Few could deny that Raymond Bloom was a patriot.
Four years before he was drafted into the Army to fight in World War I, Bloom had become annoyed at the thoughtlessness of Americans who did not show the appropriate level of love and respect for the flag and national anthems that honored the country.
Bloom had become so incensed that he brought his concerns to his class at Williams College, a prestigious liberal arts school on the East Coast. His outrage, his mother later wrote, inspired the college to implement formal action, though it is unclear in her letter what that action might have been.
In that same letter, his mother wrote that her son wanted to serve his country and that the day he was drafted was “the crowning joy of his life.”
On March 5, 1918, Bloom left the family ranch near Magdalena and boarded a train for Camp Funston, an Army training camp on Fort Riley, Kansas. He was the first of 31 draftees out of Socorro County at the time.
On March 6, he wrote a post card to his mother from Colorado, telling her that he was due to arrive at Camp Funston that night. He signed his note “With love, Raymond.
Sixteen days after his arrival, Bloom was dead. He was 24.
His death March 22, 1918, came not by the ravages of war but the relentlessness of a pandemic that was spreading across the globe unabated – and, in the United States at that point, mostly downplayed. Camp Funston is believed to have been the first and deadliest locations in the United States where the virulent virus – known alternately as the 1918 flu or the H1N1 virus or, erroneously, the Spanish flu – struck.
It was the most severe pandemic in recent history, infecting one-third of the world’s population, killing millions, including at least 650,000 in the United States and about 3,000 in New Mexico.
As COVID-19 continues to amp up around the world today, one can wonder how long the 1918 pandemic will maintain that top status.
So I turned to David Holtby, an Albuquerque historian who wrote the book “Lest We Forget: World War I and New Mexico,” a seminal work on our state’s role, contribution and sacrifice in the Great War – which includes the causes and casualties of those who perished in the influenza pandemic.
Because we have forgotten, it’s essential to look back at history to compare what we learned then to what we should learn now. In his book, Holtby explains that he chose the title for his book because the phrase is “often used as a cautionary warning that if lessons once known are lost we are in peril of bumbling into avoidable pitfalls.”
“It refers to being unprepared and underestimating a coming crisis and singles out leaders incapable of decisive and proactive problem solving, officials who were ‘watchful but unseeing … blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world,'” he writes.
Holtby also believes in the importance of putting a face on those historical casualties, those humans behind the statistics and the facts. History is humanity.
“In the book I talk about how the particular reveals the universal,” Holtby said as we chatted isolated in our separate homes. “It’s granular history, a means to look to the past to teach us through the stories of the people.”
As we continue to be bombarded with dismal numbers COVID-19 brings us daily, it’s easy to forget that behind every statistic is a person and a story.
In 1918, one of those stories was Raymond Bloom.
Through his research, Holtby discovered that Bloom was the youngest of two sons born to Anna and Richard Bloom, a prominent family well known in Magdalena and Santa Fe even after Richard’s death when Raymond was 7.
He was a smart and sensitive lad, graduating second in his high school class and attending Williams before suffering a nervous breakdown in his senior year and returning to the family ranch near Magdalena to recover.
Magdalena gave him back his health, affording him many hours of hiking and a job as a clerk at Becker & McTavish, a general mercantile store.
Despite Anna Bloom’s letter expressing her son’s honor in being drafted, Holtby said there are indications that the family attempted to dissuade the draft board from sending him to war but to no avail.
Unknowingly, the draft board sent Raymond Bloom to his death.
Within days of his arrival, Bloom was sick, his symptoms described as “a severe headache, chills or chilliness, pains in the back or legs, temperature sometimes as high as 104, great prostration and drowsiness,” Holtby wrote.
Pneumonia quickly set in, fluid filling his lungs, essentially drowning him.
A March 21 telegram from Fort Riley to his mother reported that Bloom was “seriously ill” with pneumonia. A second telegram dated March 22 reported that Bloom had died of pneumonia at 6:10 that morning.
New Mexico newspapers, including the Albuquerque Journal, reported Bloom’s death as the result of pneumonia, with no mention of the influenza that was afflicting millions around the globe, including 48 seemingly healthy men from March 4 to March 29, 1918, at Camp Funston.
“To put these 48 deaths in three weeks into statistical perspective, in all 32 training camps during the final four months of 1917, fewer than 100 soldiers died from pneumonia,” Holtby said.
That connection and the military’s attempt to downplay the deplorable conditions that had served as both petri dish and death chamber for the soldiers at Camp Funston would not become clear until years later, Holtby said.
The headline in the Journal on March 27, 1918, read: Santa Fe Pays Homage To Its First War Hero.
Bloom’s farewell was the first military funeral in Santa Fe “of any of the young men who answered their country’s call in this war,” the paper reported, and the first member of the military from the World War I era to be buried at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.
He, of course, would not be the last.
At his funeral, his mother requested “My Country Tis of Thee.” It was a fitting way to remember him.