From The Archives -- Memorial Day For Flu Victims

[ Posted Monday, May 27th, 2013 – 16:22 UTC ]

[Program Note: Hope everyone's enjoying their Memorial Day! This column ran back in 2009, but I thought it would be appropriate to run here today, which is another way of saying I was having too much fun to write a new column. Anyway, enjoy, and hope everyone had a good holiday weekend.]


This column originally ran May 25, 2009

On a lonely hill outside the small town of Cobh, Ireland (pronounced: "cove"), is a mass grave marked by three somber headstones. As mass graves go, it's a fairly small one; holding not tens of thousands or even thousands, but merely a few hundred bodies. But the relative size of the grave on the scale of human misery is beside the point -- because while few, their deaths had monumental consequences for America. The dead were civilians, not soldiers (more on them in a minute). But their deaths deserve memorializing today just as much as those we remember who wore the uniform of our country. Because this is the final resting place of the people onboard the Lusitania.

Cobh itself is a town steeped in history, mostly because of its geography. It is situated next to what is reputed to be the second-largest natural deepwater harbor in the world (Sydney's, the residents will grudgingly admit, is larger). Meaning it was the last port of call for the great oceangoing ships of a century ago. For instance, Cobh was the last port of call for the Titanic (where Leo DiCaprio boarded, in the film of the same name -- although, due to the English propensity for renaming everything in sight to suit their fancy, it was called "Queenstown" at the time). And, earlier, it was the departure point for millions of Irish emigrants. There is a statue in Cobh depicting the first person processed through America's Ellis Island; a young Irish immigrant girl, with her brothers (a copy of this statue stands on Ellis Island, as well).

But although the town of Cobh itself cheerfully welcomes tourists with more than the usual amount of Irish charm, the graveyard which lies outside the village is not a cheerful place at all. There are individual headstones for the officers of the Lusitania, but most of the passengers were never identified and their final resting place is a grim reminder of the event which caused America to enter World War I.


Which brings us to remembering America's military. After 128 American civilians were killed in the sinking of the Lusitania, America mobilized over four million men for the fight in Europe. Almost 120,000 of them would wind up in graves themselves rather than returning to their homes.

But what many do not realize about this stark death toll is that over half of American military fatalities happened not on a battlefield, but instead due to the Spanish Influenza worldwide pandemic of 1918-1919. While estimates of the war dead and the cause of their deaths vary (due to the age and non-mechanical nature of the records involved), the Department of Defense official tally is 116,516 fatalities (53,402 killed in action, 63,114 non-combat fatalities). More American soldiers were almost certainly killed by the flu than by enemy bullets, in other words.

The young men mobilized for the war effort were sent to boot camps in America for their training, before being sent "over there." This had the effect of drawing together large groups of people from all over America (in an age where travel was much less common than today, to put it mildly), and housing them in close quarters with minimal facilities. Exactly what you should not do in the middle of a pandemic, in other words. Thrown together in this fashion, the flu virus ran rampant among the new troops. Many of our war dead never set foot in Europe, because they were dead long before their fellow recruits ever were deployed. The Spanish Influenza was an abnormally quick killer, with infected people sometimes dying within hours of contracting the disease. And one of the most susceptible groups of people were the young -- people in their twenties or teens.

Meaning the virus was particularly deadly to our troops.

The reason I have chosen to remember them today is that they deserve every single bit of respect and memorialization as the American fighting men who died in the trenches in Europe. Through no fault of their own, they were struck down by a microscopic killer before they had the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow troops under fire. Their country called, they heard the call, and they answered. And they made the ultimate sacrifice for it.

Without getting into the history and/or morality of America's involvement in World War I (since today is not the day for such arguments), I have been thinking about these military flu victims for a while now, ever since the "swine flu" hype in the news recently. I was surprised, when I sat down to write this, to find a story from CNN about the World War I American flu deaths. In it, they quote (from letters home) Martin Aloysius Culhane's first-hand account of what the boot recruits were going through:

"Since noon today our camp has been under quarantine to prevent an epidemic of Spanish influenza. We have had no cases thus far but it is the intention of the medical officers to prevent any case of the disease from making an appearance. All the men who have even slight colds have been put into separate barrack which, of course, were immediately christened 'the TB ward' by the rest of the company."

This was from a letter dated September 28, 1918. By October, Culhane had caught the flu himself, and had recovered. He then wrote home asking a friend to attend a mutual buddy's wake who had succumbed to the flu's scourge (Culhane would survive getting the flu twice, and would later return home without ever being shipped over to Europe):

"...the death of a very good friend, my Bunkie, Thomas Birdie. His body will go north today, I think. At his side, say a few prayers for the repose of his soul."

Today, while memorializing all the fallen in America's wars over the centuries, let us also remember the ones who were cut down before they even made it to the battlefield. Because the service of those killed by a lethal virus should be seen with just as much respect -- and deserves just as much honor -- as the ones killed by human enemies.


-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


6 Comments on “From The Archives -- Memorial Day For Flu Victims”

  1. [1] 
    Hawk Owl wrote:

    Thanks, Chris. I thought I was fairly well up on WW-I history, but had never seen this particular angle so well articulated. Your insights, facts, and phrasing are thought-provoking without losing the fundamentally respectful tone deserved by this "Day of Remembrance." Thanks.

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    As always, a stirring and fitting tribute to those men and women who serve and made the ultimate sacrifice.

    Kudos, CW.....


  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Something like 675,000 Americans died duing the epidemic. My grandmother told me of seeing coffins stacked on the sidewalks of NYC. Everybody knew people who were fine in the morning and dead next day.

    I don't think there is any other comparable mortality spike in US history, yet the event was almost never mentioned until recently. Despite the efforts of PBS, it's still not well known. The shock caused collective amensia.

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    To all:

    I have to admit, I was personally ignorant of much of this story until I read up on the flu epidemic and visited Cobh and the Lusitania gravesites. I had no idea the ship sank so close to Ireland, but Cobh still remembers the search-and-resuce operations launched at the time.


  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    TheStig -

    The frightening thing about the flu pandemic was that it could have been much, much worse. The flu strain was so deadly it could have eviscerated humankind planet-wide. The only thing which stopped it from doing so (even though it was incredibly devastating as it was) was the fact that it worked too quickly.

    The time between infection and death was so short, it didn't allow the virus to spread even further -- when there's a longer incubation (and infectious) period, a virus can reach many more people. A quirk in the flu's own genetics saved millions upon millions of people.

    Even as widespread as it was, we got lucky. We dodged a major bullet.


  6. [6] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Airline travel has opened up opportunities for short incubation microbes to disperse globally in a matter of hours.

Comments for this article are closed.