Aug 30

A Little Bird Named Enza

Friday, August 30, 2019 11:39 AM


I had a little bird,

And its name was Enza.

I opened the window

And in-flu-enza.

– A children’s jumprope rhyme

Imagine your daily routine. Mine? I wake up far later than I should, usually around 10 minutes before I have to be out the door and in my car to head over to the Naval Institute for work. If possible, I like to grab an iced coffee on my way in, just to make sure that I am suited for human interaction. I come in around 8 AM and settle in for a day of work, stopping for lunch around noon, and head off the yard around 4 PM to go home and cook dinner. By all accounts, it’s a perfectly normal day. However, in the Fall of 1918, there’s a good chance I would have been dead before I could make it back to my apartment. I would have woken up feeling somewhat normal. A couple of hours later I would start experiencing standard flu symptoms such as a fever, chills, a sore throat, and nausea. I would soon become too weak to hold up my own body weight, collapsing wherever I stood. If I were lucky, there would be a bed available in a hospital, and I would be tucked in amongst a sea of the sick and dying as grotesque mahogany spots erupt on my face and extremities. Blood would pour from my ears and nose as fluid would fill my lungs, turning my skin a sick bluish purple as my body was deprived of oxygen. By the time I would have finished with work, I would have drowned in my own body.

Crowded sleeping area extemporized on the Drill Hall floor of the Main Barracks at Naval Training Station, San Francisco, California, in the latter part of 1918. Note the sneeze screens erected as a precaution against the spread of influenza, and the sign on the wall at left forbidding spitting on the floor. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command )

This is surely the stuff of nightmares, but it is also the stuff of reality. This is the fate some 50 to 100 million people suffered from during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic in 1918, with a total number of around 500 million falling ill around the globe. Now you might be wondering how on earth this is related to Naval history, or even military history. Of course, what was then known as the Great War was raging at this time, with over 70 million military personnel being mobilized to fight in the “war to end all wars” over its roughly four-year duration. With such a massive increase in the need for fighting men, military training camps around the country and around the world became largely overcrowded, bustling hubs of action. Soldiers and sailors were being shipped from point a to point b and c with great regularity and great urgency, as bodies were desperately needed to fill the trenches overseas. In the haze of wartime, infected persons were traveling all over the place, bringing the deadly virus along with them. Unfortunately, the primary means of transportation was that of seafaring variety, making ships and those serving aboard them one of the foremost methods of disseminating influenza throughout global populations. Some sources even say that 40 percent of the entire U.S. Navy fell ill, with official reports recording 106,000 hospital admissions and 5,027 deaths attributed to influenza or consequent pneumonia.

U.S. Naval Hospital. Corpsmen in cap and gown ready to attend patients in influenza ward. Mare Island, California, 10 December 1918. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph)

It has been over 100 years since the Spanish Flu swept over the globe, and scientists are still uncertain as to where and when the epidemic began. Though its name may suggest Spain, the reality is that Spain, a neutral entity during World War I, more openly reported its statistics on the virus as it had no wartime gag orders in place. Many epidemiologists believe it began in Haskell County, Kansas, where letters and diaries from locals showed mentions of severe bouts of pneumonia cropping up quite rapidly in January 1918. A handful of young, healthy men from Haskell County were sent to Camp Funston, Kansas, to be trained for combat by the Army. However, those healthy young men weren’t as healthy as they may have seemed. Just a few days following their arrival, on 4 March, a soldier reported having flu symptoms to his commanding officer. A mere two weeks later, 1,100 soldiers had been admitted to the camp’s hospital, and 38 men had succumbed to the virus. Many of these men were then transferred to other Army camps across the United States, and soon 24 out of the 36 major training facilities were seeing cases of influenza entering their infirmaries in droves. However, at this point in time, the flu was only getting started. The first wave of the pandemic, which hit during the early months of 1918, and lasted through until the summer, was mild in comparison of what was to come.

Masks for protection against influenza. Nurses in Boston equipped to fight influenza during the 1918 epidemic. (National Archives and Records Administration)

The truly horrifying effects of the plague would become apparent starting in August 1918, when on 27 August three instances of influenza would be noted by medical staff serving near Commonwealth Pier in Boston, Massachusetts. Just a few weeks later, in the beginning days of September, over 2,000 Navy personnel would be stricken with the flu. The nearby Chelsea Naval Hospital would be so overwhelmed by the influx of the ill that it would set up makeshift hospital quarters on its own front lawn to handle the sick and dying. The outbreak in Boston became so severe that Commander F. M. Furlong, Medical Corps, USN, would issue a memorandum on 12 September to those working under him at the Portsmouth Naval Yard warning them to “not visit the city of Boston or its suburbs except on urgent business” so as to avoid infection. On or around 18 September, a vessel would depart the port at Boston and head south to Philadelphia, bring the new plague along with it. By the next day, some 600 sailors would report ill, showing flu-like symptoms. As cases of the flu began to snowball in the old city, those who were still well ramped up to host a Liberty Loan parade on 28 September. At this stage in the game, officials were convinced that the epidemic was not as bad as those on the frontlines of local hospitals were making it out to be. In their minds, going forward with the parade would be a complete non-issue. 24-72 hours following the parade, all hell broke loose. People were collapsing in the streets, Philadelphia’s single morgue was stacking bodies three or four high, and healthcare workers themselves were dying by the handful. On 8 October, the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot issued a telegram to D.C. reading,

Epidemic Spanish influenza hampering operation of depot. Eleven commissioned officers and fourteen hundred eighty nine employees absent today. Of the latter eleven hundred seventy seven work in factories. Situation not improving.

By the time the epidemic subsided, there were over 12,000 reported deaths in Philadelphia alone, with the highest death toll recorded in one day being a whopping 1,700. It would later be determined that Philadelphia was hit the hardest out of most, if not all American cities.

Mounted on a wood storage crib at the Naval Air Factory, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 19 October 1918. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)

Medical personnel employed at Naval hospitals across the country were slammed with patients. Josie Mabel Brown, a Navy nurse who served at the Naval Hospital in Great Lakes, Illinois, described her experience working through the epidemic in a later oral history. She stated,

We didn’t have time to treat them. We didn’t take temperatures; we didn’t even have time to take blood pressure … We would give them a little hot whiskey toddy; that’s about all we had time to do. They would have terrific nosebleeds with it. Sometimes the blood would just shoot across the room … The morgues were packed almost to the ceiling with bodies stacked one on top of another. The morticians worked day and night. You could never turn around without seeing a big red truck being loaded with caskets for the train station so bodies could be sent home.

Brown, like many of the other medical personnel, fell ill herself. While she survived the illness which befell her, many did not. Three nurses, Marie Louise Hidell (Naval Hospital Philadelphia), Lillian M. Murphy (Naval Base Hospital, Hampton Roads), and Edna E. Place (Naval Hospital, Philadelphia) would all be posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for their valiant service during the horrific plague.

Masked medical personnel giving treatment to an influenza patient at U.S. Naval Hospital, New Orleans, Louisiana, circa autumn 1918. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

Ships departing the Puget Sound Naval Station near Seattle, Washington, and other Pacific Northwestern ports would be responsible for the emergence of influenza in Alaska. The SS Victoria reached Nome, Alaska, on 20 October 1918, and while the crewmen and passengers were thoroughly examined by local doctors, the mail bundles which they carried were not properly checked over. The infected mail was packed onto dogsleds and carried across the state to Inuit villages in the most remote corners of the region. Surfman L. E. Ashton, a Coast Guardsman stationed at Station No. 305 in Nome, Alaska, was mentioned by named in the Annual Report of the United States Coast Guard in 1919 for his heroic actions during the influenza epidemic. Many of his cohorts were either ill, or afraid of becoming so, and the stricken individuals living at Cape Prince of Wales 160 miles away from Nome were in desperate need of supplies. Surfman Ashton, along with the help of a sled driver, loaded up a dog sled with medicine and supplies and the two set out for the long, perilous journey across the frozen landscape on 6 December. Upon reaching the remote village on 13 December, the two men were greeted with 122 sick persons, and 157 dead. Ashton made the decision to stay and spent the next three months setting up morgues and hospitals to accommodate the needs of the villagers.

This blog post was of particular interest to me for a number of reasons. First, my grandfather survived the epidemic. He was only 3 years old, living in Iowa with his family, when they all took gravely ill with the flu. Though the details of his story are lost to time, that he lived through such a momentous and terrifying moment in history always stuck with me. I am also both fascinated and horrified that to this day, the exact cause and “ground zero” of this plague is still unknown. However, one thing is for certain. The age-old fear of communicable diseases arriving by ship is one to be taken very, very seriously.


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