Hansen Mahan, 24, was the son of Huston and Mandy Simpson Mahan and the grandson of the man known as King David Mahan Sr.