DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- Ben Weekley has a unique perspective on the coronavirus pandemic that is raging across the country right now: It's something similar to what his father experienced during the early part of the 20th century.

Ben's father, Vern Weekley, was a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War I. In 1918, while stationed at Camp Merritt, N.J., Vern contracted a deadly strain of influenza that was referred to at the time as the "Spanish flu" — a disease that grew to be one of the deadliest pandemics in the history of the world.

By the time it had run its course, this disease had infected over 500 million people and claimed over 50 million lives worldwide — including 675,000 deaths in the United States alone.

Ben Weekley of Detroit Lakes is the youngest of 16 children born to Vern's two wives (his first wife died during childbirth). He has a stack of letters written by Vern during his stint in the Army. The letters were written to Vern's parents back home in his native Park Rapids, as well as to his girlfriend, Belinda, who would later become his first wife.

"Looking at his letters this morning I figured out he (Vern) went into Baise hospital on Oct. 2 and out on Oct. 12," Weekley said of the letters. "The base had several of their own hospitals. After the war the base was dismantled and sold."

Ben Weekley holds up one of the letters his father, Vern, wrote to his family back home while he was serving as a U.S. Army soldier during World War I. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)
Ben Weekley holds up one of the letters his father, Vern, wrote to his family back home while he was serving as a U.S. Army soldier during World War I. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)

In some of the letters, Vern made reference to life under quarantine, as well as what it was like to have the Spanish flu.

"My head hurt so bad I thought it was going to bust," Vern wrote in a letter to his future wife. "As luck would have it, there wasn't much in it and that gave it a chance to swell a little. That's all that saved my life, ha ha," he joked.

In another letter to his parents that was dated Oct. 6, 1918, Vern wrote about his stay at Baise hospital, and recovery from the flu.

"I've been in here three or four days and I still don't feel much better as yet," he wrote, adding that he was "still alive, but that is about it."

On a more serious note, Vern wrote that at one point during his stay in the hospital, there were more than 1,000 people there suffering from the flu and, of those, 58 died in a single day.

Later on in the letter, Vern made another humorous reference to his bout with the flu, noting that it was "a pretty dangerous disease, but the only way they can kill me is to let the Germans shoot me, and then they want to be a good shot."

"My dad had a good sense of humor," Weekley said with a smile, adding that Vern was very well liked and respected in his hometown. In fact, Weekley said, the football field at Park Rapids Area High School is named Vern Weekley Field in his honor.

This plaque was presented to Vern Weekley back in 1967, when the football field at Park Rapids High School was named in his honor. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)
This plaque was presented to Vern Weekley back in 1967, when the football field at Park Rapids High School was named in his honor. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)

Weekley also noted that, unlike most soldiers who waited to join the military until their number was called in the draft, his dad actually stepped up to volunteer when he wouldn't have had to serve at all. After finishing high school, Vern and two of his brothers headed north from Park Rapids to Alberta, Canada, where they purchased 80 acres of land and built a log cabin where they all lived together — yet a few years later, at age 24, Vern came back to Minnesota, specifically to join the war effort in his native country.

"When the war broke out, he felt it was his civic duty to come back to the U.S. and join the Army," Weekley said. "He said, 'I'm the only single one in our family of military age, so it was my place to go.'"

After recovering from the flu, Vern was shipped off to France. He sent his parents a postcard to let them know he had arrived safely overseas, and later mailed his pocket watch and some clothes back home to give to his younger brothers (he had two sisters and six brothers in all).

"He also took out a $10,000 life insurance policy on himself, for his parents and siblings back home," Weekley said. "That was kind of touching.

"When he got to France, they assigned him as an MP (military police), because he was 6-foot-1. He worked with a lot of local police and military forces while he was there. One of his jobs was to guard the bodies of deceased servicemen until they could be shipped back to the U.S. for burial.

"He said they were stacked like corded wood over the winter — several of them even had their clothes removed," Weekley said. "When the war was over, they were loaded up and shipped back home to their families."

Vern Weekley was discharged from the U.S. Army on Nov. 21, 1919. He returned to Park Rapids, where he would spend the majority of the next 60 years, until his death in 1979.