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.|
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.
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
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.
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.