Our 1918 Pandemic – C

We have been learning about the regional impact of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. John M. Barry’s pandemic history, “The Great Influenza,” concluded the outbreak originated in southwest Kansas; spread to the Army training center at Camp Funston in eastern Kansas; and troops from there brought it to camps around the US. The influenza outbreak ultimately involved the training camp at Camp Dodge, Iowa where young men drafted from our area received their initial training.

The growing outbreak tragically touched our region on April 3, 1918, when Marshall’s Walter Bedore died of pneumonia at Camp Dodge. Marshall businesses closed for his funeral at Holy Redeemer Church.

News releases from Camp Dodge in April and May, published in the local News-Messenger, reported thousands of soldiers hospitalized and a growing toll from pneumonia among those hospitalized. The April 12 release reported 15 deaths the previous week, while the April 19 release reported another 20 deaths. Information in the April 26 release suggested the epidemic still held the camp in its grip.

“In the regular weekly health report 1,900 men were reported confined in the hospital. There were 34 deaths for the week, of which 32 were from pneumonia. Taking into account the number of men enrolled, this is the largest death rate in any cantonment in the United States. Six wards in the new addition to the base hospital are in use and 200 patients have been transferred to the hospital at Fort Des Moines.”

These pneumonia deaths forever changed the families of these young men. But most of the soldiers at Camp Dodge and at other camps around the nation who contracted influenza in the spring of 1918 recovered after a few days without hospitalization. Even most of those whose more severe symptoms required hospitalization also recovered. This virus was not unusually severe, unlike the earlier cases from southwest Kansas, where the fatality rate was higher.

Nevertheless, Camp Dodge, was fighting an epidemic that was filling its hospital with young soldiers too sick to remain in their barracks and killing over a dozen young men every week.

Local draft boards continued sending their young men to Camp Dodge, a training camp that had become an epidemic hothouse.

My grandfather, Herbert L. Palmer, received his induction notice in Fairfax, Minnesota in April 1918, ordering him to report to Olivia on April 28. He wrote his girlfriend (my future grandmother) that he left Olivia on a 4:20AM train to Minneapolis and arrived at Camp Dodge at 8:00PM the same evening as part of a 22-car train of inductees.

His next correspondence, dated May 1 was from the Camp Dodge hospital.

Dear Alma: I am sorry to write that I’m confined in the hospital. I fainted several times. It is nothing serious expect to be better in a day or so. They are very good to us here . . . This place is all filled up now . . . We have not been examined yet. I don’t know when they are going to do it . . . I am a little weak and nervous and can’t write much . . . All I had was a headache and my stomach was out of order. Don’t worry and let anything bother you. I will be well in a few days . . . Your best loving friend, Herbert Palmer

He wrote a shorter letter the next day.

Dear Alma: I am in bed yet and expect to get out very soon maybe by tomorrow. At least by the time you get this short letter. I am a little weak and shaky, yet. You can tell by this writing.

This will be all. I will write soon again. Your loving friend, Herbert Palmer

Grandpa Palmer was discharged from the hospital by May 4. He wrote almost every day beginning May 9, but did not mention his illness further.

Camp Dodge, on the other hand, continued to struggle with the epidemic. The news release published May 3 reported some startling information.

“The scourge of pneumonia that made Camp Dodge the most unhealthy cantonment in the nation seems to have subsided. The month of April leaves behind a death record of 100 men from this disease . . . There are now about 2,000 men in the hospital.”

The news release on May 10 again offered reassuring words, but also included ominous information.

“The conditions at the base hospital have been materially improved. One hundred and fifteen soldiers, patients in the base hospital at Camp Dodge, have been transferred to the United States hospital at Fort Des Moines. This is the third transfer of patients. Nearly 300 are now at Fort Des Moines. The new hospital will be entirely completed within a month’s time. Funeral expenses of soldiers who die at Camp Dodge will be paid by the government . . . Railroad fare for the body to the place of burial and other expenses up to $100 will be paid . . . An enlisted man is detailed to accompany the body of every soldier, even though parents or relatives have come to take the remains home.”

The Camp Dodge news releases for the remainder of May did not address the epidemic, hospitalizations, or deaths. The News-Messenger carried no further Camp Dodge news releases after May 1918.

The influenza outbreak of spring 1918 appeared not to reach our region. But it reached Europe, North Africa, and Asia, sickening millions, but killing relatively few of those infected. The disease outbreak, however, was only getting started.

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