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How America Struggled to Bury the Dead During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

February 12, 2020 in History

By Christopher Klein

Undertakers, gravediggers and casket makers couldn’t keep up with history’s deadliest pandemic.

As a terrifyingly lethal influenza virus swept across the globe between 1918 and 1920, history’s deadliest pandemic claimed the lives of approximately 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the United States. Nearly 200,000 Americans died from the “Spanish Flu” in October 1918 alone, making it the deadliest month in the country’s history.

With cremation an uncommon practice at the time, the sheer number of bodies overwhelmed the capacity of undertakers, gravediggers and casket makers to keep pace with the arduous task of burying the dead. At the same time, a prohibition on public gatherings that included funerals and wakes compounded the pain of many grief-stricken families who could not properly mourn the loss of their loved ones.

America Was Unprepared for the Flu’s Mass Mortality

The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI (TV-PG; 5:42)

Nancy K. Bristow, a University of Puget Sound history professor and author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, says the United States had been caught unprepared for the outbreak partly because advances in bacteriology made many Americans believe they could control infectious diseases.

“This is not what Americans in 1918 expected to occur,” she says. “An enormous number of people died very quickly, particularly on the Eastern Seaboard where the flu struck first, and they didn’t have an opportunity to prepare in any way.”

The mass mortality led to macabre scenes. Red Cross nurses in Baltimore reported instances of visiting flu-ravaged homes to discover sick patients in bed beside dead bodies. In other cases, corpses were covered in ice and shoved into bedroom corners where they festered for days.

Inundated undertakers stacked caskets in funeral home hallways and even in their living quarters. In New Haven, Connecticut, six-year-old John Delano and his friends played outside of a mortuary, scaling a mountain of caskets piled on a sidewalk, unaware of the contents inside. “We thought—boy, this is great. It’s like climbing the pyramids,” he recalled.

Photos: Innovative Ways People Tried to Protect Themselves From the Flu

Boys wear bags of camphor around their necks around the time of the 1918-19 Spanish flu—an “old-wives’ method of flue-prevention,” according to a December 1946 issue of Life magazine.

View the 9 images of this gallery on the original article

Cemeteries struggled to handle the soaring death toll. With gravediggers absent …read more


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Why Was Dresden So Heavily Bombed?

February 12, 2020 in History

By Volker Janssen

By the end of the three-day Allied bombing attack of World War II, the German city had been leveled and tens of thousands were dead.

They had heard the “whump a whump” of distant aerial bombings many times before. But on February 13, 1945, the American prisoners of war heard Dresden’s fire sirens howl right above their heads. German guards moved them two stories down into a meat locker. When they came back to the surface, “the city was gone,” remembered writer and social critic Kurt Vonnegut—one of the American POWs who witnessed the bombing of Dresden.

The punishing, three-day Allied bombing attack on Dresden from February 13 to 15 in the final months of World War II became among the most controversial Allied actions of the war. The 800-bomber raid dropped some 2,700 tons of explosives and incendiaries and decimated the German city.

As a major center for Nazi Germany’s rail and road network, Dresden’s destruction was intended to overwhelm German authorities and services and clog all transportation routes with throngs of refugees. The Allied assault came a less than a month after some 19,000 U.S. troops were killed in Germany’s last-ditch offensive at the Battle of the Bulge, and three weeks after the grim discovery of the atrocities committed by Nazi forces at Auschwitz.

In an effort to force a surrender, the Dresden bombing was intended to terrorize the civilian population locally and nationwide. It certainly had that effect.

Dresden Bombing: A Barrage of Explosives and Incendiaries

A photograph shot by German WWII photographer Richard Peter shows a street cleared out after the February 13-15, 1945 Allied bombing attack on Dresden. In the background is a damaged high school.

View the 8 images of this gallery on the original article

In the time that Vonnegut and others hid underground, the British Bomber Command’s Blind Illuminator aircraft had rained explosives and incendiaries over the city. Then, “visual marker” aircraft swooped low to drop thousands of flares and fire-target markers. The main attack formation followed: over 500 heavy “Lancaster” bombers loaded with explosives and incendiaries. The U.S. Eighth Air Force attacked the next day with another 400 tons of bombs and launched yet another raid with 210 bombers on February 15.

With the German Luftwaffe destroyed and anti-aircraft defenses in shambles, the Royal Air Force lost only six planes. On the ground, however, thousands of small fires …read more