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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Letter 25 ~ September 26, 1918

I tell Minnie that the Spanish Influenza has broken out at Camp Funston and describe the preventive measures being taken. I also tell her I passed my “overseas exam.” I wrote a letter to my mother on this same day but won't include it here because it contains much the same information. The only difference is I ask my mother to send some old flour sacks for me to use as laundry bags, and I ask my brother Willis if he has the winter wheat planted yet.

Addressed to Miss Minnie G. Frey, Stockdale, Kansas
Camp Republican
September 26, 1918

Dear Kid –

Well I am still existing in this old hole. We have not been transferred because an epidemic called Spanish Influenza has broken out in camp. The Lieutenant said that he understood that no big transfers would take place for some time. The [Camp] Funston hospitals are nearly filled with cases. You need not worry about my contracting the disease because I am in the best of health and as soon as any cases are found, they are isolated. This afternoon they marched every one of us down to the infirmary & sprayed our throats & gave us some medicine. Also, the strictest orders are out concerning the disposition of garbage, waste, etc. The worst part of it will be if we are quarantined, I could not get a pass, and I have been counting on one so much. I am afraid we will be forced to remain here for some time. I shure hate that – especially if it keeps raining because it is hard to keep dry in these old tents. I am going to take as good care of myself as I can so you needn’t worry a bit about my getting sick. But if you shouldn’t hear from me for awhile, it will be because I am under quarantine. Keep writing just the same and to the same address. We have lost our “Y” accommodations now because they have torn down the old tent & are building a frame building. Candles are shy also so we have to improve what light we have. Kid, don’t you go to speaking off about my being so much better than you will be when I am discharged. There is absolutely no excuse for it. If a person wants to feel little & no account, he just wants to get into the army.

They gave us the overseas examination Tuesday & I passed without a bit of trouble as most of the men did, but some unlucky ones were marked as “B” men and will not be sent across. It rained yesterday just before supper but we stood in line for mess just the same. We were shure glad of our raincoats. After supper, we had to line up to sign the payroll & it was away after dark before we were done. It is hard to tell when we will get our money tho. We drill hard every morning until noon & almost every day after noon. We march to the parade ground either to watch or to parade.

We are having the new French platoon drill now used in combat. It is very interesting but makes you work. We haven’t carried rocks for four or five days. Isn’t that fine.

Well I must hurry & get ready for bed & put out the light or I will shure get into it. Good night & sweet dreams, --- W. C. G.

A soldier in a Texas Camp gets his throat sprayed during the Spanish Flu Epidemic.

  • In the fall of 1918, the Great War in Europe was winding down and peace was on the horizon. The Americans had joined in the fight, bringing the Allies closer to victory against the Germans. Deep within the trenches these men lived through some of the most brutal conditions of life, which it seemed could not be any worse. Then, in pockets across the globe, something erupted that seemed as benign as the common cold. The influenza of that season, known as Spanish Influenza, was far more than a cold, however. In the two years that this scourge ravaged the earth, a fifth of the world's population was infected. The “flu” was most deadly for people ages 20 to 40. This pattern of morbidity was unusual for influenza which is usually a killer of the elderly and young children. It infected 28% of all Americans. An estimated 675,000 Americans died of influenza during the pandemic, ten times as many as in the world war. Of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe, half of them fell to the influenza virus and not to the enemy. An estimated 43,000 servicemen mobilized for WWI died of influenza. 1918 would go down as an unforgettable year of suffering and death and yet of peace.
  • The French Platoon Exercise is the combat loading and firing sequence which is geared for speed, and allows for positive control of the firing line with a minimum of prompts from commanders. The object is to have a controlled rate of fire in order to meet tactical requirements and monitor the expenditure of ammunition. The command prompts will ensure that the firing line completes major movements of the weapons at the same time. The object in volley firing is not to have everyone load and fire as quickly as they can, but in a group.


  1. In my father's letters home from Camp Funston during this time, he describes the conditions and the people with a light, almost comedic, touch. This puzzled me for I know it was a horrible time, and I knew my dad was not a simpleton. I shared that concern with an instructor in the War College and he said humor(such as in M*A*S*H)was often the only way to relieve the pressure and the fear and kept them functional. I will be interested to see how Ward describes his experiences at this dark time.

  2. I wonder what the throat spraying was meant to accomplish in view of the fact that influenza is a respiratory disease. Apparently there was no direct scientifically based preventative treatment available in that era. They took a "shotgun" approach to treating the disease.

  3. You are so right Greg. Camp doctor's gave the soldiers a daily dose of Dobell's Solution which was merely an antiseptic sprayed in the throat -- no better than listerine. Dobell's was an aqueous solution of sodium borate, sodium bicarbonate, glycerin & phenol. They also recommended the soldiers sleep in the open air as much as possble and avoid drinking out of common cups, etc., to check the spread of the disease.

  4. The Great War in Europe was actually heating up, although in retrospect it was winding down. The Allies, with the new U.S. Army engaged since July, were on the offensive and pushing German forces back. Germany and Austria will send peace feelers to the Allies in early October, and Turkey will throw in the towel at the end of October.

    Things are still plenty hot on the Western Front.

  5. You are so right David. In reality, things were heating up in Europe. Only in retrospect could things have been considered "winding down." The soldiers in training at Camp Funston at the time certainly had every expectation of being sent "over there" as soon as they were trained. -- wg

  6. You folks may already read it but if not, I would recommend "The Great Influenza" by John Bary. Greg's observation was right on. They were actually trying everything. Looking for a needle in a haystack. Not much was known about viruses and how to deal with them. But a critical mass of researchers attacked it and some of them died in the process of testing the vaccine on themselves. By the time the pandemic slowed down in 1919, they were getting close.

    I read a news article this year that an Army medical research team which was examining the pandemic had come to the conclusion the horrible death of drowning in your own lung fluids experienced by most of the 1918-19 victims was a result of an out-of-control immune system reaction causing inflammation in the lungs. They said they were going to next examine ways to "modulate" (I think this might be medical terminology for "turn down")the immune reaction.

    It would probably be impossible to determine, but it would be interesting to see how much impact the pandemic had on the outcome of the war.

    Woodrow Wilson almost refused to acknowledge there was a world emergency, he was so deep in prosecuting World War I. His "sedition act" was a noose around the neck of the news media, threatening them with jail if they printed anything disagreeing with how the Whitehouse was conducting affairs. I don't think today's media would stand for least I hope not.