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The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918
Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The 1918 Flu

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
On March 11, 1918 company cook Albert Mitchell reported to the infirmary at Camp Funston, Kansas, a sub-post of Fort Riley. He had a slight headache, a mild sore throat and a low-grade fever. His appetite was off and his muscles ached. A post doctor put the cook on sick leave and ordered him to spend the day in his bunk. By mid-day, 107 Camp Funston soldiers were ailing. Two days later, the number of sick soldiers at the Kansas camp had increased to 522.

The disease quickly stretched across the United States -- from the isolated prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay to sailors aboard ships in ports along the East Coast.

As the great armies of Europe and America battled that summer in the deadliest war the world had ever known, each side gained another vicious enemy. Symptoms of the flu became more severe. A fifth of all sufferers developed life-threatening secondary infections: bronchial pneumonia or septicemic blood poisoning. With antibiotics yet to be invented, a large percentage of those died. In America, many blamed the sickness on a secret biological weapon developed by the Germans. But the disease knew no flag or boundary.

In El Paso, east-west railroad traffic and the routine rotation of troops at Fort Bliss carried the disease to the Southwestern desert, an area generally noted for its healthfulness. On September 30, 1918, El Paso papers casually noted that some people in the city had the flu, but the situation worsened daily.

The city's board of health ordered the closing of all schools, churches, theaters, lodges, pool halls and other public places. In addition, soldiers at Fort Bliss were essentially confined to the post, forbidden to pass beyond the intersection of Overland and El Paso streets.

To help enforce their quarantine, El Paso officials called on the Texas Rangers. 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. Armed with six-shooters that could do no harm to the real enemy they faced, Pennington and Hunt followed orders and tried to keep people put for their own good.

Soon, both men began feeling ill. In doing their job, both Rangers had contracted the flu. The disease progressed rapidly. Pennington went first, dying on October 12, only four days after his flu symptoms first appeared. "Famous Fighter of Border Guard Finally Downed," the El Paso Times reported the next morning.

Ranger Hunt lived only four days longer than his colleague, dying in an El Paso hospital on October 16. In five days, his disease had progressed to pneumonia. With many of its reporters, editors and printers also sick, the Times barely noted Hunt's passing. A one-paragraph article reported only that "Robert Hunt, state ranger, from Fabens, Tex., died in a local hospital Wednesday morning."

The Rangers, and others afflicted with the flu, died hard. One doctor wrote of the pneumonia associated with the flu that once cyanosis appeared in a patient, "it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate."

The second week of October 1918 saw the worst death toll in the city's history. From October 9 to October 16, El Paso Mayor Charles Davis announced that 131 people, including the two Rangers, had died, most from the flu. The one-week count amounted to nearly as many deaths as had been reported for the entire month of October 1917.

Hospitals across the country were full but short-staffed, since many doctors and nurses were sick or dying. El Paso and other cities were short of funeral directors, grave diggers and coffins.

In El Paso, the epidemic finally began to abate in November. Then, at 1 a.m. on November 11, pistol shots and whistles startled sleeping residents. Soon the city's two newspapers had extras on the street declaring in huge type that an armistice had been signed: the war was over. A wild, spontaneous celebration swept the city, continuing through daybreak.

People in El Paso and all across Texas and the rest of the nation may not have realized it, but they were in truth celebrating two victories -- a military triumph over Germany and, for the time being, a defeat of death. America had won a war and its people had endured a terrible epidemic.

Flu infected 28 percent of all Americans, killing somewhere between 675,000 to 850,000 people, a staggering mortality rate of 2.5 percent. The virus had claimed the lives of more American military men and women than German warfare. Worldwide, an estimated 20 to 40 million people died in the worst pandemic in history.

Suddenly, eighteen months after it appeared, the virus vanished. Except for their families and friends, few remembered Pennington and Hunt -- two horseback-era Rangers who died in the line of duty trying to protect the people of Texas from the worst killer it had ever known.
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - February 2, 2006 column

Related Article: Frederick Funston

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