Guest Blogger: Commander David A Thompson, CHC, USNR, Ret, On the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918

Today, I welcome a guest blogger, retired navy Chaplain David A Thompson. He is researching the 1918 Influenza epidemic. 

Since starting this research, I have had a lot of living relatives of WW I vets come out of  the woodwork to tell their stories of their loved one’s death or survival of the flu in the military in 1918: One 85 year old woman shared with me her dad served with my dad at Camp  Dodge…and was, as a admin NCO [administrative non-commissioned officer, ed.], directed to order over 700 coffins for the dead and had to  help contact families of  dead and dying soldiers. Another clergy friend shared his mother’s dad died of the flu in the Army, meanwhile at home his mother lost her mother, three brothers and a sister to the flu …and was orphaned…all in two weeks in the Fall of 1918! Another Army chaplain friend shared how his dad was with fledgling Army Air Corps in France and was tasked by the CO [commanding officer, ed.] in ministering to dying soldiers due to the flu and ghost writing letters of condolences to families for the CO in lieu of lack of a chaplain. All these children/grandchildren of WW I vets, are now in their later 60”s-80’s like me (I’m a young 66).

A typical letter was shared by a writer friend in St. Paul about an Uncle  who was in the Navy who died of the flu pandemic in World War I :

“Dave, thank you very much for your email. I hope you do tell that important story. It reminds me of one from my own family. My father was a World War II navy veteran. His oldest brother, a gifted athlete, had enlisted in the navy in World War I at 18. He was sent to a naval station in South Carolina where he was assigned to train marksmen while preparing to ship overseas. You probably know what’s coming. Flu swept through his barracks and he came down with it. A telegram was sent to the family in Illinois, but by the time my grandfather, who worked for the railroad as the salvage yard manager, had boarded the train to go East, he was traveling not to see an ill son but to claim his body. He accompanied the coffin and, at one point on the trip back, realized the car it was in was being decoupled. He immediately got off the train and waited with the car for a day until he could see it was safely joined to another train headed to Illinois and that he was with it. My aunts always said that the family never really recovered from Ted’s death. When I was going through my father’s things after his own death, I found his mother’s gold star and a pipe in a leather case with Ted’s initials scratched into it. I felt it was a legacy that needed a special home and one day realized it should go to my cousin’s daughter, who was serving as an officer in the navy and had grown up a mile from that South Carolina barracks and whose grandmother was Ted’s closest sibling. I also put copies of the clippings about Ted together for my children and niece and nephew so that he could stay part of the family life and heritage.”

David McCullough illustrates problems with the flu on the home front, that worried WW I servicemen, in his book Truman. He wrote that Captain Harry Truman (later President Truman) serving as an Army Field Artillery Officer in the 35th Division in France with the AEF [American Expeditionary Force, ed.], hearing of the influenza epidemic in his home town in Missouri, “became so alarmed he hardly could contain himself.” His sweet-heart Bess, her brother Frank, and two friends all had the flu. Truman wrote home, “everyday someone of my outfit will hear that his mother, sister, or sweet-heart is dead. It is heartbreaking almost to think we are so safe and so well over here and the one’s we’d like to protect more than all the world have been more exposed to death than we.”

It was a terrible time for deployed soldiers and sailors, as well as those in training camps in the US, who were  filled with anxiety and concern for family and friends back home who were ill with the flu (25.8 % of the civilian populations) and thousands (675,000) dying back home.

Since there were no ‘footprints” in VA hospitals of wounded warriors from this terrible flu epidemic in WW I (you either got well in 6 weeks or you were very quickly dead), only mute testimony of these flu deaths related to the military (as well as civilian population) is found in US civilian cemeteries or ABMC military cemeteries in France and England (see: http://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries/cemeteries/su.php ) and Brookwood American Cemetery, 35 miles southwest of  London, England (see:http://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries/cemeteries/bk.php ). The Meuse Argonne American Cemetery (see: http://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries/cemeteries/ma.php ) located 150 miles northeast of Paris, France with 14,000 graves, also has many flu casualties buried there. It was during the Meuse Argonne Campaign when the pandemic hit the AEF in full force in October-November 1918 during this battle (over 20,000 + AEF troops died of the flu in this 6 week period of this campaign), while  30,000 died in CONUS [Continental United States, ed.].

Military flu casualties in the US were buried in VA or thousands of community cemeteries in the US, like the one in Texas noted here (see website:  “WW I Casualties from Fayette County”  from a county in Texas that documented so many flu victims among WW I veterans in its county cemeteries http://www.fayettecountyhistory.org/deceased_WWI_veterans.htm ). Most CONUS Navy flu casuloaties were buried in this matter…bodies shipped home by train for quick 15 minute graveside services with only immediate family and clergy without military honors, due to quarantine.

In discussing the WW I Centennial Commemoration of WW I with the American Legion National HQ, there may be an interest in mobilizing American Legion Posts in every county across our nation to dig into county WW I records (like they did in Fayette County, TX) to find veterans who died in the Great  War due to combat or to the flu and tell their story during the WW I Centennial Commemoration in 2018. Such an excavation of WW I veteran records with photos and cause of death will bring to life for the public the sacrifices of WW I veterans and the impact upon our forces of the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918.

©2013 David A Thompson

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