Promise kept

Grad student’s tributes to UND soldiers who perished in 1918 flu pandemic coincides with WWI armistice centennial

In 1918, UND became a military training grounds, drilling 470 members of the Student Army Training Corps for battle in World War I. The 1918 influenza epidemic claimed 27 students in 1918. Photo courtesy of Curt Hanson, UND Special Collections.

In 1918, UND became a military training grounds, drilling 470 members of the Student Army Training Corps for battle in World War I. The 1918 influenza epidemic claimed 27 students in 1918. Photo courtesy of Curt Hanson, UND Special Collections.

Remember remember, the 11th of November

On this Veterans Day, which marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, UND is remembering 27 UND student soldiers who succumbed to the flu pandemic of 1918 as they trained on campus for battle in Europe.

Veterans Day offers an opportunity to pay tribute to those soldiers, said Janet Wolf Strand, a history master’s student, and Gordon Iseminger, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of History.

As World War I ravaged Europe, UND became a military training camp for 470 young men in 1918. Davis and Budge Halls (now both demolished) became barracks, and students were housed in close quarters. As the influenza pandemic reached campus, UND was hit especially hard, and Gustafson Hall (then the Phi Delta Theta House) became a makeshift hospital. According to Louis Geiger, who wrote University of the Northern Plains, a history of UND, 320 of the 470 trainees became ill and 29 died, six on one day. However, Strand was able to confirm that 27, not 29 students perished.

‘Will never forget’

The devastated University promised to remember those students, but the end of the war and turmoil on campus and in the state prevented that.

“It’s easy to say that you will never forgot those young men,” Iseminger said. “But nothing was ever done. So I dragooned students to find the information and make a record.”

Iseminger has a passionate interest in the first World War, and said that some of his best memories are of visiting with WWI veterans when he was a child.

“My dad was drafted in 1918,” he said, adding that just as his father was about to depart for battle, the Armistice was signed, ending the war.

“That’s an indelible memory,” he said.

He has also studied the influenza pandemic of 1918, which began in Europe, then swept across the United States, killing an estimated 50 million people, more than any other illness in recorded history.

Janet Strand and Gordon Iseminger attended a memorial ceremony in Grand Forks to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Pvt. Warren Parker from influenza. Photo courtesy of Janet Strand

Janet Strand and Gordon Iseminger attended a memorial ceremony in Grand Forks to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Pvt. Warren Parker from influenza. Photo courtesy of Janet Strand

Massive project

In 2016, Iseminger challenged Strand, who was taking his graduate research seminar, to find the names of the students who died.

What started as a challenge turned into a passion.

“These students feel like part of my family,” Strand said. “I had no idea this would turn into such a massive project.”

Strand said the project at first seemed impossible to complete.

“There was no documentation that mentioned all the names,” she said. She spent two years examining records, making a file for each young man whose life was cut short.

She used newspapers, draft cards, WWI publications, UND’s Quarterly Journals and Board of Education Records, the Bureau of Vital Statistics, UND’s 1921 Dacotah yearbook, county books, burial records, visits to cemeteries, Orin Libby’s papers in the UND Department of Special Collections, the North Dakota Historical Society, census records and more to track down the soldiers.

“Janet has the ability to conceive of where records might be,” Iseminger said. “This was an awful lot of work. She went far beyond what I expected.”

UND History graduate student Janet Strand researched and designed a display in the Chester Fritz Library's Department of Special Collections that memorializes the 27 UND student soldiers who died in the 1918 flu pandemic. Photo courtesy of Janet Strand.

UND History graduate student Janet Strand researched and designed a display in the Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collections that memorializes the 27 UND student soldiers who died in the 1918 flu pandemic. Photo courtesy of Janet Strand.

Memorializing soldiers

Now, a memorial plaque and tree stand sentry on campus to remember the soldiers. A display in the Special Collections department of the Chester Fritz Library memorializes them, and a web site tells their story.

In addition, Strand worked with Lieutenant Colonel Jason Murphy and the UND ROTC, who organized a memorial ceremony for Pvt. Warren Parker, the first SATC member to die of the flu and the only soldier buried in Grand Forks. Memorial services have also been organized by the veteran service officers in Morton County and Fargo for SATC members buried in those areas.

Strand worked with the North Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs commissioner, who added the men to their website. She also completed VA forms for each man, which allows WWI medallions to be affixed to their tombstones.

“The University promised in 1918 to never forget the flu victims,” said Strand. “Now that promise will be fulfilled.”

Documenting stories

But Strand isn’t finished.

“After so much work, it occurred to me that their stories need to be documented,” she said. “The only possible way to do this would be to write my thesis about them.”

“Janet has done a tremendous job,” said Iseminger. “Her thesis will be remarkable.”

“Discovering the past is important,” Strand said. “We learn from it and inspire others. History draws people together.”