America and the Great War: Hopes, Dreams and Blue Death.

January 11, 2017

“If I have got to be a soldier, I must be a good one, anything else is unthinkable.” Wilfred Owen

The reluctant entry of the United States into World War I immediately ignited an enormous amount of national spirit which supported the war in Europe. Great orators rallied public support by their speeches, journalist and advertisers propagated the cause of war in print, and song writers were busy putting tunes together that praised the heroics of battle. The famous song writer George M. Cohan created the hit “Over There” which inspired young men to join up. One line in the song became a favorite of an entire generation “the Yanks are coming.“ The songs melody helped the raw recruits, and even the naive soldier wannabes, to imagine themselves literally “over there” and on the battlefield.

Young American Solider in training camp.
World War i. 1917-1918.

During the Great War over 10 million men lost their lives on the battlefields of Europe, and another 13 million civilians also perished due to war related issues. The United States entered the war in its final stages, and incurred considerably less in casualties and deaths than the other nations involved. Of the 117,000 U.S. military deaths more than half died from what the troops referred to as “blue death.” The official name of blue death was the Spanish influenza, and it killed more American and Allied soldiers than the deaths attributed to enemy fire. Within hours of becoming ill, their skin turned blue and their lungs filled with fluid that caused them to suffocate. An attending physician stated about his patients, “died struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their nose and mouth.

Influenza patient, U.S. Naval hospital, New Orleans, La. 1918

At the time (April 1917), that the United States joined the allies in the fight, France ,England, Russia, and other nations, had been battling the German Huns since 1914. Despite the years of misery and millions of loss lives, Germany’s aggression was still alive and well, and there was no clear victor in sight. America’s involvement was considered a game changer. America’s allies rejoiced at the news, and back home young men began lining up to enter the military service. The Sunday edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette (April 29, 1917,) carried the headline “U.S. is at War, So Let’s Fight.” In the article former President Theodore Roosevelt instructed American soldiers in combat by saying “when you hit a man hit him hard.” Roosevelt had long been a supporter of U.S. involvement in the war and his words inspired many young men to enlist. In the early twentieth century our nation experienced a large influx of immigrants, and they too joined, and, thousands of recently naturalized former aliens enthusiastically signed up. “I feel that America is fighting for a good cause, and was it not my duty to aid in this crisis,” said a recent Swiss immigrant. By the end of 1917 so many had volunteered for the regular army that U.S. newspapers were singing their praises “patriotic effort” and the “numbers had far exceeded” the quota set by the army.

The war effort in 1917, and early 1918, seemed to tap into a spirit of nationalism that had been building up in America. By early 1918 excited American troops wanted to see action, because it was clear that the war would soon be over. Veteran French allies viewed newly minted American troops as almost “too eager to get at grips with the enemy.” There is little doubt that the average American doughboy of World War I was expecting to “fight the German Huns.” By the fall of 1917 the U.S. Army had set up 32 training camps for new recruits each housing as many as 25,000 to 55,000 soldiers. Many young recruits held strong patriotic views, and clearly wanted to serve their nation. Like all soldiers they had hopes of “battlefield glory” but for many, that hope proved to be worlds apart from the realities that were faced in the training camps during late summer and fall of 1918.

In March 1918 a mild case of influenza was reported in Kansas and within a few days it had spread to New York. The Ford Motor Company in Detroit sent 1,000 workers home with the flu, and San Quentin Prison had 500 cases of flu in a population of 1500. Those infected usually experienced such typical flu symptoms as chills, fever and fatigue, and most recovered after several days. The number of reported deaths was small. The initial stage was so mild that many did not think it was influenza at all. A July 13, 1918, article in The Lancet stated that, “the disease certainly wasn’t influenza because its symptoms were too mild, and, ‘of very short duration and so far absent of relapses or complications.” Many of the soldiers, who had recovered from the spring influenza, completed training and were shipped overseas and joined the fighting forces in France.

Army camp hospital.

Many scientists predicted a second wave of influenza, but no one could predict just how deadly it would be. It appeared with a vengeance in the fall of 1918 and initially targeted military training camps throughout the nation. The average raw recruit in a training camp I no idea of what was happening to him. The virus intensified in areas that housed masses of people in tight quarters like military camps, churches, schools, as well as the trenches of France. Victims died within hours or days of their symptoms appearing, and by the end of 1918, the average life expectancy in America had plummeted by a dozen years.

Twenty-three year old Jacob Justin, had arrived at the Camp Upton (New York) army training camp in September, 1918. Shortly after he began training, he and others, were suddenly stricken by the deadly virus.Within a day, Jacob Justin’s condition changed to very serious, and word about the growing numbers of sick began buzzing around the camp. Despite the camp lock down, love struck Naomi Barnett slipped inside the camp, to be by the bedside of her dying fiancé. The young couple had planned to be married after Jacob’s training, and before he was deployed to France. Sadly, Naomi contracted the virus and was dead within two days of her arrival, and Jacob expired 30 minutes later. The influenza outbreak in the fall of 1918 in America was defined by its speed to kill. On September 23, 1918, another training recruit, Private James Downs entered the army hospital with a temperature of 104 degrees, and died in three days. There were many stories that described individuals collapsing on their way to work, and dying within hours, or entering a hospital with a fever and expiring soon afterwards. A popular anecdotal favorite was about four healthy young women who spent the evening playing cards together, and during the night influenza stroke, and by morning only one was still alive. Soon the virus began spreading into the public areas. The headline on the front page of the Macon Telegraph (October 2, 1918), loudly announced “14,000 New Cases within 24 Hours. Spanish Influenza Epidemic is Growing Hourly. Pneumonia Also Causes 300 Deaths.”

Military hospital.

In Boston, Camp Devens reported over 7,000 cases in one day, and by September 23 the camp hospital were attending 12,604 patients with influenza. The camp hospital accommodated 2,000 and the overflow was housed on its porches, and out in the drafty wooden barracks. Nurses and doctors were quickly overwhelmed, and at Devens nearly a third of the 300 nurses came down with the virus. At a time when antibiotics did not exist, doctors and nurses were simply helpless. Devens was only one of the many army camps struck in the fall of 1918. Our Naval fleet suffered as well. The Oregonian (September 23, 1918), in the article “Death Toll Climbs” reported that the First Naval District in Boston had incurred 238 dead from influenza and another 95 dead of pneumonia. Although only one Navy nurse had died during the war to date, the virus was so devastating to sailors, that 25 of the attending nurses also died, seven of them at Great Lakes training camp. By the end of 1918 tens of thousands of American soldiers had died of influenza while in training camps.

Hospital workers during the influenza virus. 1918

The death rate by camp was as high as 40% of the infected soldiers. Many of the ones who survived took the virus with them as they were deployed overseas. The battlefield, especially the trenches, proved to be a fatal space to breed and spread the virus. As the war began to wind down troops began to deploy back to the United States and the monster virus made its return visit, and exploded once again.

In just the month of October, 1918, over 200,000 Americans died of influenza, 12,000 in Philadelphia alone. .Many physicians had joined the army or navy, and stateside medical facilities were completely overwhelmed. Deaths were so regular that horse-drawn carts made the rounds through the streets of the larger cities, the drivers yelling out, “bring out your dead.” Funeral parlors ran out of coffins and “bodies had to be rolled unceremoniously into mass graves dug by steam shovels.”

The war officially ended on November 11, 1918, and the celebrations related to Armistice Day proved to be a fatal health disaster. Parades and large parties created a perfect breeding ground for the virus to continue to spread into the public areas. The end of the war overshadowed the influenza pandemic and the mounting death toll not only in the U.S., but all over the globe. It is clear that the mass movement of armies and naval fleets probably fanned the deadliness of the virus. At the time, it was felt that the trench warfare, plus the use of mustard gases, which produced and spread “smoke and fumes,” also accelerated the disease. The transporting of military forces packed together in tight quarters proved to be an incubator of death.

Red Cross workers during the 1918 Influenza outbreak.

Our young soldiers were well aware of the possibilities of combat death, but they never imagined “blue death”. The virus was particularly cruel in that it generally bypassed the old and very young, but concentrated on those ages 20-35. One of the ironies created by the pandemic was of the lack of volunteer help. Support for the war effort was enormous, but when bodies began stacking up like cords of wood, the public became frightened by “blue death” and withdrew. The Red Cross and various facilities, including many hospitals, desperately asked for volunteer help. In one case, after failing to persuade volunteers to help, hundreds of city employees of Trenton, New Jersey, were forced into being grave diggers for the mounting numbers of bodies. Over 675,000 Americans died because of the Spanish Influenza, and the world-wide numbers range from 40 to 60 million., making it the deadliest pandemic in modern history. Thousands of American troops never made it out of training camps, or off the ships that were to transport them to Europe. Their hopes of going “over there” never happened.


Colorado Springs Gazette, April 29, 1917, “ U.S. is at War, So Let’s Fight”

America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, Alfred W. Crosby

Pueblo Chieftain, March 30, 1919, “Influenza Causes is Responsible for Half War Deaths”

Kansas City Star, December 26, 1918, “War Own by Influenza. Dr. Woods Hutchinson Says the Disease Held back the Germans”

Colorado Springs Gazette, October 5, 1918, “Influenza Spreads in Camps and Cities in North and South and on both Coasts”

More about Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and an adjunct American History professor at a small college. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at:

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