Three young men—two from Clare County and one from adjacent Gladwin County–go off to World War I. We know little about the three other than two were cousins and enlisted close together. One of them had not even graduated from high school. The third who enlisted earlier was described as a “bright, cheerful lad.”
We can envision the excitement all three felt; the pride of their fathers; the worry of their mothers; and the envy of their friends who watched them leave on what was probably a grand adventure and ticket out of a quiet (and probably boring) rural environment.
And we can imagine the sorrow felt in the community when news came back of their deaths while in training.
Ervin Reed died September 1917 at Fort Wayne in Detroit. He had enlisted in the National Guards just two months earlier, on July 4th. James Garrity and Arthur Looker —cousins—enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 6, 1917. They died within a day of each other in January 1918 at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois.
The official cause of death for all three was pneumonia. Their deaths were most likely due to the flu.
The three had enlisted during a time a deadly flu virus was raging across the globe. This great flu pandemic, (a pandemic is one that affects a wide area of the world) sickened more than a half a billion people worldwide and killed anywhere between 21 million and 100 million. More than 675,000 Americans died and deaths were especially high in young men, a group included soldiers. For whatever reason, the flu triggered a very strong response from the immune system that sometimes overwhelmed the body. Those with the strongest immune systems were especially vulnerable, the opposite of what one would think. An estimated 43,000 servicemen died of the flu. Roughly 1 in 4 military personnel came down with the virus, and of those who did, 1 in 5 died. Death often came quickly, sometimes even within hours of the first symptoms. Congestion brought on by the flu built up quickly in lungs, resulting in pneumonia.
According to Navy Nurse Josie Brown, who served at the Naval Hospital there in 1918:
“The morgues were packed almost to the ceiling with bodies stacked one on top of another. The morticians worked day and night. You could never turn around without seeing a big red truck loaded with caskets for the train station so bodies could be sent home.
“We didn’t have the time to treat them. We didn’t take temperatures; we didn’t even have time to take blood pressure.
We would give them a little hot whisky toddy; that’s about all we had time to do. They would have terrific nosebleeds with it. Sometimes the blood would just shoot across the room. You had to get out of the way or someone’s nose would bleed all over you.”
The pandemic hit especially hard at military camps like Great Lakes where a large number of men were in close proximity to one another. Great Lakes was the largest Navy camp, with a population of 44,000. Although the worst of the pandemic had passed by the time Garrity and Looker came to Great Lakes, the presence of so many men packed close together and a continuing turnover of personnel meant the epidemic continued to take a toll.
There is little information about Fort Wayne, with its smaller force. However, its proximity to Detroit and the men to each other meant illness was a constant at the fort.
One would think Garrity and Looker knew of the deaths of Reed, but enlisted anyway, perhaps choosing a different branch and location as a precaution. Newspaper articles said that Garrity and Looker had caught the measles beforehand and Reed had come down with appendicitis. Perhaps, those health conditions were enough to make the three more susceptible to the flu. We will never know.
Garrity and Reed are buried in the Garrity Cemetery in Clare County. Looker is interred in McClure Cemetery in Gladwin County. Markers and flags mark their graves.
This Memorial Day weekend (May 24, 2014), the Clare County Historical Society will conduct a clean up at the Garrity Cemetery and replace the flags. It’s the least we can do to honor these Clare County men. Gone need not be forgotten.
Click to read obits for Clare County soldiers:
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I just read your piece, “Three Area Soldiers. One Epidemic. Three Graves.” Though I was born long after he died, James Garrity was my great uncle. My grandmother, Martha “Mattie” Garrity Faught, was my grandmother. My father’s middle name honors his uncle – Donald James Faught. There is a story about why he left high school and joined the navy.