The earliest deaths of Redlands residents from the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 were among those who left to serve in World War 1. George Corwin’s story is one example.
Although born in Highland in 1888, and a lifelong resident, Redlands also claimed Corwin as its own as he was a Redlands High School graduate (1909 or 1910). Corwin was working in his family’s citrus grove in Highland when he was inducted into the Army.
In March 1918, Corwin joined the 36th Balloon Company, U.S. Army training as a truck driver at Camp John Wise in San Antonio, Texas. His June 1917 draft registration card described him as short, stout, with blue eyes, dark hair and partially bald. By September 1918, his company prepared for travel to France arriving at Camp Morrison, Virginia, but the influenza pandemic preceded them. Corwin died there of pneumonia brought on by the flu on Oct. 8 at age 30.
His body arrived back in Highland on Oct. 16 with his funeral service and burial that same day. Owing to the flu pandemic, the number attending his service was limited. Instead of at the Highland Congregational Church it took place in his mother’s home. Apparently, the house had space for two musical performances, a trio performing Tchaikovsky’s “Andante Cantabile” and a solo cellist playing Schuman’s “Traumerei.” A tribute was given by the Rev. Frank Dell of the Highland Congregational Church. His body was then taken to Hillside Memorial Park in Redlands with a military escort from March Field and numerous cars of friends and family following. Graveside saw military and religious burial services and a military salute with taps.
An additional comment was made that the family remembered George by planting a small oak tree on his grave, grown from “an acorn picked up from the monument of George Washington” (San Bernardino Index, Oct. 17, 1918). A trip to his grave in Hillside Memorial Park today revealed that a very large oak tree stands immediately beside Corwin’s grave, a tree that could be over 100 years old. How remarkable that a short note revealed the history of why this lone oak tree, surrounded by the more numerous cypress trees, stands in the Corwin plot.
His commanding officer, Lt. Fred Babcock, sent a letter to his family in late October 1918 giving more insight into Corwin’s character. He stated: “…he was an honest, trustworthy soldier, and I thought a great deal of him…” (Highland Messenger Oct. 25, 1918).
Lt. Babcock lamented one thing indicative of the magnitude of the flu deaths in military camps at the time: “…we were unable to get a flag to send home with the remains. There were so many deaths in the vicinity that the flags were all taken when we wanted one...”
George Corwin may not have had a flag but today his grave is memorialized by the large oak tree that spreads over the Corwin plot. He did not die in battle but he, and the others who died of disease in World War I service gave their lives for their country. How wonderful that we can visit his grave today and enjoy the lovely oak planted in his memory so long ago.
Ann Deegan, author of “Early Redlands and Redlands in World War I,” is a former curator of history for the San Bernardino County Museum.