Legend has it that the adage, “Looks like he’s at death’s door,” was coined in a base hospital surgical ward in Orleans, France, during World War I. Many have forgotten, but a worldwide pandemic in 1918-19, labeled Spanish flu, killed nearly as many soldiers as the war — and millions of civilians.
History recalls that surgical ward was long and narrow. The sickest patients were at one end of the room near a door. The story was that the sicker someone got, the closer their bed was pushed toward “Death’s Door.” Those who died were taken out through the door, hence the expression, “At death’s door.”
Allen R. McElwain, of Marion, who later became the first commander of Marion’s American Legion Post 298, was in that hospital ward on Nov. 3, 1918, sick with the Spanish flu. McElwain was “three beds from death’s door” when he began to get better and eventually recovered, said McElwain’s granddaughter, Anita Clark, 64, of Mount Vernon. McElwain was shipped home in early 1919 and later mustered out of the service at Camp Dodge in Des Moines. He returned to Marion during the summer of 1919.
McElwain was “lucky.” By the War Department’s most conservative count, influenza sickened 26 percent of the Army — more than 1 million men — and killed almost 30,000 before they even got to France. The Navy recorded 5,027 deaths and more than 106,000 hospital admissions for influenza and pneumonia out of 600,000 men. A large number of mild cases were never recorded.
More American troops succumbed to influenza and pneumonia than died on the battlefields of the Great War. Worldwide, estimates ranged from 50 million to 100 million people died from the influenza in 1918-19.
McElwain was born Dec. 21, 1895, in Chicago. to Mr. and Mrs. G.W. McElwain. He graduated from Marion High School in 1914 and joined the U.S. Army in 1917 with his brother Harold. Allen served with the forestry branch of the Army. Clark is unsure if her grandfather saw combat before being felled by the flu.
“He didn’t talk about it (the war) too much — not in front of me anyway. He would try to answer questions,” Clark recalled.
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She remembers, as a child, seeing an indentation in her grandfather’s back, learning it was from draining fluid from his lungs during his flu treatment.
On Sept. 14, 1920, McElwain married Bess Helbig. They had one child, a daughter, Kathryn, who was born at home in 1921. She was Anita Clark’s mother. She died in 2008. Allen died at age 73 on Sept. 29, 1969.
Clark described McElwain as about 5 feet 11 inches tall, with a “stocky” build later. McElwain worked at Penick & Ford Co., retiring in 1954. For much of his life, McElwain lived at 848 Eighth Ave., close to downtown Marion.
McElwain and a few other World War I veterans started the American Legion in Marion. The post formation began on Oct. 21, 1919, when the post charter application was signed. About 40 veterans met on Nov. 19, 1919, at the WRC Hall in Marion. McElwain was elected chairman. A constitution and bylaws were drawn up. On Dec. 7, a charter was signed by 14 members.
In addition to being the first Post Commander, and later a District Commander, Allen was Post Adjutant for more than 30 years. He attended the National Convention in 1933 in Chicago, and in 1936, in Cleveland. McElwain also belonged to the Marion Masonic Lodge 6, AF&AM (Ancient Free & Accepted Masons), Marion Chapter 6, R.A.M. & Apollo Commandery 26, K.T., Commander of the Knights Templer, El Kahir Shrine and Patron Marion Chapter #183 OES.
In 1941, Clark said, The Marion Sentinel newspaper publicly honored her grandfather for his outstanding civil service to the community.
Clark fondly recalled her grandfather in a recent interview. “Everybody called him ‘Mac,’ ” she said. She described McElwain as even-tempered and a very proud man, yet humble. He seemed to be well-liked and was “very kind with kind of a soft heart. He was very patriotic. He never missed a Memorial Day parade. He was very dedicated to every organization he became a member of. He always wanted to help. He was organized, particular, neat and tidy. He was a good-hearted man who always worked hard and was willing to help others,” she said.
McElwain’s strong character was evident after a stroke in 1954 left him without use of one arm. That didn’t stop him. Clark said McElwain got a rubber ball and constantly squeezed it, eventually regaining use of the arm.
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She said he had great concern for others. Besides working full-time at Penick & Ford, McElwain also worked a couple other jobs after the stock market crashed in 1929. “He helped save some others’ homes. He took some of his own money to pay their mortgages so they wouldn’t lose their homes,” Clark said she was told.
In his “spare” time, Clark continued, her grandfather remodeled houses and did woodworking. “He was a perfectionist,” she said.
McElwain and others like him, through their dedication and hard work, cemented a strong foundation for many community organizations. Because of McElwain’s leadership, Marion American Legion Post 298 got off to a strong start in 1919 and has flourished for 100 years. The Marion Post is currently has the highest membership of any American Legion Post in Iowa.
The official American Legion birthday is March 15. Marion Post 298 this year will celebrate that birthday, the 100th, on Monday because of previous hall commitments. The event will include food and guest speakers. Then on May 19 at 2 p.m. at Cedar Memorial Cemetery, the post will hold a ceremony to celebrate McElwain’s life.
Dick Hogan is American Legion Post 298 district commander and part of the post’s centennial committee.