Friday, September 28, 2012


I recently watched the movie "War of the Worlds" again.  I'm sure most of you are familiar with the story of an invasion of the earth by hostile aliens from another planet.  As the invasion continues they spread death and destruction all across the world.  The mightiest armies and deadliest weapons are useless to stop them, until they are finally vanquished by an unseen weapon - a microscopic germ.  It seems that the invaders did not have the immunity to certain diseases that man has acquired over the ages, and within a short time of being exposed to these disease bacteria they became ill and died.

One of the points of the story is that although mankind may take comfort from our large arsenals of deadly weapons, there may be a deadlier enemy that can't even be seen by the naked eye.

That brings us to this week's story of a decorated combat veteran of World War I.  This soldier evaded capture and death at the hands of the German army only to be brought down by a deadlier enemy that he couldn't see - the Spanish influenza virus.

This is the story of that soldier:  Lieutenant Norman C. Ernst.

Few people are aware that Unit A ("The Old Section") of the Rosehill Mausoleum has a second floor.  It is reached by climbing a white marble staircase just off the entry court.  The staircase leads to a large open room surrounded by private family rooms.  It is a dark and forgotten part of the mausoleum and few visitors venture up there.

If you go all the way to the back of this room, you will see the east wall, covered with niches for cremated remains.  There are large torches around the room and several along this wall.  If the torches are not lit it is too dark to see much, but if they are lit, they cast a warm glow over the wall of niches.

Standing in front of this wall and looking at the names and dates, one niche caught my eye.  It simply said "Lieutenant Norman C. Ernst, 1894-1918".   

I assumed that these were the remains of a soldier who had died in combat.  Perhaps he died after a fierce battle in the trenches.  Maybe he was a World War I flying ace, and died as his plane went down in a blaze of glory.  None of these scenarios are what killed Lieutenant Ernst.  The Chicago Daily Tribune from October 9, 1918 tells the story:


Twelve Local Boys in the Official Casualty List for the Day.

Twelve Chicagoans were named in the official casualties yesterday, eight in the day list, and four in the night list, apportioned as follows:  Killed in action, two; died of disease, two; wounded severely, eight.

Among unofficial casualties reported in The Tribune was that of Lieut. Norman C. Ernst of the United States aviation corps, who died on Monday of pneumonia at Wilbur Wright Field, Dayton, O., where he was an instructor in the advanced course in aviation known as circus or trick flying.  He was 24 years old and a son of Leo and Louise Ernst of 2340 Lincoln Park West.  

2340 Lincoln Park West, Chicago

There are two brothers in the service, Lieut. Hilmar F. Ernst, also of the aviation corps, and Quartermaster L. Wainwright Ernst, U.S. Navy.

Was "Prep" Football Player.

Lieut. Ernst  was a member of the 1912 football team of the Chicago Latin school, every member of which is now in military service.  He is the third aviator alumnus of the school to meet death.  The others were Dinsmore Ely and Harry Velle.  Funeral services will be held this afternoon at 4:30 o'clock at Graceland chapel. 

Lieutenant Ernst was not the only casualty of the flu at Wright Field. The Dayton Daily News of October 4, 1918 reported in Dayton what was being reported by others all across the country: 


Reports from the hospital at Wilbur Wright Field are to the effect that there are 250 men stationed at the post now confined and suffering from attacks of influenza.  The hospitals are taxed to their capacity to handle the cases, and other buildings near the hospital are being used as wards during the epidemic.

Things had worsened by the 7th:

New Cases of Influenza at Wilbur Wright Field Continue to Reach Hospital.  Eight Have Died.

Two more soldiers of Wilbur Wright Field were added to the toll of the influenza epidemic Monday with the deaths of Privates Fred Peters, of Wavington, Minn., and Wm. L. Alexander, Washington.  With four deaths Sunday from the dread disease, the total number of men claimed thus far at the post is eight.  The four men who succumbed Sunday were Sergeant James MacCombie, Oswedgo, N.Y.; Corporal Wm. J. Blansett, Jasper, Tenn.; Private Bernard O. Jones, Brownville, Me.; and Private John C. Dennar, St. Joseph, Mo.

Major A. G. Farmer, chief medical officer at the field, said Monday that there were several patients in the post hospital whose conditions are precarious and doubts are entertained for their recovery.  The sick call Monday morning brought 16 new cases to the hospital, the lowest number which has been reported since the breaking out of the epidemic.  On Sunday 27 cases were reported.

Major Farmer and his staff of assistants are making the fight against the epidemic at the field without outside assistance, except for the 16 nurses who have been furnished by the Dayton and Springfield Red Cross.

While Major Farmer would not say Monday that the epidemic was now under control, he expressed the belief that the malady among the soldiers was gradually abating.  The coming of colder and somewhat damp weather Monday is not conducive to getting the epidemic under control.

The total number of cases now at the field is 430.

One death occurred Sunday from among the forces of workmen employed on the flood prevention projects in and near this city.  It was that of Steve Miker, 48, who had been employed at Osborn.  His death occurred at the Miami Valley hospital where he had been taken for treatment.  Pneumonia followed an attack of influenza or grip.  The body was turned over to Undertaker Luthman and is being held pending an effort to locate relatives of the dead man.

The officials and physicians of the Miami conservancy district are taking every possible precaution against the spread of the influenza among its 1600 workmen.  There have been several cases of colds and grip but the patient in every instance has been isolated and separately treated.  The results have been excellent, according to the reports submitted to E. M. Kuhn.

The 8th reported the death of Lieutenant Ernst:


Although the toll of the influenza epidemic at Wilbur Wright Field was increased by four deaths Tuesday morning, Major A. G. Farmer, chief medical officer of the post, expressed the belief that the epidemic was abating.  He based his hopes upon the fact that but 14 new cases were received at the field hospital Tuesday morning, as against 45 cases Monday.  There were 435 cases in all under treatment at the post hospital at noon Tuesday.

In addition to the four deaths of Tuesday, two more deaths occurred Monday night, bringing the total number of deaths since the outbreak of the epidemic to 14.

The Tuesday victims of the disease were Private Martin Anderson, Bridgeport, Conn.; Private Herald Schilling, South Bergerstown, Pa.; Private Benjamin Goldstein, New York City, and Private Henry J. Cling, Canton, Ohio.  Private Cling had been assisting the medical staff at the hospital since the outbreak of the epidemic and had given noble service in the fight against the disease which finally brought him down and ended in his death.  Major Farmer spoke highly of Cling and of the work which he had done to relive suffering among his comrades before he was stricken.  Cling had intended entering medical school at the end of his military service.

The two deaths Monday night were those of Lieutenant Norman Ernst of Chicago and Private Frank Wyss of Fort Wayne, Ind.

Lieutenant Ernst’s death was the first of a commissioned officer since the epidemic began at the post.

Major Farmer’s staff was augmented Tuesday by the arrival of a medical officer.

The nurses furnished by the Dayton and Springfield chapters of the Red Cross are giving valiant service in the fight against the epidemic.

In all of the deaths thus far at the field, the end of the sufferer has been brought about by the cases of influenza or grip, developing pneumonia.

By the end of October, 1918  it was thought that the epidemic had burned itself out in Dayton, Ohio, leaving 572 dead.  In reality it was only the calm before the second wave as colder weather caused people to congregate indoors.

The epidemic in Dayton finally seemed to be over by the end of January, 1919.  There were a total of 639 deaths from the Spanish influenza.  Approximate estimates by officials of the division of health placed the total number of cases in the city from the epidemic at between 40,000 and 50,000 out of a total population of 152,559 meaning that one out of every three Daytonians got some form of the Spanish influenza.

And remember - there is still no cure for the Spanish influenza - it just burned itself out.

Lieutenant Norman C. Ernst, World War I flying ace - he escaped death at the hands of the Germans only to be brought down by the Spanish influenza.

May he rest in peace.

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting post! I have seen many stones in cemeteries where it's clear that influenza swept through .... very sad. It's also sad that there were soldiers like Norman Ernst, who survived the war, only to be felled by flu.