Coming Home, but on his Own Terms


A postcard in the collection of Grandpa’s correspondence.

Rarely, in his wartime letters, did Grandpa allow emotions to spill out onto the page. He had followed the advice of the army, and in fact was subject to their censorship, to keep letters upbeat and generic. The war effort would be successful, the argument went, if civilians and soldiers alike remained cheerful and optimistic.

The letter posted below, dated April 5, 1919, stands out as an exception to that practice. It’s still written in a style I know from my Midwestern childhood, newsy and following a familiar script: I’m fine, got your letter, hope to see you soon. But tucked between the lines are suggestions that Grandpa felt anxious about going home. How would people greet him? Would life be the same? Were his parents all right, not having received mail from them? Was it possible to simply slip back into the nostalgic picture of home he’d held all these long months?

The moment of truth, he imagined, would come when he stepped off the train. “I would wire you when I am coming,” he wrote, “but I don’t want the people to make a fool of me at the train. I mean the townspeople. So I would rather they not know exactly when.”

This passage surprised me. Yes, I knew my grandfather to be a proud and sometimes stubborn man, but did he not fully understand how the townspeople wanted to celebrate his return? Grandpa AldersonThe people of King City, and those who farmed nearby, had known him his entire life. They’d cheered as he left for war, raised money for Liberty Bonds, spent countless hours knitting and sewing for his needs, buried his comrades, and, of course, penned hundreds of letters meant to keep him wedded to this small, rural community in northwest Missouri.

Was it wrong for them to want a return on their investment of hope and goodwill? Was it wrong to celebrate the return of men like my grandfather?

Not in my mind. Nor was it wrong for Grandpa to refuse it. He had no responsibility to be the hero or brave soldier or whatever else the townspeople wanted him to be. He was coming home, but on his own terms. This was a decision that carried consequences he may not have imagined that day, as he hatched a plan to slip back into town, unannounced.


4-5-19, envelope

Soldiers, their upraised arms eerily similar in shape to the bare tree branches behind them, engage in exercises or drills at Camp Grant.

4-5-19, Camp Grant, 1

Signal Corps, in what seems to be a carefully staged photo to demonstrate disciplined precision.

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Troops share a meal during field training. These images from Camp Grant refer to military training before the war.

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Camp Grant, Rockford, Ill.

April 5 “19

My Dear Inis

Only a word tonight to let you know I am still feeling fine. I just now took a bath in cold water so you see I am not very timid. But I never was that way was I? I have been working in the kitchen this afternoon. Got through pretty early, I got your letter today written the 30thof March. Was a good newsy one, was glad to hear of you being aunt. I know you are proud. And you are getting slim, I guess the long walk you and I taken after the cows when I was home in April cut you down, but I know you didn’t mind it.

Wish I could have gone with you for the cows this eve. But wont be long. Think of it. Eighteen months day before yesterday since I went to Funston. Would hate to do that eighteen over. Hope anyhow the next will find me with you.

I heard this afternoon that we could not get away from here until Thurs.

I would wire you when I am coming, but I don’t want the people to make a fool of me at the train. I mean the townspeople. So I would rather they not know exactly when.

My Service Record and Discharge is complete also got my railroad slip this afternoon, but I am pretty well to the head of the list and there is quite a lot to do. We have to be paid yet.

I still haven’t heard from my parents but presume they are all right or you would have told me. You said in your letter that Jack Call had rented the Mrs Gore farm so I suppose the folks have moved. I don’t like the place they rented but if they do, I should be satisfied.

Well my dear, I will close as I am going to get up at four oclock (over) in the morn to help get breakfast. I am hoping it wont be long until I will be helping you get breakfast, wont it be nice. I sure think it will, so in closing I am sending lots of love and kisses, (more than ever)


PS I am sending a picture of this camp also “but it don’t amount to much”


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.

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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.