1918 Great Flu Pandemic in World War I

My father, Arne Thompson, was the son of Norwegian immigrants who lived in Minnesota. During World War I, he served as PFC in the Army Coast Artillery Corps. When the 1918 Great Flu Pandemic reached his camp, where he remembered soldiers dying all around him, he was put on a burial detail. He helped dig graves for 700 soldiers who died of the flu in October 1918 at Camp Dodge, Iowa (13,000 fell ill). He told me he remembered seeing the bodies of his comrades stacked like cordwood waiting for shipment home to their families. My dad came down with the flu while helping with the casualties and was deathly sick, but didn't die. He lived to be honorably discharged from the Army on Christmas Eve 1918. He was given $30 separation pay and a train ticket home to Paynesville, Minn. When I asked him, “What did you do in World War I?” All my dad would say to me was, “I survived the flu.”

The 1918 Flu Pandemic hit our military hard in World War I. Deaths to disease (58,119) exceeded combat deaths (52,280), with 46,999 Army and 4,158 Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guardsmen killed by respiratory disease brought on by influenza. More than 30,000 American servicemen died in the United States in training camps in the fall of 1918 due to the flu, the most American soldiers to die in the United States in wartime since the Civil War. Many of them were buried quickly without honors due to flu quarantine policies in America in 1918, largely forgotten in our World War I war stories in American history.

On the homefront in the United States, 25 percent of the 105-million population was infected by the flu and 675,000 civilians died in the fall of 1918, the largest public disaster of any kind to ever hit America in its history. More Americans died of this 1918 flu than all the military personnel killed in World War I, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Worldwide, 50 million people died of this epidemic.

The Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 in World War I was the most common experience of all World War I doughboys, who could respond, like my dad, when asked what they did in World War I: "I survived the flu!"

CDR David A. Thompson, CHC, USNR (Ret.)