Edward Charles “Eddie” Cunningham, one of three members of the 1916 Foster High graduating class, shipped off to France in December 1917, as a musician in the U.S. military.
He, like more than 100,000 Americans, never returned from the battlefields of World War I. Cunningham is buried in the Oise-Aisne American military cemetery in Seringes-et-Nesles, France.
Two questions about his death have puzzled local history researchers over the years: that he was a musician and that he died on Dec. 1, 1918, nearly a month after the armistice that ended the war.
The answers to those two pieces are now known.
Cunningham, like millions around the world, was a victim of what was then called the Spanish flu, so named because the outbreak in neutral Spain was fully reported in the press, while much of the rest of Europe was under wartime censorship. A leading modern theory is that it originated in Haskell County, Kansas and spread rapidly through the close confines of U.S. military encampments.
The influenza outbreak of 1918 was the deadliest pandemic in world history. As a musician, Cunningham was as likely to be exposed to the virus as anyone in the confined quarters of the military.
Cunningham was born March 19, 1899, in Leadville, Colorado. He and his family lived in Mace, Idaho; South Bend, Indiana; Seattle; and Mullan, Idaho, where he graduated from eighth grade. He came to the Foster/Tukwila area with his step-father, Charles, and his mother, Mamie, and began high school in 1912. Charles Cunningham, brother of Edward’s biological father, William, worked variously in mining, railroads and house painting.
While at Foster High, Edward learned to play the cornet in the school orchestra. Known to his classmates as Eddie, he also was senior class treasurer and was on the yearbook staff. The other members of his class, the second graduating class from Foster, were Alva Ingeborg Wallenberg and Myrtle Lillian Goulet.
In the fall of 1916, he entered the University of Washington to study mechanical engineering
While at the UW, he continued his passion for music, playing cornet in the student orchestra.
As the United States was on the brink of entering World War I, Cunningham enlisted in the Washington National Guard in April, 1917, and was sent to Camp Murray, the Washington National Guard training facility, on American Lake, between Tacoma and Olympia. He was assigned to the 41 st Infantry Division. Later that summer, his unit became part of the regular army (American Expeditionary Force).
While he was in training at Camp Murray, he and the regimental band entertained a civilian audience in Seattle at a sporting event on Aug. 29 and troops at Camp Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis McCord) on Sept. 25. The diary of an unidentified member of his unit noted that the concert for the troops was well received.
In December 1917, he and other members of the 41st Division of the 161st Infantry Regiment went by train to Hoboken, New Jersey and then by the troop ship President Lincoln Dec. 13 to Brest, France. Cunningham was listed on the ship’s manifest as a musician, third class, in the Infantry band. The President Lincoln, a German steamer of the Hamburg-American Line that had been seized and converted to a troop transport, was sunk on a later return trip to the United States by a German submarine.
Ominously, a Nov. 2, 1918, entry in the Record of Events of a field artillery unit noted “some influenza appearing in Second Battalion.”
Pneumonia, both viral and bacterial, was part and parcel of the flu pandemic.
Unlike other outbreaks of the flu before and since, the 1918 strain seemed to be most devastating and deadly for those in the prime of life. Most flu hits hardest the very young and very old. This strain, unlike those before, attacked deep in the lungs, where the body’s natural immune system waged a fierce battle that took a toll on both attacker and defender, opening the body to secondary infection.
Roughly as many American soldiers lost their lives to disease as to battle wounds. Estimates place the world-wide death toll from the 1918 flu at between 50 and 100 million, the deadliest pandemic in history.
In the Smithsonian Magazine in November 2017, and in his book “The Great Influenza,” author John M. Barry quoted a physician at a military hospital, describing the progress of the disease this way:
“These men start with what appears to be an ordinary attack of…Influenza, and when brought to the (hospital) they very rapidly develop the most vicious type of Pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the Mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the Cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face…” Cyanosis is a description of the face turning blue from lack of oxygen.
“It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes…It is horrible.”
Cunningham, as a soldier in high standing, was appointed to the Officers Training Camp. But influenza found him, too, and he died of pneumonia Dec. 1 before he was able to complete his training.
Back home, the Foster/Tukwila community was not spared. Although there is no record of local deaths from the flu in the community, the Seattle area suffered a huge toll. With the flu raging, Foster schools were closed for six weeks.
Like the many soldiers lost in the Great War, Cunningham was honored in several ways.
His photo was published as part of a roll of honor in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Jan. 18, 1919 with 31 others who lost their lives in the war, under the headline “They Gave Their All”. His name is included on a UW main campus memorial near the north entrance, beside Memorial Way Northeast.
On Arbor Day, Friday, April 11, 1919, the students of Foster gathered on the school grounds (now the upper field of Joseph Foster Memorial Park) to plant a maple tree in his honor, as described in the 1919 Foster yearbook. During a small ceremony for the tree planting, students sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “America,” a prayer was offered and school district superintendent L.M. Dimmitt spoke.
Tragedy in the Cunningham family did not end with Edward’s death in France. His mother was struck and killed by a bus Oct. 21, 1921, as she crossed a street with in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood, on the shore of Lake Washington north of Renton. She is buried at Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park in Seattle.
A centennial ceremony was held Nov. 11 this year at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery to mark the Armistice ending World War I.
Note: The writer of this article would like to thank Lisa Oberg, Associate Director of Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, for her extraordinary contributions in the research for this article. She was the curator of the exhibition “Washington on the Western Front: At Home and Over There,” and her additional research for this article played a key role in unraveling the mystery surrounding Cunningham’s death. However, any errors are entirely the writer’s.