Alumni share perspectives on another type of battle waged during World War I

By Dottie Clark Parish '51

Chaplain Edward Oliver Clark, Class of 1915
Chaplain Edward Oliver Clark, Class of 1915

At a family reunion in 2014, we were sharing family stories.After our talk, I picked up a book about the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, because I knew my parents, Edward, Class of 1915, and Eva Thayer Clark '21 experienced this.

I offer three perspectives on the flu epidemic:

1. An excerpt from the book The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.
2. Our parents' letters and
3. My father's World War I diary.

My parents were married Sept. 4, 1918, and had a nine-day honeymoon. Nine days later my dad left for France. He had received a bachelor of divinity degree just months before and enlisted in the Army as a chaplain. He sailed for France Sept. 22, 1918, on the U.S.S. President Grant.

The Great Influenza

Pages 304-306 from The Great Influenza by John M. Barry describe the troop ship Leviathan, which left New York Sept. 29, 1918, with 9,000 on board. Of that number, 2,000 became ill with the flu, and 91 died. Here is the excerpt:

The Leviathan, and over the course of the next several weeks, other troop ships would ferry approximately one hundred thousand troops to Europe. Their crossings became … death ships.

The army did remove all men showing influenza symptoms before sailing. And to contain influenza on board, troops were quarantined. Military police enforced the quarantine, aboard the Leviathan, 432 MPs did so — sealing soldiers into separate  areas of the ship behind shut watertight doors, sardining them into cramped quarters where they had little to do but lie on stacked bunks or shoot craps or play poker in the open space available. Fear of submarines forced the portholes shut at night, but even during the day the closed doors and the massive overcrowding made it impossible for the ventilation system to keep pace. Access to the decks and open air were limited. The sweat and smells of hundreds of men — each room generally held up to four hundred — in close quarters quickly became a stench ... they grew increasingly claustrophobic but at least they were safe, they thought.

The plan to keep men isolated had a flaw. They had to eat. They went to mess one group at a time but they breathed the same air, their hands touched the same tables and doors as other soldiers had touched minutes before.

Within forty-eight hours of leaving the port soldiers and sailors with influenza overwhelmed the sick bay, stacked one on top of the other in bunks, clogging every possible location, coughing, bleeding, delirious, displacing the healthy from one great room after another. Nurses themselves became sick … The number of sick increased rapidly … The conditions during the night cannot be visualized — groans and cries of the terrified added to the confusion of those clamoring for treatment.

It was the same on other ships. Pools of blood from hemorrhaging patients lay on the floor and the healthy tracked the blood through the ship making docks wet and slippery. Finally with no room in sick bay, no room in areas taken over for makeshift sick bays, corpsmen and nurses began laying men out on deck for days at a time. When a storm came, their clothes and blankets were drenched, leaving them coughing and sputtering. And each morning orderlies carried away bodies.

At first the deaths were separated by a few hours: the log of the Leviathan noted, 12:45 pm Thompson, Earl, Pvt. 4252473, company unknown, died on board … 3:35 pm Pvt. O. Reeder died on board of lobar pneumonia ... But a week after leaving New York, the officer of the day was no longer bothering to note in the log "died on board", no longer bothering to identify the military organization to which the dead belonged, no longer bothering to note a cause of death. He was writing only a name and a time, two names at 2:00 am, two more at 2:15 am, like that all through the night, every notation in the log now a simple recitation of mortality into the morning, a death at 7:56 am, at 8:10 am, another at 8:10 am, at 8:25 am.

The burials at sea began. They quickly became military exercises more than burials, bodies lying next to one another on deck, a few words and a name spoken, then one at a time a corpse slipped overboard into the sea. The transports become floating caskets.

Excerpts from letters between my parents

Eva Thayer Clark '21 writes from Bucknell University, where she is a student:

Oct. 6, 1918

All the churches are closed today but do not worry about me. I am being careful.

On Oct. 9, 1918, she writes further:

I have not been feeling well for over a week and feared that I might be getting influenza. There are twenty girls ill with it now besides several who have gone home, ill or scared and several who have already recovered. Quite a few boys are ill too, but I know of only one case where it has resulted in pneumonia.

Oct. 10, 1918

We have no rising bell now for several days because of the death of the janitor's little girl. His wife and another daughter are ill with influenza; in fact, the town is full of it. There have been four deaths in one family. At home the epidemic is spreading rapidly, though they are rigidly quarantined — churches, movies, ice cream parlors, billiard and pool rooms, lodges and everything are closed yet there are twenty-four new cases in one day. How thankful I am that you got out of the country before this epidemic became so wide spread! I believe you are safer over there.

In response to her letters Ed Clark, Class of 1915, hints at the epidemic after landing in France. He didn't write more while crossing the Atlantic because of censorship restrictions.

Oct. 9, 1918

You see the old boat did land all right. I wish I had a week or so to describe adequately our feelings as we landed. First, everyone was doubly anxious to leave the boat for towards the last it was near to a regular morgue.

Ed goes on to say that he spoke, read and prayed several times with men who were on the verge of death. There were 118 men who died on board and as many others who were sick. He was one of two chaplains on board. What a sobering experience this must have been, especially for a new young minister.

Dad's diary

Ed Clark, Class of 1915 sailed Sept. 22, 1918, on board the U.S.S. President Grant.

Five days later, on Sept. 26, he writes of visiting the hospital on board.

Spread of influenza quite bad. Wish we were on a fast ship — still long sail ahead. Our boat carries about 5,600 troops and according to rumors we are bound for Brest [France]. I suppose it is a matter of quarantine ahead as we have lots of influenza — 200 or more cases — aboard and some have a touch of pneumonia.

On Sept. 28 he notes his unit's first casualty. On Sept. 30 he writes:

Sickness is getting the jump on us. It seems as if influenza gets a start, takes a crash and leaves with having coaxed all a man's energy. Pneumonia comes with one fell swoop and off goes another. Visited twice the hospital on Deck B. Several are sick seriously. One of our medics is gone already.

On Oct. 1:

A sea funeral at 5:30. Five men — four of which were 74th. Sewed in canvas, draped in Old Glory, band playing, "Lead Kindly Light" and "Nearer My God to Thee." A short committal by self and Chaplin Breslin. Sad but heroic.

Oct. 2: With more emotion, he writes,

This is a ship of Death! Getting to be that the morning question is "How many last night?" "What branch?" Seven more for Oct. 2 but none from 74th I'm glad to say. Several of ours are making a splendid fight. One Wilson, a Baptist, I pray for and have tried to give more fight to hold on.

More of my official duties. This the procedure in detail. All band, firing squad, officers ready on C, out starboard side. Bodies in canvas brought to C deck inside, placed in coffin troughs, draped with flag. Bearers bring them to aft while band plays "Lead Kindly Light." Then they are placed on rail, feet to sea and balanced. After "Nearer My God to Thee" I read from manual. Then Breslin reads prayers, mine of hope in Christ and more consecration that these shall not have died in vain, his prayer, Catholic prayers for salvation from terror, from wrath. Sea calm, steady. A splash. A salute by 21 guns and taps! Old Glory Helps!

Oct. 3:

We are up against the real hard things of life. Yesterday, on account of psychological effect on sick ones above, the band, firing and taps are omitted. Chaplin Breslin and self briefly went through the ceremony. Colonel Clark, Commander Moses and officers of companies affected were present. The toll today was twelve buried and more to follow. How can one describe the situation adequately? A calm sea, save for a few white caps, a troop ship with circular camouflage near a cruiser off to the rear, two destroyers off ahead. The sun shining as if the world were a palace of love. Slowly the coffin chutes draped in Old Glory and burdened with once inhabited clay brought by six pall bearers. One after another until twelve were in line.

With a low, subdued voice I read, "Until the deep shall give up her dead ..." Then Chaplin Breslin, "The holy martyrs receive them, the angels in heaven take them to the holy city of Jerusalem" Amen. Then one after another a dismal swish, a dull splash — twelve souls have departed this earth.

These men have faith. They all believe in God and in a way in Christ. They want to believe. Spoke to several who were sick. Those who are church members are well fixed and ready. Others glad to have my help. Administered sacrament to Meier, a Lutheran. Others make promise to lead a better life. A real man's task here.

Oct. 4:

The humbling question, "How many?" Answered quietly, eighteen or more. I was through the hospital on both decks — all the men (save two) were Christian in spirit if not in name. We need a big, big church to take them in and keep them busy. This is the cause — our churches are too small. The men are religious. They all promise to live better lives and all believe in God. Yet 'tis hard to see them fight in death's struggle. Oh, the agony. I have seen the glazed eyes, the gasping breath, but the fighting will, also, which would not give up. It's awful. Especially when their stories — wife, children, come to mind. Major Perkins sick seriously.

At 11:30 fifteen more were buried — quietly, sadly. At 2:30 pm a second fifteen. A total of 55 so far. It may reach one hundred. I'm doing my best. One man improving by my help. Others fighting hard and many consoled very much by my words and prayer, fourteen negroes included. I prayed at each splash. "God receive his soul and bless his loved ones."

I wondered how this unexpected experience of death affected my dad, seeing so many strong, healthy young men dying — not in war but on the way to war, and due to a more capricious killer — a deadly flu. Did this experience overwhelm my dad? Did he ever talk about it? Is this why he was remote and detached? I'll never know for sure. But he did not lose his faith, as evident in what he wrote Oct. 5:

I visited the hospital. It's terrible, there's no getting around it. Some are fighting game but some do not have a chance. No mattresses, only a blanket on springs with knots in! Coughing, groaning, unshaven, unwashed, spitting, hungry and excited, packs lying about — it was too much. I reported it. Colonel Clark got busy. More was done. They ought to be washed, mouth cleaned, fed more than soup and toast — but when a hundred (118 about) cashed in and some one hundred or more are sick, the medics have not had an easy job.

Thank the Lord these days are soon over. Yesterday's two procedures repeated. I'm seeing men die at night. I see their eyes bulge in the death struggle, I hear their groans and delerious ravings, I know their desire to hold onto life, but in vain as that cough has nailed them into death's cold sweat. Men are glad for me to speak of religion — many are Christian in spirit. I'm going to get them to pledge definitely for Christ. Though the funeral service has been oft repeated, it has been harder this last time than any previous. Dare not mention the truth to anyone in the USA. I'm realizing that our religion of Jesus as Master and Pilot is OK. It works.

Relief came Oct. 7. How glad he was to be off that ship. He writes:

What a wonderful day it has been! No doubt the most wonderful in my life, even though my wedding day is past and just recently. No reflections on thee, my love, either. About 7 am going up on deck was gloriously surprised to see that we were in the Loire River in the middle of a French town, Saint Nazaire.

In the Quay! French people, French boys with nuts and newspapers, mud, American soldiers. How all of it remains vividly in my mind. A long way, then a slow march through the town. Four miles to walk and some fell out because of weakness. A wonderful day. Peace on the way  — maybe.

There is much I won't know about my father's crossing or about the rest of his life, until I make a different kind of crossing and meet him again. But I'm thankful for what I do know. His diary from 1918 and my parents' love letters seemed like a loving touch from them (and God) communicating from beyond the grave and helping me and my sisters know much more about them.

Learning more in 2014 from the book The Great Influenza about the broad effect of the influenza led me to review my parents' experiences. I had no idea that so many men being transported on troop ships suffered flu outbreaks, nor did I have such a graphic picture of these events. I do now.