skip to Main Content

Corona Virus and 1918-1919 Flu Pandemic

This is the piece [with great editing by Sam LaGrone because the article was sent in disparate batches and the patience of three historians in interviewing by phone and e-mail] I did for USNI News on the 1918-1919 flu pandemic and its impact on the Department of the Navy.

This was not the first time, I did a story on lessons from 1918-1919. When I worked for the Association of the United States Army in the late 1990s, I interviewed Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, a virologist then working at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, on the breakthroughs made in understanding this pandemic and lessons that could be applied in the future to control these outbreaks.

On a more personal note, one of my father’s sisters, a woman in her 20s, died from complications from the flu in the last wave of the pandemic. That wave particularly struck young [and presumably healthy] adults in and out of uniform.

The pandemic wasn’t over by dates certain.

Unlike now, when travel was ordered halted for DoD service members and civilians and exercises cancels, the demands of World War found hundreds of thousands of newly volunteered or more likely drafted sailors and Marines on the move, riding the rails to boot camps like their Army counterparts.

From there they were sent on to their next duty stations, were present at mammoth bond rallies to pay for the war they were about to fight, then sent aboard transports [like hundreds thousands more soldiers on their way to France], berthed on warships — from battleships to minesweepers in Irish and English ports with few civilian medical facilities ashore.

And doctors, nurses there had to confront the contagion among their own residents just as hospitals and clinics were struggling to do likewise in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Newport News, embarkation ports, in metropolitan areas and in boot camps and basic training sites.

That is the underlying premise of the piece — and thanks to the historians I interviewed for this piece for clarifying the point: the pandemic was global and how it spread [yes, doctors and line commanders understood the necessity of “social distancing,” “isolation” and “hygiene”]. But in many cases the rapid spread outpaced or overwhelmed their ability to take the necessary precautions or deliver care quickly enough, and again the answer, in part, comes down to the grinding onward demands and high price of war.

Back To Top