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Early casualty of the last pandemic


The name of Walter Tripp appears on the World War One memorial just outside the entrance of Summit Cemetery in Morris, Minnesota. He did not die in direct conflict, he did not even make it to France. He died on Feb. 13, 1918, of labor pneumonia at Camp Cody, in the far southwest of New Mexico. His death was an early harbinger of a pandemic to come.

The 1918 so-called “Spanish Flu” pandemic reached all six populated continents, killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide with an estimated 675,000 in the United States alone. Of the 116,000 US casualties of the first World War, 64,000 died of the pandemic, many in basic training stateside or on ships headed to France.

Walter Tripp, of Morris, was one of the early fatalities of the Spanish Flu in 1918. Photo used with permission from the Minnesota Historical Society.
Walter Tripp, of Morris, was one of the early fatalities of the Spanish Flu in 1918. Photo used with permission from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Although the influenza was originally believed to have started “somewhere in southeast Asia,” further research has shown its origins to be much closer to home, possibly with an infected pig (although recent studies have indicated an avian origin) in Haskell County, southwest Kansas. The initial cases stayed local, as they did not have the means of spreading. However, with the establishment of Camp Funston in mid 1917, a large concentration of servicemen became established near Manhattan, Kansas, 200 miles away. Overcrowded conditions combined with a lack of warm blankets in the cold winter of 1917-1918 wore away at the immunity systems of the recruits. It is theorized that enlisted men from western Kansas introduced the virus there. From there, it spread to larger staging areas such as Philadelphia and New York, to the port of Brest in France and eventually to servicemen at the front and from the Allies, across the trenches to the Germans; whose soldiers would bring it back to Germany itself and spread it to other fronts of the central powers and into countries such as Italy and Greece. The conditions for the virus were optimized by trench conditions of decomposing bodies and human waste churned up by falling rain and shells.

Both sides suppressed any news of the disease to prevent giving away any weaknesses to the enemy and keep morale boosted. However Spain, being neutral, reported it without fear of ramifications. Hence, the reason “Spanish Flu” became the catch-all title.

The first reported cases in Minnesota occurred in Wells (Faribault County) where 100 cases were reported on Sept. 28, 1918. By Oct. 1, many soldiers at Fort Snelling came down with symptoms, which included fever, pneumonia, bloody blisters and, in extreme cases, cyanosis, in which the skin turned blue or black due to the inability to transfer oxygen from fluid-filled lungs to the rest of the body. Medical staffing was in short supply both due to oversea need and doctors and nurses themselves becoming ill. As an example, Dr. Frank Brey, being the only physician in the southwest Minnesota town of Wabasso, had to be on call 24 hours a day to serve the area, only being able to sleep in his horse and buggy while going between towns. By the time the pandemic finally ebbed (the final wave ended in 1920) there had been an estimated 125,000 cases and 7,260 deaths in Minnesota.

The impact was also felt in my city (Morris). The first reported case of the 1918 flu in Morris occurred on Oct. 11. By the 18th, the city was quarantined. The West Central School of Agriculture (which became The University of Minnesota, Morris, in 1960) closed its doors on the 31st. When the ban finally lifted 12 weeks later, 116 students had been infected and three died.

Tripp was born in Faribault, Minnesota, on Jan. 4, 1897. His family moved to Morris in 1901. He enlisted as part of the 135th Infantry of the Minnesota National Guard on April 9th, 1917, only 3 days after the United States’ declaration of war on Germany, He was immediately dispatched to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, where he received a promotion from private to corporal. That October, he transferred to Camp Cody in preparation for dispatching to France.

According to a Morris Tribune article dated Feb. 22, 1918, Walter had been ill for only three days when he died in New Mexico. His parents had been informed of his condition and were on their way to see him when they were given the sad news at a stopover in Kansas City.

He died a full month before the first cases of the influenza pandemic were recognized in Kansas. Largely because of his status as the first enlisted Stevens County man to die as part of the war effort, the Morris VFW Post 29 is named in his honor.

The Rev. Henry Nobles, who officiated the funeral, said of him:

“Our best boys gave themselves to the service of their country and went forth splendidly to face the task, even tho (sic) they knew the cost it would mean and the price that would be paid. Of the fairest of these was Walter Tripp and he responded manly and nobly and has given his life that the principles of right may be preserved on this earth. Walter was indeed a choice young man, clean, thoughtful, kind, and his whole life was given to the things that are worth while. If we are to show our appreciation for what he has done it must be, not only in words or even tears, but in a renewed consecration (sic) to the high and holy cause for which he laid down his life. Let us here resolve ourselves that he shall not have died in vain.”

Information from this article was taken from a historical documentary called Deadly Plague of 1918, Michelle Spencer; as well articles in Minnpost, MNopedia, and the Morris Tribune.

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