Albert Gitchell didn’t feel well. On the morning of March 11, 1918, he was too sick to make breakfast for the men in his company at Ft. Riley’s Camp Funston.
Reporting to the infirmary, Gitchell said he had a bad cold. The doctor said he needed bed rest. So far, nothing seemed strange about his ailment. 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 developed severe pneumonia. Many, including Albert, died. Camp Funston had so many sick people that emergency “tent hospitals” had to be set up.
Preparing to go overseas, during World War I, American soldiers congregated in close quarters around the country and were exposed to the airborne disease. When troops left the U.S. on transatlantic ships, the flu-like illness had a direct path to Europe.
By May of 1918, the disease had infected approximately 8 million people in Spain. Not involved in World War I, the Spanish government tried to deal with the devastating pandemic while the Spanish press reported the unbelievable story. Officials there were convinced strong winds had blown influenza into Spain from the battlefields of France.
Ever since its outbreak in Spain, Albert Gitchell’s illness has been known as “Spanish Influenza,” or “Spanish Flu.” Even today, scientists do not really understand the disease, and health officials were never really sure how many people died. Estimates range from 20 million (on the low side) to more than 40 million (on the high).
In this story behind the disaster, virtually visit Camp Funston (where health-care providers could barely cope) and the trenches of the Western Front (where soldiers stationed in France endured unimaginable living conditions). See pictures of the chaos which the pandemic caused, observe how scientists use tissue samples from the dead to figure-out how to help the living and learn why experts today believe U.S. troops in Europe may have possessed an unseen “weapon” which helped the Allies win the war.
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