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What really happened back then, in 1918?

What? ART-1



1918. With so many people moving around. It was a brand new world, at war with itself. When it should have been looking to fight somewhere else.

That World War started because of the death of Franz Ferdinand. By the time it was over, nine million soldiers were dead. Maybe ten million civilians. And how many more came back limping or blind?

1918. When the viral flu landed. It may have started somewhere in Kansas. But what got it moving was that war. Cantonments, they called them. Military bases for four million American men to ship over. To be trained to kill, when the killer was already among them. Stacked one upon another in incomplete barracks, stuffed like sausages into an open bucket. Sneezing, coughing, and spitting all over. A productive lake for a virus trolling.

When the infection was over in 1919, after three waves [and I don’t mean oceans] smashed over our continent, 50 million people were dead globally. Not sick. Dead. And that number may be false, considering the defect in worldwide reporting. Some say 100 million died.

How did that happen? Deaths just as gory as those in the war. Let’s inspect the bodies and see what happened before us.

The first wave was quite virulent, shocking even. But when it came to the death toll, it was relatively mild [relative to what? Those still living?]. But in

Louisville, Kentucky, at the giant Camp Taylor Cantonment, something different was developing. There, it was young men in their 20s and 30s who were dying.

Look to Fort Riley, Kansas, in the spring of 1918. Where did the sick ship out to when they left that cantonment? Into the wet, sick trenches of France, and a savage death faced by charging the enemy. And when these victorious soldiers came back home, the second wave of death broke forth from them. And then, like now, our scientific warriors stepped forward.

Then it was Lewis, Welch, Flexner, Gorgas, Cole, Avery, and Minor. Today it is Fauci, Birx, Redfield, Adams, and Stack. Look them up, or watch them now struggle, to confront the enemy in our daily Coronavirus briefings. Extraordinary knowledge and experience. Trained advice. Listen to them. They are the scientists!

Those viruses were rapidly mutating machines. Simple life forms [do they really live?] capable of almost instantaneous change [once inside of your cell, that is. They can do nothing without your cellular machinery]. So this disease headed off to the western front, cheerfully reproducing in the deathly environment of crowded, wet, and trenched humans.

And then the virus changed again. Became the killer that the circumstances created. And by infecting the German army with the “grippe” [no one really knew what to call it], it aided in the failure of Ludendorff’s last offensive.

Returning ships docked in Boston in August 1918, and Philadelphia in September. New killing fields for this “quasi-species,” a “mutant swarm” of the flu virus. One that was changing rapidly, and seeking out our nation’s innards through its circulatory system of roads, rivers, and trains. You could plot the advance of this enemy, now succeeding where Ludendorff couldn’t.

Six-hundred-seventy-five- thousand people died in America.

Do you see why we are so concerned with this Coronavirus pandemic? And why our leaders don’t want you gathering like they did in Philadelphia for the Liberty Bond Parade to raise wartime money? We see a graph of that disaster each night, when our Governor exhorts us to stay home in Kentucky.

It is true, that then, like now, most of those infected survived. Perhaps two percent died of the infection back then. We hope for much fewer losses now. But we don’t know yet. We weren’t ready to fight this pestilence. We don’t have enough of the viral tests. We don’t have the data.

But for those very sick in 1918, and those who died way back then, maybe it will be instructive to do an autopsy of their sufferings. And don’t forget what secondary infections did on top of that sick influenza. Bacterial pneumonia, the “Captain of the Men of Death.”

In the worst of days in the sickness, back in 1918, you might have seen this in the most terrible expression of that “Spanish” flu.

Inflamed mucal lining of your throat and nose. Included in that would be your tortured eyelids. Body aches, headaches. Feeling like a truck hit you. Exhaustion, chills, and high fever. Maybe even nausea and vomiting. And some of that vomit would be red with blood. Constant, nonproductive coughing, racking your bones.

Soon, it is difficult to breathe. Your lung tissue is shredding, filling with liquid, and the furious attack by your immune system to overcome the viral invader. Pain, anywhere, immense hurting. Loss of smell [anosmia], loss of taste [dysgeusia], muscular wasting. Even your brain can be affected, hallucinating. 

Bubbles of air might appear under your skin. Your lungs are rupturing. Ruptured eardrums, pus running out of them. Then your pallor changes. The color of your skin. Without enough oxygen entering in through your lungs, your veins lose their bright red timbre, shading more blue in color. A condition we call cyanosis.

And in the most frightening of cases, that blood escapes from you, from your mouth, your nose, your eyes, your ears. And all along, your lungs are filling further with the cellular debris of destruction and the fluids that formed along with the body’s defenses. Your body has attacked you with a “cytokine storm.”

Cytokines are small proteins released by your infection-fighting white blood cells. They are foot soldiers in this immunological battle. One of the things that cytokines do, is instruct the brain to raise its body’s temperature, trying to cook out and kill the invaders.

But get enough of these cytokines, and the results can be toxic [they are culprits in the Toxic Shock Syndrome].

It is ironic that, in that great war over there, toxic gas was used to attack and kill our soldiers. Soldiers who came home only to face another invader, and flood their bodies with their own toxin in an attempt to kill that enemy. Did the result look the same? Did we really lose that war?

Viral pneumonia can occur where the invading pathogen penetrates deeply into the respiratory tract, to infect the lower lining of the breathing pocket called alveoli. That is what made the Spanish flu so deadly, and possibly so to the relatively young people. Vigorous youth with strong immune systems, sending in killer T cells and a swarm of cytokines.

Down there, deep in the lungs, where the debris of battle quickly fills them up. And then the Captain of the Men of Death enters in, to fill you up and finish you dead.

Maybe that was what happened then. And maybe that is why so many of our young people died. Fighting new viruses is like rolling dice.

What we face now is not the same virus. It is something new to us, a Corona Virus Disease-19 (Covid-19). And it seems to have sprung from a deadly group of viruses that previously spewed out SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003, and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012.

Undefended, our population could suffer tremendous losses. And quickly. Ultimately, how it works, and who it will sicken, can only be determined after we beat it. And our scientists look up after the war, count the dead, and examine its causes.

Then maybe we will be better prepared for the next time. The next pandemic. And not forget what happened in 1918, and what is happening again.



About Author

Ronald R. Van Stockum, Jr. is a lawyer, teacher, biologist, writer, guitarist, and recently an actor living on his family's old farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He has a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Santa Clara University, and a Masters and PhD. in Biology from the University of Louisville. He also has his Juris Doctorate in Law from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. He practices law from offices in Shelbyville, Kentucky concentrating his legal practice in environmental law. His biologic research is in historical phytogeography. Dr. Van Stockum, Jr. has published numerous books, articles, and short stories in the areas of law, science, and creative writing. most of his 24 titles are available on this site and Amazon with many on Kindle and Audible!


  • David L. Pahlka
    October 15, 2020 at 10:53 pm

    First one of yours I’ve read. Cannot detect any political bias. Good.
    In the military or any public office your oath is to protect and serve all Americans regardless
    of race, religion, sex, creed, and so forth. Wish this applied to the media who makes more
    money on lies, rumors, and innuendos than often more boring facts.

  • Thomas Sellon
    October 18, 2020 at 5:15 am

    Very well written. I am probably the only person who will comment that the 1918 Influenza had anything positive about it. My grandfather(1900-1977) was a young Marine at Parris Island. He caught the first wave of the flu and survived. He was big for the time, 6 ft. at age 17, and was being trained to be a machine gunner, a job that would most likely have gotten him killed. Since he had survived, he was told he was immune and now was a hospital orderly. He said the Base Hospital had expanded into a gymnasium filled with cots. There were no ventilators, or respirators or oxygen therapy any kind and no antiviral drugs. All through daylight hours, he and the other orderlies carried out the dead as they passed. The ones who died at night were left in their bunks until first light. They were kept as comfortable as possible until they rallied or died. Nurses were busy writing letters for those who were lucid and could speak. He said that at that time, two Marines accompanied every deceased Marine home to his family and attended the funeral. I get the feeling that there were other complete wards on this base full of people who were completely miserable, unfit for duty but not on death’s door. What my grandfather described sounded like the Plague, 50% mortality or more. I know that the death rate was actually in the single digits so he must have been working in the triaged ‘dying ward’. If Covid is as deadly it will kill over 2 million Americans . I don’t think that will happen, and I guess we can take some comfort from that.


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