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An exhibit by the
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Oregon at War! American soldiers marching through gas shelled French town.
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On Active Service
Influenza claims another victim

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Private Erick B. Anderson of the Coos Bay area died of influenza while awaiting a discharge from the Spruce Production Division.

Private Erick B. Anderson of the Coos Bay area died of influenza while awaiting a discharge from the Spruce Production Division. (OSA)

One family's tragedy
Erick Bernard Anderson, a 27 year old son of Swedish immigrants, was drafted into the military in July 1918. His background as a logger and railroad tie and pole cutter in the woods of Coos County made him a natural fit for assignment to the Spruce Production Division in the Pacific Northwest. The division provided the military with the strong, light spruce wood for use in the airplanes that were gaining increasing importance in the war.

Just a few months later, hostilities ended and most of those in military service looked forward to returning to civilian life. Anderson was sent to the Army barracks at Vancouver where he was to be mustered out of service and return to Coos County. But while awaiting his discharge papers, he contracted influenza. His father, John, received three telegrams telling him of his son's worsening condition. He was standing at a Coos County depot waiting to leave for Vancouver when the news of Erick's death arrived.

Erick died the day before his 28th birthday. His mother had died when he was an infant - an only child. Three days later, John and family friends mourned Erick's death and wrote these words:

"He left his home in Perfect health
he looked so young and brave
We little thought how soon he'd be
laid in a soldier's grave"

Now alone, John joined the thousands of Oregonians who grieved the loss of loved ones to influenza in 1918 and 1919, both at war and on the home front.

Oregon suffers as global influenza pandemic hits
A deadly form of influenza swept around the world in 1918 and 1919. The virus was often called "Spanish Flu," partially because the uncensored press in neutral Spain helped publicize the deadly outbreak. While exact numbers are unknown, it eventually claimed over 50 million lives around the world before it ended in 1919 (16 million in India alone). Ironically, the virus took far more lives than World War I itself claimed.

Private Anderson served in the Army's Spruce Production Division with these men posing around a log truck. (Image courtesy swansongrp.com)

Private Anderson served in the Army's Spruce Production Division with these men posing around a log truck. (Image courtesy swansongrp.com)

 

 

 

The precise source and path of the pandemic continues to be a matter of some debate. A first wave spread around the globe beginning in March 1918. It died down in the summer but only weeks later a second wave, now much stronger, swept around the world. This outbreak included harsher symptoms such as bronchial pneumonia, heliotrope cyanosis, and septicemic blood poisoning.  A growing number were dying from their symptoms.

Unlike most strains of influenza, it often struck strong, young individuals more severely than other demographic groups. It could strike incredibly quickly with symptoms of a brief fever followed abruptly by death. Pneumonia, the usual secondary cause of death related to influenza, often did not have a chance to develop because the virus killed so quickly. It caused an uncontrollable hemorrhaging that filled the lungs, leaving victims to drown in their own body fluids.

While most casualties of the pandemic were civilian, influenza had an important effect on the war. By the fall of 1918, a typical troop ship sailing from America was reaching the port city of Brest, France with dozens of deaths from influenza. Convoys of ambulances would meet the ships to take away the dead and sick soldiers. The sickness swept through the front lines of Germany and its allies at a time when they were already weakened by the attrition of years of war and decreasing human and material resources. The terrible physical conditions and mental stresses of trench life lowered the natural immunity of troops on both sides and allowed the virus to spread even more.

 

Influenza swept though the trenches of both sides in 1918 making the experience for soldiers, such as these Americans in France, that much worse. The virus also struck the home front. Image colorized.

Influenza swept though the trenches of both sides in 1918 making the experience for soldiers, such as these Americans in France, that much worse. The virus also struck the home front. Image colorized. (OSA, Oregon Defense Council Records, Photographs, Box 2)

The best estimates are that the United States suffered 450,000 civilian deaths, mostly otherwise healthy people under the age of 40. Death certificates held by the Oregon State Archives document thousands of influenza deaths from 1918 to 1919.

In response to the crisis, the Red Cross took steps in communities throughout Oregon to provide supplies and services. In Klamath Falls, volunteers made masks, pneumonia jackets, and other articles. These were then distributed to doctors for the influenza isolation hospital and for cases of influenza in private homes. The demand for supplies was so great that the Red Cross kept its work rooms open seven days a week and several evenings in order to keep up. Red Cross nurses and helpers fanned out into homes throughout the area and worked at the city hospital. And, in Klamath Falls, the organization helped financially also. It reached an agreement with the city and county to pay for one third of the expenses related to the second wave of the epidemic.

(Oregon State Defense Council Records, Personal Military Service Records, World War I, Box 2, Coos County, School District No. 79; State Historian's Correspondence, Box 1, Folder 38)

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