200 Plus

Death Sails With the Troops

Sep 11, 2018

An outbreak of the Spanish influenza among the troops at Camp Dix in New Jersey occurred in mid-September 1918, and the Camden Courier of Sept. 18 reported on attempts to battle the disease.

“‘Gargle, gargle, gargle!’ Throughout the great cantonment last night nearly 50,000 soldiers, with tilted heads, gargled and gurgled in response to the orders of the Sanitary Corps which yesterday launched a precautionary campaign to prevent the spread in Camp Dix of an epidemic of Spanish influenza such as has swept other camps and communities in the East. Every officer and enlisted man is instructed to do the gargling stunt at least twice and preferably three or four times a day in order that lurking influenza germs may be rendered harmless.”

The New York Sun one week later gave an update on the campaign.

“Thirty-six men died of influenza yesterday at Camp Dix, Wrightstown, N.J., since the epidemic broke out a week ago to ninety-six. Although yesterday’s number of deaths was the greatest for any day since the first case was discovered at the camp, the medical officers said they considered the epidemic was subsiding and that they had the disease under control.”

On the 27th, The New York Times ran an editorial that disagreed.

“It is lamentably evident that the malady called Spanish influenza is fast assuming the pandemic form in this country, and lamentably evident, too, that it is a really serious affliction. Of panic there is no need whatever, but it is to be regretted that the measures for its restriction and suppression which our civilian and military health authorities are now taking did not begin some weeks ago – that is, immediately on the arrival of the first cases from abroad. … At that time we were assured that because we were adequately fed and had not suffered any such great and prolonged mental strains as have the populations of most European countries, there was no danger that the disease would spread here either as rapidly or as far as it did there.”

To make matters worse, Camp Dix and Camp Merritt, in Bergen County, were staging areas for the thousands of men being packed onto troop transports bound from Hoboken for France. Capt. Ernest Gibson and his men were scheduled to sail on the 950-foot USS Leviathan, the world’s largest ship.

“At Camp Merritt we stopped long enough to secure equipment to conform to the overseas’ standard so far as available, and drop such men as were undesirable. We were assigned to sail on the giant Leviathan then moored at her pier in Hoboken.

“The first battalion assigned to guard duty aboard the troopship moved out from Camp about one o’clock in the morning of the 28th of September. The 2nd and 3rd battalions marched out from their barracks about one a.m. on the morning of the 29th of September. … 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. 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 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.”

Sydney Herman served on the transport.

“We left our pier at Hoboken, September 29th and our ninth voyage overseas was underway. The following troops were onboard … 9,366 … 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 Sandy Hook. … 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. 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.”

Dr. Albert Dunlap was the ship’s medical officer.

“There are no means of knowing the actual number of sick at any one time, but it is estimated that fully 700 cases had developed by the night of September 30th. They were brought to the sick bay from all parts of the ship in a continuous stream, only to be turned away because all beds were occupied. Most of them then lay down on the decks, inside and out, and made no effort to reach the compartment where they belonged. … The conditions during this night cannot be visualized by any one who has not actually seen them.

“October 4th, seven deaths during the day. The sea was rough and the ship rolled heavily. Hundreds of men were thoroughly miserable from the seasickness and other hundreds who had been off the farm but a few weeks, were miserable from terror of the strange surroundings and the ravages of the epidemic. … Many officers and nurses were ill in their rooms, and required the constant attention of a corps of well nurses, and an army medical officer to attend them. … Each succeeding day of the voyage was like those preceding, a nightmare of weariness and anxiety on the part of nurses, doctors, and hospital corpsmen. No one thought of bed for himself and all hands worked day and night. On the 5th there were 10 deaths, on the 6th there were 24 and on the 7th, the day of our arrival at our destination, the toll was 31.”

According to Capt. Gibson, “The conditions during the night cannot be visualized by anyone who has not actually seen them. Pools of blood from severe nasal hemorrhages of many patients were scattered throughout the compartments, and the attendants were powerless to escape tracking through the mess, because of the narrow passages between the bunks. The decks became wet and slippery, groans and cries of the terrified added to the confusion of the applicants clamoring for treatment, and altogether a true inferno reigned supreme.”

While the Leviathan was the largest troop ship, it wasn’t the only one to leave Hoboken carrying the flu. Edward Clark had been an Army chaplain for three months. He sailed on the USS President Grant, and his letters home to his wife give some insight into the voyage.

On Sept. 26 he wrote, “Spread of influenza quite bad. Wish we were on a fast ship – still long sail ahead. Our boat carries about 5,600 troops and according to rumors we are bound for Brest (France). I suppose it is a matter of quarantine ahead as we have lots of influenza – 200 or more cases – aboard and some have a touch of pneumonia. …

“On September 30. Sickness is getting the jump on us. It seems as if influenza gets a start, takes a crash and leaves with having coaxed all a man’s energy. Pneumonia comes with one fell swoop and off goes another. Visited twice the hospital on Deck B. Several are sick seriously. One of our medics is gone already.

“On Oct.1. A sea funeral at 5:30. Five men – four of which were 74th. Sewed in canvas, draped in Old Glory, band playing ‘Lead Kindly Light’ and ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’

“Oct 2 … This is a ship of Death! Getting to be that the morning question is, ‘How many last night?’ ‘What branch?’ Seven more for October 2 but none from 74th I’m glad to say. Several of ours are making a splendid fight.”

He then described what was becoming his daily routine.

“This is the procedure in detail. All band, firing squad, officers ready on C, out starboard side. Bodies in canvas brought to C deck inside, placed in coffin troughs, draped with flag. Bearers bring them to aft while band plays ‘Lead Kindly Light.’ Then they are placed on rail, feet to sea and balanced. After ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ I read from manual. Then Breslin reads prayers, mine of hope in Christ and more consecration that these shall not have died in vain, his prayer, Catholic prayers for salvation from terror, from wrath. Sea calm, steady. A splash. A salute by 21 guns and taps! Old Glory Helps!”

The next day changes were made.

“… on account of psychological effect on sick ones above, the band, firing and taps are omitted. Chaplin Breslin and self briefly went through the ceremony. Colonel Clark, Commander Moses and officers of companies affected were present. The toll today was twelve buried and more to follow. How can one describe the situation adequately. … With a low, subdued voice I read, ‘Until the deep shall give up her dead’ … Then Chaplin Breslin, ‘The holy martyrs receive them, the angels in heaven take them to the holy city of Jerusalem.’ Amen. Then one after another a dismal swish, a dull splash – Twelve souls have departed this earth.”

On Oct. 4, “At 11:30 fifteen more were buried – quietly, sadly. At 2:30 pm a second fifteen. A total of 55 so far. It may reach one hundred. I’m doing my best. One man improving by my help. Others fighting hard and many consoled very much by my words and prayer, fourteen negroes included. I prayed at each splash. ‘God receive his soul and bless his loved ones.’”

The next day as the ship approached France, “Thank the Lord these days are soon over. Yesterday’s two procedures repeated. I’m seeing men die at night. I see their eyes bulge in the death struggle, I hear their groans and delirious ravings, I know their desire to hold onto life, but in vain as that cough has nailed them into death’s cold sweat. Men are glad for me to speak of religion.”

The chaplain closed with a request that has helped to keep the American public in the dark for almost 100 years. “Dare not mention the truth to anyone in the USA.”

While the horrors of the troop ships were kept from the public, it was more difficult at home. On Sept. 28, the papers across the nation announced that 74 had died at Camp Dix in just one day!

Next Week: The war goes on.


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