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Why October 1918 Was America's Deadliest Month Ever

October 5, 2018 in History

By Christopher Klein

It wasn’t because of World War I.

The St. Louis, Missouri Red Cross Motor Corps on duty during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

While war engulfed the globe in the early autumn of 1918, Roy Grist watched as the bodies of fellow soldiers piled up inside a makeshift morgue. As the U.S. Army doctor wandered through the double rows of dead doughboys, he struggled to comprehend how young men, so full of life only days earlier, had been cut down in their primes. It would have been understandable if they had been felled by German guns on the Western Front, but these soldiers had died from a mysterious disease at an army camp northwest of Boston. “It beats any sight they ever had in France after a battle,” Grist wrote of the devastation he witnessed at Camp Devens.

In the weeks to come, the situation only grew worse, much worse. October 1918 would become the deadliest month in American history as a contagion the likes of which had not been seen since the days of the Black Death raged across the country and around the world.

The first officially recorded case of what has been called the “mother of all pandemics” occurred in early March 1918, at a U.S. Army training camp in Kansas. After mess cook Albert Gitchell complained of flu-like symptoms in the morning, another 107 soldiers followed by lunchtime. Five weeks later, more than 1,000 soldiers had been infected and 47 were dead. The deadly influenza tore through the overcrowded army training camps populated by one million new recruits, and the doughboys sent to Europe in the spring of 1918 carried with them infinitesimal microbes that proved as lethal as their guns.

Men gargling with salt and water at Camp Dix in New Jersey as a preventive measure against the influenza epidemic of influenza.

After subsiding over the summer, a second, even more powerful wave of influenza swept across the United States after two sailors in Boston contracted the illness. The flu quickly reached nearby military installations such as Camp Devens before spreading to civilian populations across the country.

Working 16 hours a day, Grist saw patients who arrived with coughs, sore throats and high fevers “very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen.” Within hours, mahogany spots dotted soldiers’ cheeks before their …read more


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