Influenza Crosses the Atlantic Ocean
The killer flu of 1918, which had broken out at Camp Dix in mid-September, was about to overwhelm the U.S. Army and explode across the state and onto the high seas. The Philadelphia Bulletin reported on Sept. 25, “Thirty-six soldiers died from Spanish influenza at Camp Dix during the past twenty-four hours, bringing the total of deaths from that disease to 96.”
The same day, the Trenton Times published a notice that shows how desperate the situation had become.
“Urgent call for women volunteers to relieve the exhausted nurses at Camp Dix has been issued through the Trenton Chapter of the American Red Cross, by Dr. William Stimson, of the Red Cross at Camp Dix. Dr. Stimson needs 25 women for two days’ service at the Base Hospital, and in issuing his appeal he stated that this work is as important as any that could be given on the European battlefields. The nurses at the hospital have been working for days and nights with only two hours rest, and they must be relieved. The service which the volunteer women will be asked to do may even include menial service and some nursing, but it is the most patriotic call that Trenton women have received.”
As Trenton women answered the call, to the northeast along the Hudson River where today the town of Cresskill is located was another Army base, called Camp Merritt. Here troops from the Northeast were assembled before heading to the docks at Hoboken and the perilous voyage to France. On Sept. 26, the camp was filled with troops; among those waiting was the first Vermont and the 57th Pioneer Infantry. Their captain, Ernest W. Gibson, described them.
“The regiment then had about 50 officers and 450 noncommissioned officers who were native Vermonters, a substantial nucleus of a regiment.
“The other commissioned officers of the regiment, as finally completed, came from the National Guard regiments of states. The balance of the enlisted personnel came from Philadelphia, Chicago and from Tennessee. On the 6th day of September, 1918, about 3000 men from Tennessee were called into the service. They came from the cities and villages, off the cotton plantations and from the mountain homes of that state. These boys were a home loving, God fearing lot of men. To many the trip to Camp was a first experience on a railway train. 250 of them were assigned to our regiment on the 12th day of September.”
As another group of troops began to prepare for embarkation, the flu started to appear among them, but there was no change in orders.
“Headquarters, Port of Embarkation, Hoboken, N.J., to the Commanding Officer, Camp Holabird, Md., September 23, 1918, is submitted:
“Send Water Tank Train 302 to Camp Union as scheduled, regardless prevalence influenza. Please acknowledge receipt. Signed, Judson. 1159a.”
On Sept. 27, Gibson and his men received orders to report to the docks to board the USS Leviathan, the world’s largest ship at 950 feet. It had been a German luxury liner until being seized by the United States and converted into a troop transport capable of carrying 10,000 doughboys to France at one time.
“We had proceeded but a short distance when it was discovered that the men were falling out of ranks, unable to keep up. The attention of the commanding officer was called to the situation. The column was halted and the camp surgeon was summoned. The examination showed that the dreaded Influenza had hit us.”
After a quick conference, “Although many men had fallen out we were ordered to resume the march. We went forward up and up over that winding moonlit road leading to Alpine Landing on the Hudson, where ferry boats were waiting to take us to Hoboken.”
The dark roads of New Jersey resembled a scene from Dante’s Inferno.
“The victims of the epidemic fell on either side of the road unable to carry their heavy packs. Some threw their equipment away and with determination tried to keep up with their comrades. Army trucks and ambulances following picked up those who had fallen and took them back to the camp hospital. How many men or how much equipment was lost on that march has never been determined.
“On board the transport men continued to be stricken and 100 of these were taken off and returned to shore before sailing.”
Slowly the Leviathan was filled with troops assigned to bunks stacked four high. Lt. Cmdr. Henry A. May was a senior medical officer assigned to the ship.
“During the hours of embarkation, Army medical officers removed from the ship approximately 100 men and 4 nurses as being infected with influenza.”
May realized this wasn’t going to be an ordinary crossing.
“There were 260 officers and 8,873 enlisted men of all grades reported as present when the ship left the dock in Hoboken.
“There were but 14 Army Medical Officers and 48 Army Hospital Corpsmen available for duty. Under normal conditions this personnel would not have been sufficient. In the face of such an epidemic as this the combined Navy and Army medical force has not been enough to properly care for the stricken.”
Finally, on Sept. 29, the crowded Leviathan departed. Her official record stated, “Under clear skies we steamed slowly through the big harbor filled with shipping and proceeded straight to sea, stopping only to drop our pilot, Capt. McLaughlin, of the Sandy Hook Pilot Association and who always piloted the Leviathan in and out of New York Harbor. This trip overseas was to be made memorable by reason of the Army epidemic of influenza on board. Many men and several nurses were obliged to leave the ship just before we cast off our lines and everyone felt that we would have a distressing time going over. While the embarkation troops were lined up on the big pier some of the men dropped helpless on the dock. We were informed that a number of men had fallen by the wayside, limp and listless on their march from the camp to the scene of transportation.”
There was no turning back for May and his medical staff.
“All available bunks in the sick bay were filled by army sick before the morning of September 30th. Arrangements were then made to empty F room section 3, port side, containing 200 standees. These bunks were filled within a few minutes with sick men picked up from the decks.”
The ship’s record simply stated, “Our first death was recorded the next day out. He was a sailor who did duty in the Hospital Corps. He told the chaplain that he did not want to die because of the great need of his help at home.”
He was the first but not the last to die aboard; the cruise of the Leviathan would be one of the worst in naval history.
Next Week: There’s no place to hide.