200 Plus

Flu Stalks Camp Dix Celebration

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Sep 05, 2018

The numbers associated with the 1918 flu pandemic are staggering, but it is the stories of those who experienced it that linger in your mind. The first U.S. outbreaks, at New York and Boston, were played down by officials more interested in winning the war than in stopping the flu. Little was said about how to prevent it from spreading, except the recommendation to “only kiss your partner through a handkerchief.” No attempt was made to postpone a proposed September birthday celebration at Camp Dix in New Jersey for General Pershing scheduled for Friday, the 13th.

The next day the Camden Courier Post described the event.

“News of fresh American successes in the big drive ‘over there’ arriving opportunely during the field day program in honor of General Pershing’s birthday yesterday afternoon, thrilled 20,000 soldiers and civilians on the great parade ground and brought about one of the most remarkable demonstrations of Yankee enthusiasm ever witnessed there. … Splendid exhibitions of horsemanship by riders and rope-throwers from all sections of the west featured the events. … The riding of real bucking horses proved the most exciting feature of the excellent entertainment, and in this event the most famous riders in the country.”

The YMCA had set up what were called hostess houses at military bases across the U.S. They were designed to aid and comfort those who came to visit the camps. A young volunteer remembered, “By reveille crowds of civilians were banked outside the entrance gate waiting to come into the cantonment and by 7:30, our building was beginning to hum with activity. Orders had been given the night before to have special care taken in the cleaning. Fresh flowers and greens were everywhere and the building looked very inviting and comfortable. … A big Wild West show was being combined with the fact that it was a very lovely day, caused many visitors to come out from the surrounding towns.”

The visitors came from miles around.

“The cafeteria served over three hundred for breakfast, and at 11 o’clock, when the chains were lowered for the noon meal, a long line was waiting in the main room. Three thousand one hundred and eighteen people were served between seven-thirty in the morning and ten-fifteen at night. Enough to say for the spirit of the workers that at ten o’clock they were still able to smile and see the funny side of many of the day’s occurrences.”

Dr. William Whyte, at 68, was too old to serve in the Army, so he had volunteered his services to help inspect young recruits for tuberculosis.

“The first case of influenza was diagnosed at Camp Dix on September 18. … Our examining board was disbanded and its members were all detailed for duty in the hospital annexes which were hastily improvised to meet the overflow of cases from the base hospital. I was a diagnostician in Hospital Annex Number 3 and for three weeks was compelled to see young fellows – the flower of American manhood – die like flies day by day. I had my quarters in Mount Holly, a few miles distant, and went to Camp by train every day. It was very depressing to see twenty-five or more coffins at the station every morning when I reached camp and a similar number there again when I went home in the evening.”

The New York Sun of Sep. 23 carried an article demonstrating how fast the flu was spreading.

“Thousands of visitors to Camp Dix paid a last tribute to the dead, whose bodies were sent to their homes yesterday under military escort. There was a guard of honor with each flag-draped coffin, and on the march to the station thousands of persons lined the road with bared or bowed heads. Military honors also were accorded the body of Miss Ullia A. Stowe of Bridgeport, Conn., an army nurse, who died of the disease at the base hospital.”

The rapid progression of the disease can be shown by the reaction of the Watertown, N.Y., man who received a telegram that his ward had been stricken. He wrote to a newspaper saying, “It is possible to take the 8:45 p.m. train from Watertown to New York, Grand Central terminal at 7:10 the next morning. The fare is $14.45 including sleeper. There is time for a hurried breakfast at the Grand Central. Then take the subway shuttle train to Times Square. Transfer there to the downtown subway express and get off at the Pennsylvania station. Take the 8:20 a.m. train over the Pennsylvania for Trenton, arriving there at about 10 a.m. The fare is $1.75. At Trenton take a taxi to the base hospital. The fare is $1.25 a person and the taxi does not leave until it has collected eight passengers. Be sure and have the telegram with you which summons you to the camp. … This serves as your pass to enter the grounds.”

He was told at the Camp Dix hospital, “The desirability of persons losing no time in getting to the camp upon the receipt of a telegram … that the telegrams sent from the hospital never summoned persons to the camp by direct statement, but that it was inferred that when the telegram said the patient was in serious or critical condition it was serving of adequate notice to come at once.”

But all stories didn’t have a happy ending. On Sept. 21, the Dodge City, Kansas Globe recounted that Will Pine was a recruit from Kansas, stationed at Camp Dix, where he was preparing to be sent overseas.

“For several years Will Pine was cashier of the Ford County State Bank here and was a very useful citizen of this community. Several months ago he developed a desire to get into the great world struggle and when a couple of the Ford County boys who had been sent to Camp Cody were returned home on account of physical disability, he was allowed to replace them. … The telegram received here this morning was the first news of his illness.”

With the news, his wife wasted no time.

“Early this morning a message was received here by his wife stating that Mr. Pine was seriously ill. Mrs. Pine started for Camp Dix on Santa Fe train No. 2 at noon, and an hour later another message came, stating that he was dead. Friends here are now trying to have a message delivered to Mrs. Pine on board the train.”

The Courier Post of Sept. 19 reported the frightening numbers.

“Prompt precautions taken by camp sanitary officers are believed to have checked the threatened epidemic of Spanish influenza among soldiers here, for while records last evening show a total of 1,500 cases developing within thirty hours, only a small percentage of these are of the virulent type. The biggest jump in new cases came overnight and of the above total only about 200 developed yesterday.”

The doctors were doing all they could.

“In addition to the order directing every soldier in camp to use either an iodine or salt solution for rinsing the mouth and gargling the throat at least twice daily a new order includes the spraying of the nostrils with a similar solution. Medical officers say the value of this precautionary measure is already shown.”

While all eyes were on the men at Camp Dix, the civilian visitors to the Friday the 13th birthday celebration had returned to their homes, many of them carrying an unwanted souvenir.

Next Week: It’s everywhere.


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