During 1918, and after, no one was sure how to prevent "Spanish Influenza" from spreading. This scene, from the Philadelphia Naval Aircraft Factory, reveals at least one precaution: "Don't spit." Image online, courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center.
Albert Gitchell, a company cook at Ft. Riley’s Camp Funston, didn’t feel well during the night. Little did he know that his flu-like symptoms were about to send the world into chaos.
The United States kept out of the fray for awhile but, by April of 1917, American troops were fighting in Europe. By November of that year they were dying on French soil. In the spring of 1918, many thousands more were preparing to leave.
At the infirmary, Gitchell said he had a bad cold. The doctor told him he needed bed rest. Up to that point, everything seemed typical. But then ... a really strange thing happened.
By lunchtime, 107 soldiers were sick, just like Gitchell. By week’s end, 522 men were ill. Some of them developed severe pneumonia. Many of them would die. Camp Funston had so many sick people that emergency “tent hospitals” had to be set up.
As American soldiers congregated in close quarters elsewhere around the country, preparing to go “Over There,” many more troops were exposed to the illness. An airborne disease, it spread rapidly on military training grounds like those at Camp Hancock, Georgia.
Decades later, experts wondered whether burning manure at (and near) Ft. Riley was the wind-swept, airborne catalyst which sent a mutating virus from animals to people.
When American soldiers left the U.S. on transatlantic ships, the flu-like illness had a direct path to Europe. By May of 1918, it had infected approximately 8 million people in Spain.
Not involved in World War I, Spanish authorities grappled with the effects of the devastating pandemic even as the Spanish press reported the unbelievable story. Officials there were convinced strong winds had blown influenza into Spain from the battlefields in France.
Ever since its outbreak in Spain, Albert Gitchell’s illness has been known as “Spanish Influenza,” or “Spanish Flu.” But its first wave (when Gitchell and others fell ill in America) was nothing compared to what would happen later (when U.S. soldiers returned home).