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 1918-1919 labeled Spanish flu killed nearly as many soldiers as the war — and millions of civilians.
History recalls that the 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 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 15 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.