War on the Home Front
El Paso sufffered heavy losses fighting the Spanish flu just as WWI came to an end
By Lisa Kay Tate
One hundred years ago, El Paso celebrated the end of World War I — but was still fighting another war that claimed far more lives.
More than 600 people died in El Paso from the Spanish flu from September 1918 through early 1919. In one month, more Americans died from the flu than all 117,000 U.S. servicemen killed in the war. Worldwide, the flu killed tens of millions of people in a matter of months, more than the number of deaths blamed on the war, which lasted over four years and ended Nov. 11, 1918.
Technically known as the H1N1 virus, the Spanish influenza has been called “the greatest medical holocaust in history.” Unlike most flu outbreaks, this particular strain targeted people in the prime of life, and none were more vulnerable than soldiers living in camps like Fort Bliss or residents of poor, crowded neighborhoods like El Paso’s Chihuahuita.
“The vulnerability of healthy young adults and the lack of vaccines and treatments created a major public health crisis, causing at least 50 million deaths worldwide, including approximately 675,000 in the United States,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A century later, the pandemic remains the dominant event of modern times for public health professionals, and its memory is scarred upon the history of El Paso.
Chihuahuita suffered most
By 1918, El Paso’s population had risen to 75,000, having grown rapidly ever since the railroads a generation earlier had turned the town into a major crossroads of America. More recently, refugee migration from the Mexican Revolution and the growth of Fort Bliss had also spurred the city’s growth.
The first cases of Spanish flu were reported in January 1918. By August, a second, more deadly strain was detected. A month later, the pandemic hit El Paso.
Author Janine Young, former Chief Operating Officer for the Foundation for the Diocese of El Paso, researched the impact of the Spanish flu while she was writing the centennial history of the Catholic diocese in 2013.
“Influenza arrived in El Paso in September 1918 and quickly spread throughout the region,” Young wrote in an article published by the El Paso Times. “By early October, the city was in full crisis with hospitals filled to capacity and doctors, difficult to find as they were, increasingly out of their offices tending to the sick.
“El Paso was one of the hardest hit cities in the U.S.,” Young said. “Especially hard hit was Chihuahuita which was already suffering from a whooping cough epidemic among its children.”
Chihuahuita, nestled south of downtown El Paso next to the border, is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and home of its poorest immigrants from Mexico.
Another reason many in Chihuahuita, as well as the rest of South El Paso, were hardest hit was that few residents sought help at hospitals or could afford to pay for doctor visits to their homes.
In Chihuahuita “ambulances had come to the area four or five times a day to transport the ill and dying to makeshift hospitals,” El Paso historian Fred Morales said in a “Footnotes in Texas History” article written by Shannon Oelrich in 2009.
Oelrich said several factors made El Paso particularly susceptible.
“(El Paso had) a large population with a dense urban core,” she wrote, “overcrowded Mexican-American neighborhoods that did not have hospitals or other health services; and Fort Bliss, which housed soldiers in close quarters, many of whom had recently returned from Europe where the flu had already taken hold as fighting raged in the battles of World War I.”
The epidemic had become so strong than on Oct. 3, 1918, El Paso Mayor Charles Davis ordered the closure of all El Paso schools, churches, courts and public gatherings and meetings. Sunday masses at St. Patrick Cathedral were ordered to be held outside on the lawn next to the church, but by the next week influenza had spread throughout the city, and Bishop Anthony J. Schuler ordered cancellation of all masses at area churches, which did not resume again until the next month.
“What was especially tragic about the influenza epidemic is that most of its victims were very young,” Young wrote. “One of the victims (was) a 15-year-old student at St. Joseph’s Academy who died in the middle of October. She was buried at Evergreen Cemetery with her classmates serving as pallbearers.”
A few days later, one of the teen’s teachers also died of the disease and was buried just a few yards from her.
Young said still today a walk through historic Concordia Cemetery’s “Infant Nursery” reveals the harsh reality of all ages being hit by the disease.
“There is a portion of Concordia Cemetery that has burials of children who died during the epidemic with many of the graves unmarked,” Young said.
“In one week alone, 229 deaths were recorded of whom 144 were residents of the South Side,” she said. “Before the epidemic began to abate in late January 1919, an estimated 1 out of 10 El Pasoans had fallen sick and more than 600 had died.”
Flu wages war on Fort Bliss
World War I soldiers, already facing death on a daily basis, were especially vulnerable to this disease, particularly living in close contact to one another. When World War I ended, about 40 percent of the U.S. Navy had been infected, and more than 4,000 soldiers succumbed to the disease crossing the Atlantic. In all, one million men, a quarter of the American Expeditionary Forces, became ill.
The Texas Historical Commission stated that more than 10,000 cases of Spanish flu were eventually reported in Texas. The flu “disproportionately” spared the very young and very old, the Commission said, but killed the healthiest members of society, those between age 15 and 45.
“Military towns like El Paso and San Antonio were hit especially hard,” the commission stated in its information on Texas during WWI. “In response to the outbreak, governments at all levels did what they could to stop the spread and treat the affected… Gauze masks became a common sight on some city streets.”
The origin of the Spanish flu in the United States was at Camp Funston on Fort Riley, Kansas, where “Patient Zero,” a cook, may have come in contact with some infected pigs.
In 2017, Fort Riley hosted physicians, veterinarians, epidemiologists, immunologists, virologists, microbiologists, and public health experts from around the world in an interdisciplinary forum on how the flu spread and eventually killed 2 to 4 percent of the world’s population.
The Spanish flu led to the development of the flu shot in 1919, as well as more hygienic and sanitary environments for hospitals, clinics and health facilities, reported Dr. Jürgen Richt of Kansas State University, who co-hosted the 2017 conference. “It’s very important to have this historical perspective,” Richt said.
Fort Bliss’s size contributed to the flu’s prominence in the camp.
“As World War I ends troops begin to go home and as El Paso hosts one of the largest army bases in the U.S., Fort Bliss, El Paso was sure to be hit hard,” said one website dedicated to Spanish flu history. “Soldiers began to return home to see their families and some returned home coughing and sneezing. As the Spanish flu’s first stage is common cold symptoms, no one suspected anything.”
Texas author and historian Mike Cox also noted that east-west railroad traffic and the routine rotation of troops at Fort Bliss helped bring the disease into the area. Even with the closures of public gathering places and the quarantines and confinements, the rising cases of flu in the area provoked El Paso officials to call on Texas Rangers to help enforce quarantines.
“Rangers Ben Pennington and Bob Hunt, along with others, were pulled from border duty to see to it that the soldiers of Fort Bliss, normally an economic asset, stayed on the military reservation,” Cox said.
Hunt himself became infected and died in an El Paso hospital due to complications from pneumonia.
On any given day during the epidemic, the local papers were filled with calls for doctors, death counts and funeral notices, hopeful prevention methods and treatments, and other items related to the flu.
The El Paso Herald on Oct. 14, 1918, reported an appeal by state supervisor of the draft, Maj. John C. Townes, for nurses to work at Army camps throughout Texas.
“The unprecedented situation caused by the prevalence of influenza has caused the commanding officer of the southern department of the Army to appeal to draft boards (for) immediate assistance in securing nurses for the various camps in Texas,” the Herald announced. “Nurses, graduates and nongraduates, are badly needed at the camps, particularly Fort Bliss, Fort Sam Houston, University of Texas Camp Mabry and College Station.”
A request to doctors was sent out by El Paso Mayor Charles Davis and city health officer H.S. White for them to please report “all new cases of influenza and pneumonia to the city hall” every morning, particularly since some physicians had been reporting more influenza instances in the past couple of days.
“(Register F.C. Mayhew at the health office) was inclined to the belief that the height of the epidemic had passed, unless it be in the southside, where it has attacked a larger number of Mexicans in the past two days,” the Herald reported.
Local surgeon J.W. Tappan also noted the difference.
“The influenza epidemic, I think, has reached its apex among the American population of the city and the situation looks a little improved today. Of course we are getting the deaths now, but there are not so many new cases,” Tappan said. “The physicians working in the Mexican sections have a different story to tell, however. The malady is just reaching the Mexican population, and the situation is not as encouraging among them as in the American sections.”
Several hundred were infected or being treated in Juárez that day, the paper added, but only one death was announced.
The news from Washington D.C. also gave warning to area residents, with reports that the “epidemic has subsided somewhat in the eastern states, but continues to spread in the middle and far west.”
The State Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Carlsbad also warned the public to help stop the spread of influenza, judging from a persuasive circular received by El Paso doctor C.C. Mickle from the sanatorium.
“Don’t be a slacker,” the circular warned. “Don’t mind the other fellow’s laugh or sneer. Do you desire to protect others? Use sputum cups. Would you deliberately give a human being poison? You answer no, most emphatically. Then use sputum cups.”
There was also common sense sent from Mickle: “Cover your mouth with a paper napkin or muslin cloth, and burn this napkin or cloth,” he said, advising people to use the same method when sneezing.”
News was coming from further away in Minneapolis that a new serum had been perfected that had so far prevented the development of a single case of pneumonia, following Spanish influenza. Mickle said using iodine and creosote in treating influenza marked success in more than 100 recent cases. Other remedies given from various sources ranged from eucalyptus tablets to getting a “hypodermic injection of a sterile solution.”
Despite precautions and possible treatments, area residents continued to face the daily reality of more flu-related deaths.
The reported deaths ranged from a mother and her infant child who both succumbed to pneumonia during one weekend, 20 deaths throughout the South Side and 15 more deaths in El Paso’s “North Side.”
Camp Cody in Deming was less affected. Officials expected “few fatalities” from the epidemic due to “very careful medical safeguards and rigid quarantine,” then reported the death of one soldier and two civilian employees.
The death report at Fort Bliss, however, wasn’t so positive.
“Eleven deaths of soldiers from pneumonia, following influenza, were reported at the Ft. Bliss base hospital Sunday night and early Sunday morning,” one report revealed. “The previous 24 hours report was six dead soldiers.”
Quarantine at School of Mines
The University of Texas at El Paso was called the State School of Mines and Metallurgy (its original name when founded in 1914) in the fall of 1918.
“When the influenza outbreak hit, it was an interesting time for the university as they as just started the Student Army Training Corps,” said UTEP lecturer P.J. Vierra, a historian of higher education in Texas. When the fall 1918 semester began, more than 100 male students had been inducted for Army training. Few showed any flu symptoms, but the entire group had to be quarantined.
“Although there are comparatively few members of the School of Mines students’ army corps suffering from influenza, the camp will go into quarantine this evening, following the same rules as the other local army camps,” the school’s first dean, Steven Howard Worrell, told the El Paso Herald Oct 16, 1918.
During the quarantine, the university made sure the soldiers remained active, and professor H.D. Pallister reported Oct. 21 that the members of the army corps took advantage of the opportunity to form a school football team.
“A large number of the student soldiers are out for daily practice, and the outlook is that the school will have a team that will be hard to beat,” Pallister said.
The quarantine was lifted by mid-November, shortly after the armistice was signed. On Nov. 29 the U.S. Secretary of War announced that the training corps in many institutions would be demobilized, including the School of Mines. Students would be “mustered out” in December.
“No sooner than the students arrived, they were quarantined,” Vierra said. “By the time they got out of quarantine, the war was over.”
Spanish flu timeline
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a section of its website devoted to the 100-year commemoration of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Search for “History of 1918 Flu” at www.cdc.gov.
Here are some of the key events listed of the CDC’s timeline of the pandemic:
• March 1918: Flu-line outbreaks first detected in the United States, including more than 100 soldiers at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas. Flu activity begins to spread throughout the country, as well in Europe and possibly Asia.
• April 1918: First mention of the flu appears in a weekly public health report, where information officials listed18 severe cases and three deaths in Haskell, Kansas.
• May 1918: Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are traveling across the Atlantic each month for World War I deployment.
• September 1918: Second wave of flu begins to peak (lasting until November) in the United States, and New York City’s Board of Health adds flu to list of reportable diseases, requiring flu cases be isolated at home or in a hospital.
• October 1918: An estimated 195,000 Americans were killed by the pandemic virus this month alone. Cities around the country closed movie houses, schools and other gathering places. Also that month:
— The nation faced a shortage of professional nurses,
— Cold-storage plants had to be used as temporary morgues in major cities such as Philadelphia.
• November 1918: World War I ended, and most of the virus had run its course. Unfortunately a combination of people celebrating Armistice Day and soldiers demobilizing spurred a resurgence of flu.
• December 1918: Public health officials begin education programs and publicity about dangers of coughing and sneezing, and careless disposal of “nasal discharges.”
• January 1919: Third wave of influenza hits, but subsides by the summer.
Flu always a health threat
Flu remains a major public health issue, especially in El Paso. The 2017-2018 flu season had 12,405 reported cases.
Fernando Gonzalez, lead epidemiologist for the City of El Paso Department of Public Health, said one of the biggest modes of means of preventing another large scale pandemic today is our access to information.
“Nowadays, we have very sensitive surveillance systems for the reporting of infectious diseases,” Gonzalez said.
These systems work to update the health authorities on outbreaks and instances of infectious diseases such as the flu, so that they can react to what is happening by the hour.
Gonzalez added the creation and continual advancement of vaccinations is another difference between the influenza today versus a century ago.
“Countries have the capacity to produce vaccines for new viruses, as well as other antiviral treatments.”
He noted that the responsibility still lies on the individual to practice prevention methods during the flu season.
“Washing your hands regularly is still the gold standard in prevention,” Gonzalez said, adding keeping common surfaces clean with household disinfectants should also be done regularly.
This includes doorknobs, toys, countertops, and some things that people in 1918 didn’t have to worry about: handheld and personal electronic devices.
Gonzalez said it is as important today h for people with an infectious, airborne disease such as the flu to keep separated from others. Stay home from school, church, work or other social gatherings while recovering from the event, and make sure to see doctor in the early signs of symptoms.
Finally, he added, take advantage of available vaccines and get them in a timely manner. It takes two weeks for a flu vaccine to take full effect.
“Remember, no vaccine is 100 percent effective, but when you add this to practicing the other prevention methods there is a better chance of contacting a milder version of the flu,” he said.
Those particularly susceptible are those with chronic diseases, pregnant women, those under the age of 5 or older than 65, and overweight individuals.
Last season, there were 21 influenza related deaths in El Paso, he said, most of which were preventable.
Copyright 2018 by Cristo Rey Communications