The Influence of the Spanish Influenza Upon U.S. Fleet Operations in European Waters, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I posted Part 1 of this two part series which is a paper I presented at a recent Army sponsored Symposium on the Medical History of World War I. Held at Fort Sam Houston, Texas and mounted by the Army Medical Department historians over a two day period, the Symposium featured a broad array of papers on a wide range of medical historical topics. It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever attended. Bravo Zulu to Sanders Marble and his San Antonio associates!

And now, Part 2.

Submarines. Seven American “L” boats were stationed on the south Irish coast to patrol for U-boats as they transited south and west of Ireland and later, along the British and western French coasts. Four older and smaller “K” boats and one “E” boat were homeported in the Azores. The machinery in these latter vessels proved to be so unreliable that the boats virtually never put to sea; they played no role in the anti-U boat effort, though Rose argues for a deterrent effect.[1]. In about half a year of operations, American boats, despite regular patrolling, made few contacts and no kills. No mention of influenza appears in the submariners’ operational reports.[2]

Cruiser and Transport Service. Undoubtedly the most significant American naval and maritime contribution to the Allied war effort was the convoy system. As many as twenty four cruisers, in addition to the destroyers reported above, escorted some 45 American troopships and innumerable Allied and neutral commercial vessels in their trips back and forth across the Atlantic. Vice Admiral Albert Gleaves, USN, Commander of the Cruiser and Transport Service mentions the influenza in his history of the Service, mainly to record the number of troops who got sick on the ships, but he makes no mention of any impact on operations.[3] Only once does influenza appear in operational reports from the Cruiser and Transport Service, and that was to transmit an instruction from the Commander, U.S. Navy Forces in France concerning the early transfer of influenza patients to nearby Naval Hospitals.[4] On the other hand, conditions aboard the troopships in seemed dire. On 2 October, Sims wrote to OpNav, “Thompson, Medical Aide, after consultation with General Winter, Chief Surgeon, London Headquarters US Army, reports to me that the health conditions on arrival transports during last week was serious. Over 200 deaths from Influenza-Pneumonia and about 3,000 sick reported. Medical sides [sic; cites?] opinion overcrowding of troops one important cause of spread of contagion.”[5] The troops had caught the virus in training camps, where it spread readily among soldiers living crowded in barracks and being stressed by the rigors of military training. While an occasional transport experienced delay in movement due to influenza amongst her crew[6], no mention is made of operational interruptions due to influenza among the cruisermen.

Battleships. In early December 1917, RADM Hugh Rodman, USN in Command of Battleship Division Nine arrived in British waters with his coal burning dreadnoughts Delaware, Florida, Wyoming and New York. While intended to supplement the British Grand Fleet (as the 6th Battle Squadron) at Scapa Flow in a hoped for decisive battle with the German Hochseeflotte. their crews in actuality spent most of their time engaged in gunnery drills and convoy escort duty. Three more Battleships – Oklahoma, Nevada  and a bit later, Utah – Battleship Division Six – arrived at Berehaven on the Irish coast in August 1918. Their job was to protect iron ore convoys between Scandinavia and Britain against German surface raiders. The first reports of influenza from both American Divisions are dated 26 October. From Battleship Division Six, “During the early part of the week the epidemic of influenza reached rather serious proportions. At the present time the situation is much improved. Deaths from pneumonia during the week have been as follows: UTAH 4, NEVADA 7, OKLAHOMA 4. Admissions to the sick list have been made freely and all practicable precautions taken to limit the spread of disease.” From Battleship Division Nine, “Influenza is epidemic in the GRAND FLEET; the ARKANSAS with over 230 cases, and the WYOMING with less than 10 are in strict quarantine. To date it is of a mild form. Every precaution is being taken to prevent and eradicate it. There is every reason to believe that the ARKANSAS became infected by quartering a draft of men on her, which came from the [troopship] LEVIATHAN, a badly infected ship. These men were … were accommodated on the ARKANSAS, pending the departure of the vessel in which they were to take passage.”[7]

Jerry W. Jones, in his history of U.S. Battleship Operations in World War I[8] notes that the British Grand Fleet was severely affected by the epidemic. He quotes LT John McCrea, aboard the USS New York, “…had the German fleet come out to do battle during the epidemic, many ships of the Grand Fleet would not have been able to give an account of themselves.” Certainly Arkansas, with nearly a quarter of her crew on the sick list at the peak of her epidemic, would have been hard pressed to contribute effectively to any large fleet operation. Fortunately, crewmembers in the German fleet were war tired, and German Vice Admiral Scheer’s planned naval Götterdämerung against the Grand Fleet was aborted by mutiny among his crewmembers in late October.


The most significant contribution of American naval forces to the Allied war effort was its participation in the anti-submarine campaign in its many iterations. Just what was the impact of the Spanish influenza on these activities? The answer is told in the tonnage sunk statistics for the time. Sims, in his history of the naval war effort lists the monthly tonnage sunk from February 1917 through October 1918. These show that sinkings began to decrease markedly in the last quarter of 1917, a decrease that continued into the next year. Most instructive to our consideration are the tons of shipping (British, Allied and neutral merchants and fishing vessels) sunk in 1918 (see graph 1).[9]

Screenshot (19)

Graph 1

Notice the jump in August. It is virtually impossible to attribute this jump solely to the illness that paralyzed NAS St Trojan. In fact, Navy Surgeon General William C Braisted stated that the main onslaught of influenza among our Atlantic naval forces hit in mid-to-late September, that is, in the month following the surge in sinkings.[10] In fact, the downward trend resumed during the month of highest contagion.

Convoy activity similarly shows that the epidemic in September and October did not result in a decrease in sailings. In fact, ship departures (displayed in Graph 2) showed a continuing increase through the period of contagion.

Screenshot (20)

Graph 2


This report really ends up looking like a scientific paper: I started with a thesis – the Spanish influenza had an adverse influence upon U.S. Navy operations in support of the Allied efforts against the Central Powers in World War I. I then did the “experiment” – a search of relevant historical works and official reports of operations in, under and over European waters. I collected and analyzed the data. Result: the Spanish influenza had no operationally significant adverse influence upon U.S. Navy operations in European waters during World War I. My thesis is disproven.

A Cautionary Afterthought

In some units, a significant proportion of U.S. Navy personnel fell ill at some point during the period of contagion (August through October 1918). That operations were not significantly impacted is at least partly because there was a large enough pool of manpower available to supplement crews where necessary and because larger ships were generously crewed. In addition, the war appeared to be winding down as victory in the land war was clearly in view. Moreover, the enemy’s forces were suffering the same contagion – as Gina Kolata  put it, “…the Germans were at least as devastated…” as were Allied armies[11], and the German Navy was in the throes of the mutinous impulses mentioned above.

But what of today? In an online survey of military and civilian writing on the risks of bioterrorism and biowarfare, I found that the entire conversation appears to be around ameliorization of risk (prevention / immunization), training of first responders, diagnosis and treatment. Other than for first responders and the provision of special medical expertise, manning issues are not mentioned at all. We know well that both simple and sophisticated biotechnologies and increasingly sophisticated weaponization techniques, as well as the knowledge to create and apply them, are readily available to both state and non-state actors.  As a result, our military forces face potential exposure to “designer” agents carefully crafted to disable or kill large numbers. In the meanwhile, in an age of cost constraints and rising personnel costs, our military, and in particular our navy, seems to have instituted manning policies and equipment design based on a “minimum numbers necessary” approach. Given the increasing risk of the use of biological weapons in time of war, it would be wise to put an “epidemic manning surge” – that is, having more people than “mission-necessary” in place as back-ups –  into our force planning, lest critical war fighting capability be paralyzed when epidemic strikes.

[1] Lisle, op. cit. P 197.

[2] NARA, RG 45, ON-Submarines-Submarine divisions 3-6; Operation Reports. Entry 520 I-18, Box 420 of 1630.

[3] Gleaves, Vice Admiral Albert: A History of the Transport Service – Adventures and Experiences of United States Transports and Cruisers in the World War (New York, George H Doran Company, 1921), p190, 191),, accessed 15 March 2018.

[4] NARA, RG 45, CR-Cruiser & Transport Service 9/18-6/19, Entry 520 I-18 Box 88 of 1630, Folder CR-Cruiser and Transport Service October 1918 Folder 2, 4 October 1918

[5] NARA, RG 45, IL 6104, K-20 (in pencil, “October 2, 1918”), From: Sims To: OpNav 6104

[6] NARA, RG 45, Box 34 of 1630, File CE Destroyer Escorts 9, DUMMY Oct 24 1918, Class 3, Part 2 CE CO (pencil crossed out and “CU” entered), From Commanding Officer, S/S RE D’ITALIA To: Commander, Naval Forces, Brest, France, Subject: S.S. RE D’ITALIA unprotected in submarine waters; report on Ship unable to maintain position in convoy owing to so many of her crew having influenza

[7] NARA, RG 45, Box 632 pf 1630, Folder November 1918 4, REPORTS FROM BATTLESHIP DIVISION

[8] Jones, Jerry, W.: U.S. Battleship Operations in World War I (Copyright Jerry W. Jones; Published, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1968)

[9] Sims, op. cit., Appendix VIII, Monthly Losses Since February 1917, From Enemy Action

[10] Secretary of the Navy: Annual Reports of the Navy Department for the Fiscal Year 1919 (Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, report of), (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1920), p2438ff,;view=1up;seq=2503, accessed 13 March 2018.

[11] Kolata, op. Cit., p50

©2018 Thomas L Snyder

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