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The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 | The Invisible Enemy

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 | The Invisible Enemy
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Yankee classic from February 1982

The Invisible Enemy | Influenza 1918 from Yankee Magazine
While soldiers fought the Great War overseas, the home front struggled for their lives against the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Boston in the summer of 1918 was hot and very dry, with only 8.13 inches of rain in four months, according to the U.S. Weather Bureau. For the men in “Receiving Ship,” a naval barracks on Commonwealth Pier where as many as 7,000 enlistees boarded while awaiting assignment or returning from duty, the dry heat made sleeping a bit easier, and the cloudless blue skies prompted hundreds of them to take to Revere Beach.

The news of the day was mostly about the “job of beating the Hun, a job squarely up to the U.S.” We’d been in World War I for about two years.

As far as the newspapers were concerned, the glory of defeating the Boche was the only thing really worth thinking about. Between the columns about our gallant boys “over there,” the newspapers applauded the rounding up of slackers, those who hadn’t registered for draft; they mocked the suffragettes and puzzled over their cause; and firmly denounced anyone they thought was hampering the war effort — the IWW, Eugene Debs, the “Bolsheviki,” even the striking car men of the Boston Street Railway Company.

“If you must kiss, filter the smack,” read one mid-August Globe article. The story that followed was about a Norwegian ship that had arrived in New York City with 100 sick passengers on board; four more had died and been buried at sea. Was this the mysterious “Spanish Influenza” that they’d heard rumors about, reporters asked? It couldn’t be, officials replied.

Though in fact a new and brutal form of flu was ravaging both sides of the front, killing thousands in Europe, doctors here believed that the so-called Spanish influenza was something only the Germans could get because they were weakened by famine and life in a war zone. There was nothing to worry about here, stateside officials declared. Besides, they reasoned, flu is a winter disease familiar to everyone; and though it will put a person under for a few days, it’s certainly not deadly. “To avoid the common or garden-variety of the disease,” the Globe story concluded, “kiss through a handkerchief.”

Lydia Johnson’s father, a blacksmith, decided he could profit from the boom the war had brought to the mills and factories in small-town New England, and so he moved his wife and five children down to Greenfield, Massachusetts, from the hill village of Shutesbury. The move meant they had to sell the family’s cow, and Lydia, age 8, was sorry to see her go. Out in the country the Johnson family could grow its own food, keep chickens, and cut wood for heat. In town the war had not only boosted employment, but it had shot the price of food sky-high. At summer’s end there was inflation (eggs at $0.49 a dozen, butter at $0.51 a pound) and shortages (to heat a house you needed a ration card from the Fuel Administration).

On the evening of August 27, two sailors had come into Receiving Ship’s sick bay with what appeared to be textbook symptoms of the flu: chills, fever, sore throat, coughing, labored breathing. The medical officers on call took blood samples, made throat cultures, gave the standard physical exams, and ordered the men to bed. Forty-eight hours later, two doctors of the 11 at the infirmary had taken ill.

On August 28, eight more sailors with the same symptoms checked into the infirmary; on the 29th, 58 more. Twenty sick men a day was enough to be considered unusual, but doctors and nurses were too busy to ponder the peculiar circumstances: they were facing a calamity. By the end of the week the number of cases was averaging 150 a day, and a steady parade of ambulances carried the sick from the modest infirmary to the modern Chelsea Naval Hospital overlooking Boston Harbor, which had a l,236-bed capacity.

The disease was not confined to the Navy. Thirty miles west of Boston was Camp Devens, where much of the Yankee Division had been trained. Most of the soldiers in that division were now in France beginning America’s first major offensive of the war, the St. Mihiel battle. The task at Devens now was to train the 12th Infantry, and when General McCain arrived at the camp on August 20, he announced that the 12th would be ready to go overseas in 14 weeks. “Range firing,” he said, “will be carried on at all hours of the day while it’s light enough to see the bull’s eye.”

What the general could not have known was that by the end of those 14 weeks 17,000 of his men would battle for their lives here; 800 would succumb, casualties in a war against an invisible enemy. And the losses to the 12th would be just a fraction of what was to come; the influenza pandemic of 1918 would the worst in modern history.

Camp Devens, built in 1917, was home 45,000 men, 5,000 of them living in tents; in the first week of September 1918 another 4,000 recruits arrived. When drill sergeants marched them past the camp’s 2,000-bed hospital, they unconsciously lowered their voices. Something very grave was happening in there. As one Army doctor later described the scene, “There was a continuous line of men coming in from the various barracks looking extremely ill. There were not enough nurses and the poor boys were putting themselves on cots, which overflowed out of the wards onto the porches.”

However, after touring Devens’ hospital with General McCain, Lieutenant Colonel McCormack, a division surgeon, insisted to the press. “There’s nothing to get fussed up over — flu’s flu.” But Dr. William Bryan, over at Receiving Ship, was more cautious in his remarks: “It’s not the fancy European kind, but it is not the old-fashioned grippe. It is sufficiently dissimilar to be a medically different trouble.”

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

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