If you sell Forest Park Reviews at your small business, you might recognize Dave Marcinkus, one of the Review’s distribution contractors. Recently he shared nearly 25 letters that have been saved in his family from his grandfather Joe Kloboucnik and a cousin during their service in World War I. These letters, now over a century old, give firsthand account of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic through the eyes of a “local boy” serving in the U.S. Army.
Each letter itself has a story, penned with a fountain pen or pencil and one letter, at the end of his service overseas months after the peace treaty was signed, was even typed on a typewriter. Letters are neatly written on paper provided by the Knights of Columbus or Young Men’s Christian Association. Some have been pre-stamped with patriotic encouragement: “To the Writer: Save by writing on both sides of the paper; Folks at home: Save Food, by Liberty bonds and war savings stamps.”
America took a neutral stance in the European war for several years but eventually came to the aid of the Allied nations and joined the war in April 1917. It wasn’t until the spring of the following year, 1918, that the influenza virus started to spread. With the transport across Europe of soldiers who were living in trenches, camps and generally close quarters, the disease moved quickly.
This flu, named after the only non-combatant country who could report on the flu, was nicknamed “Spanish Flu.” It caused particular fear because the high morbidity rate was striking even in what was seen as the “healthiest” people — young men who were soldiers.
Military camps in southern New Jersey had their first death from the Spanish Flu in September 1918, and this letter, written by cousin George, tells a bit about the New Jersey camp he was at on, Oct. 10, 1918:
“I received your letter this morning and the money order. I got plenty of junk now, but there’s no place to blow it in while we’re quarantined. They moved all the soldiers in tents from cantonments and brick buildings and put the sick fellows in them every building you look at here is got nurses and is filled up with cases of Influenza. There’s about 13 died out here of all ready and most of the fellows that just come out here from Chicago were put in the hospital. There’s over a thousand cases out here, but it isn’t got me yet.”
Down in Camp Forrest, Georgia was Private Joey Kloboucnik, Dave’s grandfather. He wrote on Oct. 13, 1918, just as the influenza virus would have been hitting its peak back home in Cicero and all of Chicagoland:
“I am O.K. and hope all at home are well. … I received your letter today and you say Lil is still sick, well, gee whiz, take care of her. I was to Lytle last night and tonight but heck that place stinks, all the shows are closed here on account of the Spanish flu, so there is very little amusement there. I’d like to go to some real camp. I mean near a real city like Chicago, Ha Ha. The men in the stores wear masks over their noses and mouth so they wouldn’t get it.”
Later that month, Joey was sent up to Camp Merritt, New Jersey, to prepare for his trip across the Atlantic and wrote to his parents on Oct. 29, 1918:
“Don’t be surprised shocked or anything else but I want you to know I am going overseas very soon, if I pass the final examination which I don’t know what it consists of. I am now at Camp Merritt right near Hoboken N.J. and ready to go. … I am in the best of health and not a damn bit afraid to go across the deep blue sea. This is a fine camp and the barracks her are 2 stories high and each floor has a big furnace, the surrounding country and towns are very much better than in Georgia, but of course, got darned the luck, we are in quarantine.”
He must have passed the final examination because he wrote from “somewhere on the Atlantic,” on Nov. 8, 1918:
“I hope you are not worrying about me as I’m in the best of health. I received that poster about prevention of the flu, well there is no flu here. We wore such masks on the boat for the first two days, then took them off, is the flu still in Chicago?”
In October, the flu had shut down dance halls, night school, and movie theaters across Chicago.
According to the Forest Park Review on Oct. 28, “several boys” who were supposed to leave to go overseas were sent back home. A week later, on Nov. 2, 1918, the Review headline reported a “large death toll,” marking the fourth consecutive week of obituaries from locals of all ages on the front page of the paper.
The welcome news on Nov. 11 that the Armistice between the Allies and Germany was signed in France was cause for great celebration around the globe. In Forest Park, it was well recorded by the publishers, Henry and Edith Heilman, at 2 a.m.
Joey, who had not quite made it to the French port of Brest when Armistice was signed, shared the following:
“I see you had quite a time when the armistice was signed, it was 11 o’clock a.m. on this side of the pond. I was still on the ship George Washington when the news come out, just ready to land in Brest, they sure celebrated there, the destroyers and battleships opened up with their cannons and the whistles blew and everybody was happy in Brest. When we got there the French were so happy they all seemed to celebrate by getting plenty of vin (wine) in their systems, Ha Ha.”
Joey’s letter to his Uncle Joe, on Jan. 9, 1919, from Bure-les Templiers, France has a much more relaxed and confident style, including referring to the Yanks and the Huns (Germans). He even pulls out a local reference, comparing Bure-les Templiers, France to Riverside, Illinois stating:
“There isn’t much doing in this town, it’s about as lively here as in Riverside where we took the nice little walk, remember, when we got through we weren’t any farther away than when we started, Ha Ha.”
The letters continue through April, never again mentioning the flu or quarantine, as the worst had passed not only abroad but also at home.
The Forest Park Review from November 1918 lists just over 350 “Forest Park Boys in Uncle Sam’s Service.” Names like Fred Becker, Kurt Berliner, Oscar Burkhardt, Tony Calderone, William Carney, Wilbert Drechsler, Arthur and Clarence Glor, Armin Kaul, Walter Knaack, Henry Lambke, Walter Lange, Roy Mohr, John Moran, Paul Oswald, Arthur and Edwin Quadt, Albert Reicher, Henry Schlichting, Otto Stange, Walter Thode, Frank Troost and H.J. Urban are just a few names that stand out as influencers in Forest Park history.