Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Remembering a Veteran: Wm. Brown, 9th Infantry, AEF, Catches the Flu

I was sent back to the hospital at Toul in October, 1918, sick with the famous "flu." I was kept there two days, transferred to a hospital train and taken clear across France to the Beau Desert Hospital, a few miles from Bordeaux. There the "flu" developed into pneumonia and then empyema (pus abscesses between the lung and chest walls) and I lay there for five months between life and death. 

This hospital was built of cement and had very little heat in it and sometimes the cold was intense. It was hard to be sick and cold too—but we made the best of it, and say, we had the best bunch of nurses. They did everything in their power to make us well and happy—they always had a new joke for us to laugh at. Laughing helped like thunder; it was so easy to be blue in France every time you thought how wide the ocean was. 

One of our nurses was such a dear. Every morning when she reported for duty—she always greeted us with a "How are you, my dear children," and somehow, I always felt better—she was so like a mother to us. 

The overseas Red Cross Nurses underwent a great many hardships too. The field hospitals were near the front, and sometimes under fire. Many times I have seen German planes bombing our field hospitals—without any excuse for the outrage, four large Red Crosses were painted on the roofs of the hospitals, plainly visible from an aeroplane. 

Sometimes, too, the nurses had to live on the same kind of grub that we did—just plain "canned Willie" and hardtack, but they never grumbled. They deserve a special niche in history. 

The Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the Knights of Columbus were so good to us at the front and in the hospital. While we were lying in bed, death staring us in the face, they did far more than we ever expected them to. They brought us practically everything we asked for. Uncle Sam's boys will always have a warm spot in their hearts for these institutions and no one who ever donated anything to these organizations need regret it. 

After five months of terrible suffering at Beau Desert Hospital I had the choice of staying there until well or coming home. I couldn't see that there was any choice—home was dearer to me than heaven—so I took the chance. If I didn't last thru—at least I'd be buried in my own country. 

We were loaded onto a hospital ship—at least, the officers called it that. It was an old English boat called the Henderson and she was supposed to make the voyage in ten to twelve days. We went by the southern route, by the Azores, hoping to avoid the storms, but we ran into one after another—each worse than the last until I thought the ship would turn turtle. The drainage tube in the abscess in my side was so long that every roll of the ship drove it farther into my side and the 19 days that it took to cross the ocean seemed like 19 years. I was sent for 11 days to the Debarkation Hospital in New York. The people of New York gave us royal treatment, took us out for long automobile rides, to the theaters, etc., and did everything they could for us. They made France and its horrors seem far away. 

Flu Ward at Camp Funston, KS, Where It Is Believed the Pandemic Originated

On March 1st, 1919, I was sent to the Base Hospital at Camp Lewis, Washington. All along the route, the Red Cross Chapters of each town and city met us, and nearly killed us, giving us so much to eat, and so much to smoke. I never had any idea that there were so many kind women in the world. 

At Camp Lewis, I stayed in the empyema ward until my discharge on the 29th of June, 1919. In my estimation, the hospital at this camp had the finest staff of officers in the army. I had begun to think I would never get well—but my recovery under their care was fairly rapid and thanks to them, I am well today perhaps, not as well as before my enlistment, but as a doughboy once said, "As long as we're alive, we should worry." 

Camp Lewis Hospital had a great many visitors then, who brought us flowers, candies, cakes, and everything. Some came out of curiosity to hear the stories from overseas—but sick men don't like to talk—and some came to cheer us up. 

There was one woman who will remain in my memory forever. She rarely missed a day in coming to our ward, and she always came with a smile—one that seemed to say, "You're all going to get well." She nursed us all in her happy, motherly way, and made us all well. She was Mrs. Hiram Tuttle of Tacoma, Washington, and she was known as the Mother of Ward 81 at the Base Hospital. The boys of 81 will never forget her. 

I was in France 15 months—ten months on the firing line with the shock troops, and five months in the hospital. I spent nine months [total] in the hospital. Altogether I was in the army two years and three months, and I'd willingly do it again, if our Country needed me.

The Adventures of an American Doughboy
William Brown, 9th Infantry, 2nd Division, AEF


  1. This is an outstanding first person account of the impact of the Great Flu Pandemic in 1918 on AEF forces overseas in WW I.

    The story of Army, Navy and Red Cross nurses in this crisis was an outstanding story of bravery and dedication in the face of a death dealing infectious disease, as they cared for infected troops. Two-hundred and ninety-six (296) Army, Navy, & Red Cross nurses lost their lives to the flu or end stage bacterial pneumonia due to the last stages of the flu in WW I caring for infected troops. More nurses died in this battle with disease in the entire history of the Army & Navy nurse Corps than all nurse casualties from all causes in all our wars since WW I.

    The U.S Army awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to 3 Army nurses and the Distinguished Service medal to 25 Army nurses for bravery in this battle with disease. The Navy awarded 3 Navy Crosses to U.S. Navy nurses for bravery in this crisis.

    The French awarded 28 Army nurses with the Croix de Guerre for courage dealing with this disease in France and many American nurses also received the Medaille d'Honneur des Epidemies (Medal of Honor for Epidemics). The British awarded 69 American Army nurses the British Royal Red Cross Medal and 2 nurses received the British Military Medal for actions during the 1918 flu pandemic in France in 1918.

    Over 25% of the 4.7 million man armed forces were infected with this killer flu that took the lives of almost as many American troops (52,000 +) as deaths due to combat action (53,000) in WW I.

    This story puts a human face on these deadly disease statistics and places us in the shoes of the experience of a soldier who was felled by this disease in WW I and lived to tell about it.

    This soldier relates clearly, the most common wartime experience of all World War I veterans was the 1918 Flu Pandemic...soldiers and sailors either suffered from the flu (1.2 million out of 4.7 million) or died of it (52,000 +) or knew someone who got caught up in this battle with disease (1 in 4 suffered from it...and the rest of his/her WW I comrades knew them as they fought this battle for their lives).

    A great war story of a a soldier's battle with disease that is infrequently reported in our WW I Centennial narratives. It is a wonderful testimony to the efforts of our WW I military medical personnel, especially military and Red Cross nurses, who cared for our troops and were in the forefront of this battle with disease in WW I.

  2. I have read so much about WW1 but this is the first real story about what the nurses had to bravely go through. Great story.

  3. Bruce, Just finished a book, Nursing under Shot and Shell, first hand account of a Casualty Clearing Station nurse. Excellent read. Cheers

  4. What a rich and powerful account.
    (The bit about the abscess tube - shudder)