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Across The Fence: The Spanish Flu
October 03, 2013 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting

Photo courtesy of Ft. Riley archives Kansas House at Camp Funston, Fort Riley

After three years of world conflict, in 1917 few countries remained neutral in ‘The Great War,’ among them were the United States, Sweden and Spain. However, between February and April of 1917 German submarines had torpedoed and sunk seven U.S. merchant ships and President Wilson would no longer tolerate the blatant acts of war against the U.S. And so, on April 6, 1917 the United States Congress declared war on Germany. Twenty-three days later on April 29, my grandfather, Wilhelm Fredrick Gustav Nolting, would celebrate his 23rd birthday as a trooper with the 7th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas.

It is little wonder that grandpa chose to join the cavalry. His father, my great-grandfather, had been an officer in the Prussian Cavalry before his immigration to the United States and it is evident that their mutual affinity for horses ran deep. However, given the strategies of combat and trench warfare tactics in the European theatre of war, mounted cavalry troops were not deployed to the front. The last major deployment of cavalry was under the command of General John J. Pershing in 1916 as he commanded the 10th U.S. Cavalry after Pancho Villa’s attack on U.S. soil at Columbus, New Mexico. Although my grandfather was eager to defend our country he did not see combat and his enlistment in the U.S. Cavalry was cut short by the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Grandpa never talked much about his time with the 7th Cavalry. Perhaps he deemed it unimportant since he had no ‘war stories’ to tell but he did tell me about the outbreak of the influenza at Fort Riley.

On March 4, 1918, Albert Gitchell, the company cook, reported sick at the post hospital with symptoms of a severe cold and flu. Following shortly thereafter, Corporal Lee W. Drake, reported in with similar symptoms. Within a week more than 500 soldiers had reported sick and over 100 were hospitalized by post surgeon Edward R. Schreiner. Within a period of five weeks 1,127 soldiers had taken sick with the flu and 46 had died from its effects. During this time, the ‘first wave’ of the virus had crossed the continent and made its way to Europe and around the globe. The Great War had mobilized soldiers around the world, including fighting men from Forts Riley, Hancock, Lewis, Sherman, Fremont and other military posts. Soldiers unsuspectingly carried the highly contagious strain to seaports and battlefields across the Atlantic. In March alone 84,000 U.S. troops had set out for Europe and in May another 118,000 were shipped out with hundreds of thousands more to follow. By early summer the virus had spread to Russia, North Africa and India and across the Pacific to China, Japan, the Philippines and New Zealand. By the end of July the global pandemic had sickened hundreds of thousands and thousands had died. But this was just the beginning.

Although potentially lethal, this particular strain would mutate into a far more deadly virus that would, in less than one year, claim more lives than the entire four years of casualties in the trenches and on the cratered battlefields of The Great War.
By the end of summer, 1918, it appeared as though the worst of the epidemic was over leaving more than 10,000 people dead in its wake.

Due to the war, most countries’ newspapers were censored and accounts of the epidemic did not reach the world. Spain however remained neutral and their news media was not censored. So as the first accounts of the epidemic were circulated throughout the world and the news originated from Spain, the virus was inaccurately dubbed ‘The Spanish Flu.’ This new strain of flu was unusual as it attacked young, healthy individuals instead of the usual population of the weaker, the young and very old. This flu’s primary victims were those more healthy and robust individuals between the ages of 15 and 40.

In late September, a mutated strain, far more deadly than the first, hit London and Boston almost simultaneously. In Massachusetts more than 10,000 soldiers came down with the flu and every branch of the service reported hundreds of deaths each week. On September the 28th, tens of thousands of people had gathered in Philadelphia for the Liberty Loan Parade. The deadly virus was there. The mutated virus had already infected the globe and now the people of Philadelphia were hit hard. Within a matter of days, after the parade, thousands of people were infected and the city morgue, built to house little more than three-dozen bodies, was soon inundated with hundreds. When the epidemic had passed, the city reported nearly 12,000 deaths. Throughout the United States, on average, five out of every 1,000 people died from the flu. In Latin America it was ten in every thousand, Africa, 15 per thousand and in Asia as many as 35 in every one thousand died. Although actual numbers were not recorded it is estimated that, worldwide, more than 50 million, perhaps as many as 100 million deaths resulted from the Spanish Flu.
The Spanish flu was a deathly horror exceeded only by the ‘Black Death’ in Europe during the 14th century. During the Spanish flu, like the European plague, cities around the world were unprepared to care for the dead. Death carts would travel city streets and survivors would heap the corpses in wagons for disposal. There was a shortage of coffins and individual burials could not keep up with the death rate so huge pits were dug and dozens of bodies buried together. In the cemeteries of larger cities in the U.S. there are solitary monuments marking the site of mass graves for those who perished from the flu.

My grandfather was still stationed at Fort Riley when the second wave of influenza swept the globe. From the middle of September through mid-December of 1918, there were more than 63,000 troops at Fort Riley. A huge brick barracks named Kansas House was built to accommodate trainees for service in the war. However, the post hospital could not accommodate the numbers of soldiers that were sick and the Kansas House was also used as an infirmary. For a time, until he contracted the flu himself, grandpa was assigned to ‘body detail.’ He told me that every day he, along with others, would go through the hospital and Kansas House to gather up the dead. The sheets, that had covered the soldier’s deathbeds, were bundled up and burned. The dead were stacked like cordwood until burials could be done and in November and December, when the Kansas ground was frozen, bodies had to be stored until graves could be dug.

The flu came quickly and a soldier might be feeling perfectly fine when in a matter of hours he would be deathly ill. In fatal cases those infected would die within three days. At the onset of the flu body temperatures would rise from 103 to 106 degrees or more. The virus attacked the lungs and sinus and caused severe hemorrhaging of the mucus membranes. As the lungs filled with blood the lack of oxygen circulating through the body would cause the skin to turn deep blue and sometimes black. Death came primarily due to the victims drowning in their own blood. Of the many thousands who took sick with the flu at Fort Riley, Kansas 2,624 died.

What follows is my grandpa’s description of his bout with the Spanish Flu and I will do my best to tell it as he told me.

Being on ‘body detail’ Grandpa was sure that he would eventually contract the virus and he did. He told me that when he first took sick his temperature rocketed and he was seized with a deep, wracking cough that felt like he was being turned ‘inside out.’ He could feel his lungs and sinus filling and was soon coughing blood. Of course the fever made him weak and often delirious and he remembered little of his days in the post hospital. He told me he was certain that he was going to die, but prayed that he might live. At the worst, he told me, the virus caused him to bleed from his eyes, ears and nose and the amount of blood that he coughed up reminded him of a stuck pig on hog butchering day.

On November 11, 1918 the Armistice was signed and the Great War was over. Grandpa had won his battle with the Spanish flu but was still hospitalized as he slowly recovered. Shortly thereafter the post doctors confirmed that grandpa would recover and he was discharged from service in the U.S. Cavalry. Grandpa’s words were, “… they kicked me out because I wouldn’t die.” Grandpa was one of the lucky ones. In the U.S., some 22 million people contracted the deadly Spanish Flu, more than 675,000 died.

During the Black Death, children recited a catchy little rhyme to describe the effects of the plague: “Ring around the rosy, pockets full of posies, ashes, ashes we all fall down.”

In 1918 children were skipping rope to: “I had a little bird, its name was Enza. I opened up a window and in flew Enza.”

Editor’s note: M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. To contact Tim, email: acrossthefence2day@gmail.com
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