Local WWI soldier died of flu before seeing combat

BROOKSVILLE — Sunday marks Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War I 100 years ago.

In recent weeks, Richard Burbank of Rockland has been working to clean the gravestone of his great-great uncle, John G. Ladd of Brooksville, a veteran who died of the flu before he even saw combat.

Ladd, along with thousands of other soldiers, died from the flu at Fort Devens, Mass.

The flu spread worldwide, infecting 500 million people between 1918 and 1919, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the flu hit the U.S. military in the spring of 1918.

Fort Devens had been a reception area for those whom the government had conscripted to serve in WWI.

In addition to cleaning Ladd’s gravestone at the Edgewood Cemetery in Brooksville, Burbank also is trying to compile information about his ancestor, who died Oct. 2, 1918, at age 21.

Ladd was drafted and had to report for duty in Ellsworth on Aug. 27, 1918, Burbank said. He died a little over a month later.

The flu claimed more soldiers than all the military deaths in WWI and WWII combined, according to an article by John M. Barry in Smithsonian magazine.

Barry wrote that reports vary but an estimated 50 million to 100 million people worldwide died of the flu. Flu deaths in the United States accounted for 670,000 of those.

The flu was so bad locally that the board of health of Ellsworth ordered the closing of all schools and churches and the suspension of all public gatherings as a precaution against the spread of the flu, according to an article in the Oct. 25, 1918 issue of The American. Meetings of all fraternal organizations were also suspended indefinitely.

The flu was something that occupied the minds of soldiers once they left battle.

Wheaton College Professor Mark LeBlanc and his brother John LeBlanc recently published a book about their late grandfather, John M. Longley, of Anson’s war experience, which included fighting in the Battle of Chateau-Thierry.

The book is “From Maine to France and Somehow Back Again: WWI Experiences of John M. Longley and the 26th Yankee Division.”

The LeBlanc brothers do not address the flu in their book. However, Mark LeBlanc recalled an interview he did with his grandfather before he died.

The WWI vet remembered thinking that “if only he could escape the flu on his way home, he’d start life again,” LeBlanc said.

According to Barry, part of the problem was that governments, including the U.S., had been censoring the media from reporting on the flu.

In fact, that’s how the pandemic became known as “the Spanish flu,” according to Barry. Spain was not fighting in WWI. So, Spanish media outlets were free to report that the King of Spain had contracted the virus, which gave the impression that the flu was especially bad in Spain.

The CDC stated that the flu was so severe that during 1918, life expectancy in the United States fell by 12 years, to 36.6 years of age for men and 42.2 years for women.

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.

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