War Years

First, I came across a scrapbook, donated to the Historical Society by Bruce Badger, that someone had kept during 1917-1919 in Greene. Second, I discovered a booklet titled Letters Home, letters written by Merville Harrington in 1918-1919. Third, there was an article in the Press & Sun Bulletin about the death of the last surviving female veteran of World War I. (There are 4 surviving male veterans.)  I  decided to write about the Great War, the war to end all wars, and its effect on Greene. 

            The United States didn’t enter the war until April of 1917. War was first declared on Germany and then in December of 1917 on Austria-Hungary.  It wasn’t until the summer of 1918 that significant numbers of U.S. soldiers went to Europe.  In August of 1918 there were 1,300,000 American soldiers in France and it was planned to have 3,200,000 there by June of 1919. That wasn’t necessary as the war ended on November 11, 1918.  Greene had a huge celebration on April 24, 1919 to commemorate the end of the war and to welcome the returned servicemen. 3000 people witnessed the parade and there were speakers, dinners, dances until 4:30 am, the greatest celebration ever seen in Greene.

The human cost of the war was tremendous. A whole generation of young men in Europe was wiped out. Over 116,000 U.S. soldiers died and 204,000 wounded.  In Greene, there are 72 names on the memorial stone in the park of the men who served in World War I.  Seven young servicemen gave their lives to the cause.

            This war is remembered with images of bi-planes, gas masks and soldiers hunkered down in trenches. Any romantic notion of war was quickly gone in the “no man’s land”, the area between the entrenched enemy lines.  The hand-to-hand combat and the use of mustard gas and other chemicals  made for horrible physical and emotional wounds. But what isn’t often mentioned or even thought of was the concurrent influenza of 1918 and how this killer changed history.

            The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the Great War; it’s estimated that 20 to 40 million people died. It killed more people in one year than the Black Death Bubonic Plague did in four years from 1347-1351. It was called several things: “that disease”, the Spanish Flu, the grippe and the scourge. The name Spanish Flu came from the fact that it hit Spain in May, 1918, and killed 8 million people.

            In the U.S., an estimate of  675,000 people died and of the U.S. soldiers in Europe, half of the deaths were attributed to the flu. And in the U.S. an estimated 43,000 soldiers who were being mobilized for World War I died before they could get there.  The deaths were compounded because of the close quarters on troop ships and in camps, plus the fact that this flu hit their age group so virulently.

            The flu did surface early in the spring of 1918 in military camps in the U.S. but not too much notice was taken of it because of the war effort. Then the flu came back again in September through Boston and its port. Men from all over the country were mobilizing to join the military and brought the virus with them. Even as people celebrated the end of the war on November 11th, the crowds prompted a resurgence of the epidemic. In the end, the war exacerbated the flu and the flu affected the war. It killed more effectively than weapons.

In Greene, the first chapter of the American Red Cross was formed in 1917 and prepared materials for the war effort. Liberty Bonds were promoted. Harold Comfort had a big barrel in front of his grocery store where everyone could contribute fruit pits and nut shells to Uncle Sam. They were burned and the charcoal used in the manufacture of filters for gas masks. All through the newspapers, there are ads to buy Liberty Bonds: Hammer the Hun! Buy Bonds to Your Upmost.  There was a patriotic poem, Stick To Your Trench, written by a Captain fighting in France. Letters from servicemen were published describing their experiences.

On Oct. 3, 1918, is the first article I found in the Chenango American about the flu or grippe symptoms and what should be done. By this time, it was so prevalent that even quarantine wasn’t recommended. The Health Department said to stay in bed and not to overeat or get fatigued.  One doctor had a remedy of using gum camphor in two small bags; one was put near the breast as a disinfectant of the air and the other was applied to the nostrils occasionally.

In October, the deaths began in great numbers. On October 24, 1918, there are 11 deaths on the front page of the Chenango American from the flu. Three of them were nurses. All were young; this strain of  influenza hit the hardest for healthy people between the ages of 20-40. Two were a couple who left an 18-month-old baby. In the town and village of Greene, in October and November, there were 26 burial permits issued and the cause of death for 19 permits was influenza.

Of the Greene servicemen who died during the war, I have discovered that at least four out of seven died of the influenza virus. That number includes Merville Harrington, who served in the New York State Guard. A 57% death rate from the flu for the men in the military from Greene is astonishing but not out of line with national military statistics.

Why don’t we hear more about the 1918 Influenza Pandemic? Was it overshadowed by the events of World War I ? Was it because there weren’t so many news media? Was it because people were more exposed and resigned to death of young people before antibiotics?  As someone put it, it’s as if the 1918 flu has been erased from our collective memory. It’s the Forgotten Plague. Maybe it was too tragic to remember.

But remember we must. The next article will deal specifically with the booklet, Letters Home. Merville Harrington, the young man who wrote the letters, will represent every young person who leaves home in time of war to serve his country. “Lest we forget”.