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Our 1918 pandemic – A

A reader contacted me in early November and suggested writing about the impact of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic in our region.

I have been reading an excellent history of that global pandemic by John M. Barry entitled “The Great Influenza” and recommend it to anyone interested in digging into the circumstances of that great plague. His account will guide us as we explore the nation the pandemic found when it exploded in the US and trace its beginnings to how it affected our region.

That pandemic burst on a nation at war. The major powers of Europe had been fighting since August 1914 – the Allied Powers of the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Imperial Russia fighting the Central Powers of Imperial Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress on April 2, 1917, describing a pattern of abuses by Imperial Germany against U.S. neutrality, and asked Congress to declare a state of war because of these acts. He said this was for the peace of the world; the liberty of its people; and to make the world safe for democracy.

On April 6, 1917 Congress declared a state of war existed between the U.S. and the Imperial German government. President Wilson, although he had long pledged to keep the U.S. out of the European war, immediately resolved to wage total war and set about transforming the nation for that effort.

Part of President Wilson’s transformation of the United States was foreshadowed in his address to Congress when he warned, “If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with stern repression. . .”

John Barry explains how President Wilson used the federal government to compel conformity and control speech in ways the nation had never seen before nor since. For example, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which authorized the Postmaster General to stop delivery of virtually all publications whose content suggested any less-than-enthusiastic support of the war effort.

Similarly, Congress passed the Sedition Act, making it a federal felony to ‘utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the United States.’ Thus, one could criticize the government for a stupid decision and end up in federal prison for Sedition.

Finally, President Wilson on April 13, 1917, signed an Executive Order creating the Committee on Public Information, or CPI. The CPI prepared thousands of press releases, illustrations, and feature stories about the war effort and how citizens could support it that newspapers routinely ran unedited. The CPI also produced thousands of posters and advertisements supporting the war effort, many urging people to report to the Justice Department anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories, divulges or seeks confidential military information, cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.”

This massive public information campaign, supported by authority to punish disloyal or less than enthusiastic support of the war effort, led to a form of self-censorship among the nation’s print media. Editors avoided publishing information they feared might hurt wartime morale. Thus, the influenza pandemic that began in the winter of 1918, erupted in a nation whose media and media consumers had learned over the previous nine months to avoid exploring topics that might hurt a community’s wartime morale.

John Berry describes how it was in this wartime society of information constraints that a rural physician from Haskell County in southwest Kansas encountered a violent form of influenza in his patients in January and February 1918. He was so concerned by the fierceness of their symptoms and the many strong, young people who succumbed to the disease that he notified federal public health authorities of the outbreak. That outbreak receded, but not before young men from the affected communities traveled several hours to the northeast to the Army training facility of Camp Funston, located on the Fort Riley, Kansas military reservation. Soldiers from Camp Funston were constantly moving on to other camps.

Camp Funston was only one of many, enormous, newly-constructed training camps for the massive army the nation was raising and training for the war in Europe. The enormous, newly-constructed training camp receiving recruits and draftees from our region was Camp Dodge, just outside Des Moines, Iowa.

The Sept. 7, 1917 edition of The News-Messenger of Lyon County carried a front page story announcing the first 15 draftees from our region were leaving from Marshall by train for Camp Dodge. Their number included Virgil L. Anderson, Leo A. Furan, Ralph W. Hunter, Harold C. Marsh, and Hans Rykhus. Two weeks later the paper carried another front page story about the next 25 draftees leaving for Camp Dodge. Their number included August Biernaerdt, Will Danderand, Adiel DeSmet, George W. Gillund, Isadore H. Paradis, and Alfred Rabaey. On October 21, 1917 and again on February 23, 1918 groups totaling 198 young men from the region left for Camp Dodge. They came from Amiret, Arco, Balaton, Cottonwood, Garvin, Ghent, Lynd, Marshall, Milroy, Minneota, Russell, Tracy, and Tyler. Their number included Walter Bedore of Marshall.

John Berry reports Camp Funston hospitalized its first influenza case on March 4, 1918. Within three weeks another 1,100 soldiers had become sick enough to require hospitalization. Of the hospitalized soldiers, 237 developed pneumonia and 38 died. In the meantime soldiers from Camp Funston were moving to other camps. Two weeks after Camp Funston’s first case, influenza cases arose at Camps Greenleaf and Forrest in Georgia.

Ultimately, twenty-four of the thirty-six largest U.S. Army camps experienced influenza outbreaks that spring. Camp Dodge was among those that experienced an outbreak.

— I welcome your participation in and ideas about our exploration of prairie lives. You may reach me at prairieview pressllc@gmail.com.

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