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  • Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

    Mosquitoes and Camp Bowie

    by Mike Cox
    Mike Cox
    No one knew anything about West Nile virus back in 1918, but at what proved to be the mid-way point of the terrible conflict in Europe that would come to be known as World War I, the military was fighting mosquitoes in North Texas.

    “Cleaning Malaria Fever Haunts about Fort Worth,” read the across-the-page headline in a twice-monthly publication called Pass in Review, a civilian-run newspaper printed for soldiers training at Camp Bowie and three nearby Army air fields.
    Camp Bowie Mess Hall, Ft Worth TX
    Camp Bowie Mess Hall, Fort Worth, Texas
    Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/

    Written by the camp’s chief sanitary engineer, the piece started off by pointing out that only 20 years before, no one knew what caused malaria. Even then, however, it had been observed that people who came down with the disease often lived near or had spent the night near swamps or pools of standing water. What made people sick was thought to rise from those waters in the form of a night mist. In fact, that’s how the disease got its name since mal aria means “bad air.”

    Of course, scientists finally learned the problem was not bad air, but bad mosquitoes. Specifically, the Anopheler mosquito.

    “This variety is rather timid and feeds mainly at night, returning before daylight to its resting place,” the Army engineer wrote.

    While noting that even then malaria rarely resulted in death, the article pointed out that it still caused serious economic loss through reduced productivity and doctor bills for none-military sufferers. In addition, the officer continued, the disease was “one of the main causes of the inefficiency of labor in many of the Southern states.”

    More serious from the military point of view, a sick soldier was not a “firing line ready” soldier. “If malaria should be allowed to work unchecked throughout the areas in which great numbers of our soldiers were in training, it might easily render temporarily unfit for duty, hundreds of thousands of men,” the article continued.

    Stating the obvious in declaring that the U.S. “may need these soldiers very badly,” the engineer noted how malaria and other diseases during the Spanish American War two decades before had “threatened to reduce our expeditionary forces to but little more than a corporal’s guard.”

    When that issue of Pass in Review hit the streets, more than 30,000 soldiers – most of them in the 36th Infantry Division -- crowded the 2,186-acre camp located in the Arlington Heights area three miles west of downtown. Named for Alamo defender James Bowie, construction of the camp had begun in July 1917.

    By late that year, the order of the day in and around Fort Worth was to attack the mosquito population by destroying their habitat. The Army had spent the previous winter doing a survey of areas needing attention, and when spring came, launched an offensive.

    “This is done by draining such pools and swamps as will hold water more than a week,” the engineer wrote, or by cleaning those areas so that minnows or other small fish could more easily find the mosquito larvae they liked to eat. “In fact,” he continued, “fish are among the most efficient allies in the fight against the mosquito and fish control is often the easiest [and] at times the only way.”

    Oil constituted the third weapon in the Army’s anti-mosquito arsenal. A thin sheen of oil over a body of water, while not so good for the rest of the environment, at least prevented the incubation of mosquito eggs.

    Work crews focused on both forks of the Trinity River, cleaning 50 miles of river bank. They also did work around road-side drainage ditches, along Lake Worth and the various creeks draining into the Trinity. By that June, half the planned work had been completed with 500 gallons of oil used weekly.

    The article ended on a clever and what proved ironic note: “Do your bit to make good health contagious around Camp Bowie.”

    Unknown to the sanitary engineer and the 75 men he had working on the anti-mosquito project, a much more serious health problem would soon make malaria look almost insignificant – the outbreak of the so-called Spanish flu.

    The fast-spreading virus infected an estimated 28 percent of all Americans, killing somewhere between 675,000 to 850,000 people, a staggering mortality rate of 2.5 percent. The virus 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.


    © Mike Cox - September 13, 2012 column
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