Many of the stories I have focused on recently have dealt with death or complications. While many did die, the average death rate worldwide was <3%, meaning that most survived. This is one such story, as told in the life history of Cleo Anderson, my great-aunt.
“During the winter of 1918 there was a terrible flu epidemic that swept the entire country and many people died from it. I was five months old when I got the flu and was very ill. Mama told me that for three days I lay in a stupor but through faith and administration I was spared.
My father had the flu that same winter and was very ill with it.”
I am very glad that both Cleo and her father (my great-grandfather) survived, since my grandfather was not born until a few years later.
This is one of the few stories I have thus far of an American soldier who served overseas. Milan Piper was serving in France in February 1919 when he wrote a letter home. Based on other letters that his great-grandson Tim has read, Milan seems to be a real character. .
Milan (date unknown) in dress firefighter uniform.
Milan in 1908 when he was 22
In February, he wrote
“I had a touch of the flew, but I kept up all the time on sheer grit, and, I think by keeping up, and drilling with the boys…that I fooled ‘em all to the extent that the Hospital got cheated out of another patient…
by gee whiz they didn’t get me. I told the boys that the…germs can’t kill me on foreign soil for I’m going to croke in the good old U.S.A”
While he may have had the flu, he must have had a mild case to cheat the hospital out of another patient. He did survive the flu and the war and lived a long and happy life in the U.S. with his family.
Photo and story contributed by Tim Montgomery and Angie Rodday
I recently gave a talk sharing some 1918 flu stories at History Camp in Boston. It was recorded and is now available on YouTube.
I was reading the introduction to A Fever of War and the following sentences caught my attention. “Influenza hospitalized 25 to 40 percent of the men in the U.S. Army training camps and killed almost thirty thousand of them before they could even go to France. Men carried the flu virus on board the troop ships and many soon fell ill, toxifying the ships as they crossed the Atlantic.” (1)
Clyde Pendleton was a gunner on the troop transport USS America. In mid-September 1918 they picked up soldiers in Boston, who brought the flu onboard with them. Over 1,000 of the men on board became sick with the flu during the Atlantic crossing. Fifty-five died. This is a picture of Clyde who at some point while on land caught the flu and was in the hospital.
Upon the ship’s return to Hoboken, it was decided to fumigate the ship in an attempt to prevent another outbreak. The ship was loaded with coal and supplies. The fumigation was done by 2:30 a.m. The coaling ports were left open, probably in an attempt to air out the ship from the smell of the caustic materials used for the fumigation. Two hours later, the ship began listing and sunk. Most sailors on board were able to escape, but 6 men died. The unofficial explanation for the sinking was that the ship was resting on mud at low tide, and as the tide came back in, mud suction caused one side of the ship to rise more slowly than the other side, allowing water to come in through the open coal ports. The photo at the top of this post shows the raising of the USS America on November 21, 1918.
Credit for story and photo go to Deborah Stewart, Clyde’s granddaughter.
1. A Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I by Carol R. Byerly, page 8.
Nurses were desperately needed around the U.S. when the epidemic struck. Trained nurses were preferred, but it was quickly realized that there were not nearly enough professional nurses. Many were serving overseas in Army camps. The demand was so critical that restrictions were quickly loosened so that most women in good standing and willing to provide nursing services were accepted.
Frances Poole, of Evanston, Illinois, was one such nurse. She was a wealthy woman and did not seek to serve as a nurse in the army for the money. Rather, she volunteered to help the soldiers. She was sent to Camp Ontario in New York. Unfortunately, all too soon she contracted the flu and died from the resulting pneumonia.
One of her colleagues wrote: “During the terrible epidemic which was very severe in Camp Ontario, Miss Poole did not spare herself and, though she had a severe cold and was urged not to go on duty, she saw the extreme need of the boys, and, like a brave soldier, fought the fight until she fell—a victim of pneumonia. Her mother reached her two hours before her death.”
Read more about Frances and the search for her story here
Photo and story courtesy of Barbara Poole
Muriel Thumm was born in Manhattan in 1903 and raised by her father and grandmother in Pleasantdale, New Jersey. She was 15 when she was stricken with the flu in 1918. Her grandmother had died the year before Charles, so her father, a lawyer on Wall Street, stayed by her bedside and nursed her back to health.
Once she recovered and returned to school, she would ask for one of her classmates only to find out that the girl or boy had died. Then she would look for another one, and was met with the same response. She said she and her remaining friends soon stopped asking.
Story and photo courtesy of Muriel’s daughter, Muriel Powers
Linda Harms Okazaki spent years trying to track down the cause of death for her ancestor Hattie Mae Lane. Half her family said she died from the 1918 influenza and half said Hattie died from tuberculosis.
Below is a photo of Hattie on her wedding day. She was 37 years old when she died, the mother of 7 children.
Once Linda was finally able to find the death certificate, she found that both sides were right. The cause of death was “Tuberculosis Pilmonosis [sic] following Spanish Influenza about one year ago.” She died November 11, 1919.
Pilmonisis should be Pulmonosis, meaning tuberculosis in the lungs. This was by far the most common type of tuberculosis.
It is not clear whether Hattie had tuberculosis first. If so, this would have made her more susceptible to the flu virus and it is likely that the impact of the flu hastened her death from tuberculosis.
It is also possible, although less likely, that she developed the flu first. The flu was very good at opening up the lungs to secondary infections. Pneumonia was the most common secondary infection and was often a killer as there were no antibiotics at the time. But the flu could also lead to other secondary infections including tuberculosis.
Story and photo courtesy of Linda Harms Okazaki