On September 21, 1918, the U.S. Army's Camp Lewis in Pierce County reports that 11 servicemen suffering from "Spanish flu" are being treated at the base hospital. The stricken men came from army camps in the eastern and southern United States and were already infected with the virulent and lethal new strain of influenza when they reported to Camp Lewis. At about the same time, at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, a trainload of sailors arrives from Philadelphia that includes men suffering from the same infection, named "Spanish influenza" because the first verified cases appeared in Spain the previous May. By the end of September, nine to 11 deaths a week are occurring at Camp Lewis. By early October the flu epidemic is causing deaths in Seattle and communities across the state. On October 19 Camp Lewis will be placed on quarantine and closed to outsiders, its soldiers restricted to camp. On November 18 the quarantine will be lifted, and by March 1919 what has become a worldwide pandemic will have largely burned out.
The Deadly Spanish Flu Comes to Camp Lewis
In March 1918 a wave of routine influenza hit Camp Lewis, brought by an arriving infantry unit. Admissions to the camp hospital jumped, but the cases were mild and soldiers quickly recovered. There were few if any new cases between May and mid-September that year.
In June and July of 1918, the 91st Division departed Camp Lewis for combat in France. With its departure the 13th Division was formed at the camp and trained for war. To fill the division ranks, troops came from camps in the eastern and southern United States, areas in the midst of a much more deadly flu outbreak. It was called "Spanish influenza" because its first documented appearance was in Spain in May 1918. As these new troops arrived at Camp Lewis, cases of Spanish influenza started showing up in the base hospital. On September 18 the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton received a trainload of sailors from Philadelphia, another area with widespread flu. As soon as the train pulled into Bremerton, sick passengers began heading to the naval hospital.
By September 21, 1918, the Camp Lewis hospital had 11 cases of Spanish influenza, an insignificant number compared, for instance, to the 6,583 cases then hospitalized at Camp Devens in Massachusetts. But then the Camp Lewis and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard hospitals both witnessed rapid increases in flu admissions. At Camp Lewis the hospital population jumped from 1,450 to 3,024 patients within a week. Barracks were converted to hospital wards to handle the overload. However, military doctors there believed that the influenza at the camp was different than the deadly flu on the East Coast, milder and not of great concern, and few changes were made in the mobilization and training programs. Newly drafted men came to the camps, troops were transferred to other camps as needed, and public visits to Camp Lewis continued.
On September 25 a trainload of 1,664 Camp Lewis men were sent to Fort Stevens in Oregon for artillery training. Many were already sick and once at Fort Stevens reported to the post hospital. By the end of that month Camp Lewis had its first influenza death and there quickly followed 11 more deaths. The seriousness was now obvious and precautionary moves were instituted, including an order that delayed the reporting to duty of drafted soldiers.
In Seattle the influenza struck at the Naval Training Camp at the University of Washington, with a cadet dying on October 3. Soon there were 400 sick at the university and two dorms, Lewis Hall and Clark Hall, were turned into temporary hospitals to accommodate cases of Spanish flu. The disease made an appearance at Vancouver Barracks in Clark County when a Camp Lewis soldier became ill while en route to training in Texas, had to leave the train in Portland, and was taken to Vancouver Barracks hospital, where he was confirmed to have Spanish influenza.
In the week ending October 4, the Camp Lewis hospital reported 11 deaths. Five days later a trainload carrying 217 officers and enlisted men of the 213th Engineers (13th Division) pulled into the camp from Camp Forrest in Tennessee, which had a high incidence of Spanish flu, and there were 15 sick soldiers among the new arrivals. Additional efforts were made to control and limit the spread of the flu. Soldiers were ordered to leave barracks windows open regardless of the temperature. They were to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Seattle banned all Camp Lewis soldiers and Bremerton sailors from visiting the city.
In the week ending October 11 the Camp Lewis base hospital reported nine deaths. On a single day the next week there were seven more deaths. Fear now forced dramatic changes. Soldiers stayed away from the October 12 Liberty Day celebration marking the discovery of America and from the dedication that day of the world's tallest flagpole, at 314 feet, flying the world's largest American flag. When the flag was unfurled at the dedication a loud crack was heard as the fir flagpole broke into three pieces. In November it was replaced with a shorter but still impressive 214-foot pole.
The death rate did not slow down at Camp Lewis in October, so additional measures were taken. Major General Joseph Leitch (1864-1938), camp commanding general, ordered a quarantine on October 19, with soldiers restricted to camp and no visitors allowed. Leitch directed his recreation officers to develop outdoor events to keep the troops entertained.
Attempts to halt the influenza's spread were also made in local communities. On November 3 the state board of health ordered the wearing of gauze masks in public. The public was also instructed not to spit outdoors and to limit public gatherings. The influenza epidemic continued in November but declined, so the Camp Lewis quarantine was allowed to end on November 18. Apart from some quarantine violations on November 11 while celebrating the Armistice ending World War I, it had been largely respected.
On October 19, the first day of the quarantine, entertainers, Linnie Love (1893-1918) and Lorna Lea had come to Camp Lewis to sing for the troops. They were told that they could leave without performing, but instead went into the hospital wards to entertain sick troops. The duet put on six to seven performances a day and both came down with influenza and were hospitalized. On the morning of November 12 Linnie Love died at the Camp Lewis hospital. Lorna Lea recovered and continued her singing career.
For the outdoor shows, soldier performers were used. One day after the start of the quarantine, there were outdoor performances at three locations. Each included vaudeville acts, bands, and comedy acts. At one show Sergeant Arthur Freed (1894-1973) sang. After the war Freed became a lyricist and Hollywood film producer and had a huge impact on musical-comedy films. Another camp performer brought cheers from the crowd when he sang "If the Influenza Don't Quit Flyin' Around I'se Going to Fly Away From Here" ("Entertainment for 35,000 ...").
The Pandemic Dies Down
Another wave of influenza hit in early 1919, but in most cases was less deadly. The previous Camp Lewis wave that lasted from September to November 1918 had hit new recruits who were young adults especially hard, with privates dominating the deceased list. The only officer victim was Lieutenant Colonel Charles M. Blackford (1877-1919), who was hit in the last wave and died on January 18. Colonel Blackford, a decorated officer, had served in Cuba, the Philippines, and on the Mexican Punitive Expedition.
By March 1919 the flu pandemic had largely burned out at the camp. While the influenza at Pacific Northwest military bases was costly, the death rate compared favorably with other camps. In Bremerton the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard recorded an estimated 70 deaths. Fort Stevens in Oregon, which had received sick men from Camp Lewis, had 72 influenza deaths. Camp Lewis itself had 157 Spanish influenza deaths at the hospital, and there were additional deaths of camp personnel at their homes or while traveling.
Camp Lewis doctors attributed the lower mortality rate there to a less virulent strain of influenza, although there is no scientific evidence supporting that claim. A very virulent form hit Camp Dodge in Iowa, which had 700 deaths. Camp Sherman in Ohio led the camps in deaths with a staggering 1,777 fatalities. Camp Grant in Illinois had 117 deaths in one day. More soldiers died of the Spanish influenza than in combat; influenza killed more than 57,000 military personnel, while about 53,000 were killed in combat.
Remembering the Victims
The 1918-1919 Spanish influenza pandemic has been largely forgotten, and there are few monuments recalling the terrible death toll. Linnie Love's sacrifice went unrecognized until 1928, when music critic Charles D. Isaacson (1882-1936) started an effort to erect a monument in her honor. Love had volunteered to stay at the camp when she could have left, and Isaacson said that she gave her life for her country, not unlike a soldier killed by enemy gunfire. The U.S. Congress approved funding for a monument at Love's grave in the Methodist Cemetery in Cornelius, Oregon. The legislation recognized Love's patriotism and loyalty in remaining at Camp Lewis after the camp had been quarantined. A simple black marble urn on a granite base was placed next to her grave. Over the years flowers and forget-me-nots have been placed in the urn.
By 1928 the hospital where Linnie Love died had been demolished and a permanent hospital was erected on the site. On the University of Washington campus the two dorms that served as hospitals survive. Lewis Hall has been converted to offices and classrooms for the School of Business Administration. Nearby is Clark Hall, now home to the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). In Vancouver the Vancouver Barracks hospital building survives and as of early 2017 was vacant awaiting reuse.