Reflection: At Year’s End 2017

Earlier this year—in 2017, I stopped by to see a friend. It was over Memorial Day weekend and her little granddaughter joined us. At school, she said, they talked about heroes, like her dad, who fought in wars. She was proud of him. When I told her I was proud of my grandpa, who had fought in a war, she asked, “And why did that war happen?”

I didn’t have an answer. I struggled with simple explanations like disagreements or wanting to be in control. I didn’t bring up the story I’d been taught, which never made much sense, about an archduke from a faraway place called Sarajevo.

Months later, in October, I visited the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. The exhibits are divided between the origins of the war in Europe and the later entrance of American forces. It’s a great presentation, illuminating and thought-provoking, well worth a visit.

The introductory panel to the European section, reproduced below with the museum’s permission, brought me back to the little girl’s question. It also shook me into a realization that some of the tensions that took my grandfather into war remain unresolved today: globalization, wage inequality, nationalism, and the threat of an arms race.



In 1914, Europe was at the height of its power. A century of relative peace had brought great prosperity. Europeans had created a modern industrial society, pioneering the use of coal, oil, and hydroelectricity. Their empires controlled half of the world’s surface and resources. But beneath the economic and political success lay deep tensions. In industrialized countries, workers demanded a greater share of the wealth. In the Balkans, oppressed national groups clamored for self-determination. Europe’s leaders worried about competition from other nations over global trade, markets, raw materials, and colonial possessions. National rivalries led to the formation of military alliances. An unbridled arms race produced fleets of large battleships called Dreadnoughts. Despite the tensions, peace still prevailed. But Europe prepared for war.


Reproduced with permission from the National WWI Museum and Memorial Kansas City, Missouri, USA.

One small clue

I found this tiny paper tag—about 2 inches square–in the box of Grandpa’s letters. It wasn’t enclosed in an envelope, which could have provided a date. Clearly it related to the belongings kept for a patient. But when was Grandpa a patient, where, and for what condition?

tag reverse

The information on the other side appeared unrelated to the instructions. Instead of giving, as requested, the “Name of Hospital” and “Name of Patient,” whoever filled out the tag put Grandpa’s name at the top: Alderson, Thomas W. The middle section provided military identification: Private, Co. C, 356 Infantry, followed by a nearly illegible line. At the bottom appeared the name and address of his next of kin: Wm Alderson (father), King City Mo.

Patient Tag

At first, I imagined this tag marked his belongings during a long hospitalization in France. His battle injury in November 1918, required weeks of medical attention.

But after considering all the illnesses at Camp Funston during the fall of 1917, I studied the back of the tag more closely under my trusty magnifying loupe. The crinkled surface finally offered up the middle line: “Suspect Spinal Meningitis.”

And that’s the clue I needed to answer my questions. Grandpa showed symptoms of meningitis, one of the illnesses frequently reported at camp in 1917. None of his later correspondence mentioned the illness.

The tag also helped me piece together his correspondence from the last week of November and the first two weeks of December. There was a week when he didn’t write at all, at the end of November, or at least didn’t send what he’d written. He used both postcards and stationery, often leaving them undated. Sometimes, in one letter he would refer to an earlier note, explaining that he was enclosing both in the same envelope, further complicating a timeline that might explain this chaotic episode.

Here’s what I think happened.

The week of Thanksgiving, Grandpa was taken from his barracks with symptoms, carrying with him some of his belongings (and perhaps the tag).Soldiers Arriving Funston

He spent some days (perhaps a week?) in one of the tents at the detention camp, where the army isolated “germ carriers.” On December 4, in the first letter he mailed since November 26, he mentioned how he “slept cold.” He never provided the date he was sent to this camp.


Germ carriers stayed in tents seen in the distance. Winter temperatures often fell below freezing.

He also reported (letter on the left, below) how “fifteen of our boys leaving for Funston today, I only wish I was one of them.” (To picture his movement about camp, think about the biggest area being Ft. Riley, inside whose boundaries were the detention camp on an area called Pawnee Flats, and across the river the actual Camp Funston, which approached the look and size of a town of more than 40,000 people. The large base hospital occupied still another area.)

“I will perhaps get out by Sat if I have good luck.” He didn’t. Instead, he was transported from the detention camp to the base hospital.


Two letters, December 4 and December 9.

In the letter on the right, written from the hospital on December 9th, he told Grandma, “I was at the carriers camp and was almost ready to get out when I got my Blood Poison, they brought me here Thurs night [December 6]. I was pretty sick.” In a later note, he would identify his arm as the site of the infection. The change in handwriting, one letter to the next, looks like he was writing in pain.

Interior of Quarters, Fort Riley

Grandpa sent this postcard December 13, noting “still here, my arm’s improving fine.”

I like the detail in the December 9th letter, “my clothes is scattered all over the state of Kansas.” The transfer from the camp to the hospital must have separated Grandpa from his belongings (and the tag). On the 11th, he told her one of those missing items was the sweater she had knit for him. Also that day, he wrote, “My second culture was taken since I came here and was found negative so I am loose from the Spinal Meningitis deal,” confirming the tag’s origin to December, 1917.

Grandpa was discharged from the hospital and permitted to go home for Christmas, between December 16 and 26. After his return, his luck changed. He stayed healthy during the rest of his training at Camp Funston. He also found the sweater. At the end of his December 29th letter, he added a P.S. “I told you I got my sweater didn’t I yesterday.”

Thanks to that little tag, I bet.





Was it Spanish Influenza?

After my post on illness at Camp Funston, some of you wondered whether my grandfather was witnessing the Spanish flu. Ever since I began reading his letters, especially the ones from the fall of 1917, I’ve wondered the same.

In writing about the Spanish flu, I realize I belong to a generation that may be the last to know firsthand about this worldwide pandemic of 1918. Many of our grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and their friends fell victim to this virulent form of influenza. In my family, my great Aunt Gene suffered poor health most of her life. Mother told me this was due, in part, to the lingering effects of the Spanish flu.

Influenza had been known for a long time, but was considered a seasonal condition that was largely an irritant, like a mild cold. It could be deadly, but usually only among older patients whose immune systems left them vulnerable to bronchitis or pneumonia.

The Spanish flu was something different. It attacked young adults. The virus often moved directly into the lungs, suffocating and quickly killing its victims. The mobilization of millions of troops to crowded camps in the U.S. and then to the front lines in Europe certainly spread the virus, as did international travel and commerce.

The Spanish flu followed a cyclical path, beginning in a mild form, retreating for weeks, and then returning in ever more lethal forms. John M. Barry has written about the pandemic in his book, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, 2004. Recently, he penned an article, “Journal of the Plague Year,” which ran in the November 2017 issue of Smithsonian. (Thanks, Charlene, for the tip.) Barry has concluded that Camp Funston was the site of early cases in the United States, citing March 4, 1918, as the date of the first reported case. (p. 36) He believes that the virus came to the camp from people either visiting from, or called to service from, Haskell County, in southwestern Kansas. That’s where a doctor noted, in January 1918, a number of severe illnesses that couldn’t be identified. (p. 34)

This takes the story of the great influenza back to January 1918. But were there earlier, milder outbreaks, perhaps during the fall of 1917?

The U.S. Army assembled a group of doctors immediately after the war to contribute to the monumental review of medical practices and diseases known during what they called the “world war.” This study, The Medical Department of United States Army in the World War, Washington: U.S. Army Surgeon General’s Office, 1923-29, is available online (My thanks to Jonathan Casey at the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial in Kansas City for calling this to my attention.)

In Volume IX, Chapter 2, “Communicable Diseases,” attention is paid to the general topic of influenza. The authors conclude that “It appears . . . that evidences of epidemic waves of influenza during the war period were noted for: (1) April, 1917; (2) December, 1917, to January, 1918; (3) March to April, 1918; (4) September to October, 1918; (5) January to February, 1919; (6) June to July, 1919.” (p. 84).

But were all these waves the Spanish flu? Barry and these medical writers from the 1920s agree that the answer remains elusive, in part, because different names, in different places, were recorded as the cause of an illness. And, complicating an understanding today, the term “Spanish flu” wasn’t introduced until the middle of 1918. That’s when a major outbreak in Spain, in May of 1918, infected their king (who survived). After that, the illness was popularly known as the Spanish flu.

So, what exactly caused the illnesses that my grandfather witnessed at Camp Funston? It remains a mystery, at least to me. Certainly it was terrifying. Grandpa referred to illnesses and quarantine in almost all his letters from November and December, 1917. He wrote about his buddies running high fevers, one being unconscious, and of watching them be taken to the hospital.

Red Cross new

November 16: “The DeKalb [county] boys that were taken to the hospital Monday was a Castor boy from Wetherby and Hawk(?) boy from Osborn. I was out at the Red Cross wagon when they left. I sure felt sorry. The Castor boy was just a little over 21 years old, and a good boy.”

 He reported the many times he was tested for meningitis, which seems to have caused the most alarm. It may be what is referenced in a letter from a friend back home, to which Grandpa responded:

Victims of Funston 11-13

November 13: “He wanted to know if our co [company] had got that awful disease yet, I think we are the victims of Funston.”

Maybe because he was a company cook, he kept careful note of how many men to feed. At one point in November, a quarter of his company had been taken to the hospital, a drop from 196 to 145 men in a matter of weeks. (Most would return.)

Rumors spread through the camp, and this may have been one.

75% nov 15cropped

November 15: “They say about 75% of the camp is quarantined and lots dying, the ambulances sure are hauling them out of here fast.”

Between November 26 and December 7, Grandpa didn’t send any letters. The last one, excerpted here, provides a window onto his fear and a prelude to what lay ahead for him.

Scared to death 11-26

November 26, ending with: ” and if the boys isn’t sick they are almost scared to death.”

Did he feel that way when he was taken away, soon after Thanksgiving? Identified as a germ carrier, he spent freezing cold nights in an outdoor tent before being sent, on December 7, to the Base Hospital at Fort Riley.