The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918
March 11, 1918 company cook Albert Mitchell reported to the infirmary
at Camp Funston, Kansas, a sub-post of Fort Riley. He had a slight
headache, a mild sore throat and a low-grade fever. His appetite was
off and his muscles ached. A post doctor put the cook on sick leave
and ordered him to spend the day in his bunk. By mid-day, 107 Camp
Funston soldiers were ailing. Two days later, the number of sick soldiers
at the Kansas camp had increased to 522.
The disease quickly stretched across the United States -- from the
isolated prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay to sailors
aboard ships in ports along the East Coast.
As the great armies of Europe and America battled that summer in the
deadliest war the world had ever known, each side gained another vicious
enemy. Symptoms of the flu became more severe. A fifth of all sufferers
developed life-threatening secondary infections: bronchial pneumonia
or septicemic blood poisoning. With antibiotics yet to be invented,
a large percentage of those died. In America, many blamed the sickness
on a secret biological weapon developed by the Germans. But the disease
knew no flag or boundary.
In El Paso,
east-west railroad traffic and the routine rotation of troops at Fort
Bliss carried the disease to the Southwestern desert, an area
generally noted for its healthfulness. On September 30, 1918, El Paso
papers casually noted that some people in the city had the flu, but
the situation worsened daily.
The city's board of health ordered the closing of all schools, churches,
theaters, lodges, pool halls and other public places. In addition,
soldiers at Fort
Bliss were essentially confined to the post, forbidden to pass
beyond the intersection of Overland and El Paso streets.
To help enforce their quarantine, El Paso officials called on the
Texas Rangers. Rangers Ben Pennington and Bob Hunt, along with others,
were pulled from border duty to see to it that the soldiers of Fort
Bliss, normally an economic asset, stayed on the military reservation.
Armed with six-shooters that could do no harm to the real enemy they
faced, Pennington and Hunt followed orders and tried to keep people
put for their own good.
Soon, both men began feeling ill. In doing their job, both Rangers
had contracted the flu. The disease progressed rapidly. Pennington
went first, dying on October 12, only four days after his flu symptoms
first appeared. "Famous Fighter of Border Guard Finally Downed," the
El Paso Times reported the next morning.
Ranger Hunt lived only four days longer than his colleague, dying
in an El Paso
hospital on October 16. In five days, his disease had progressed to
pneumonia. With many of its reporters, editors and printers also sick,
the Times barely noted Hunt's passing. A one-paragraph article reported
only that "Robert Hunt, state ranger, from Fabens, Tex., died in a
local hospital Wednesday morning."
The Rangers, and others afflicted with the flu, died hard. One doctor
wrote of the pneumonia associated with the flu that once cyanosis
appeared in a patient, "it is simply a struggle for air until they
The second week of October 1918 saw the worst death toll in the city's
history. From October 9 to October 16, El Paso Mayor Charles Davis
announced that 131 people, including the two Rangers, had died, most
from the flu. The one-week count amounted to nearly as many deaths
as had been reported for the entire month of October 1917.
Hospitals across the country were full but short-staffed, since many
doctors and nurses were sick or dying. El
Paso and other cities were short of funeral directors, grave diggers
the epidemic finally began to abate in November. Then, at 1 a.m. on
November 11, pistol shots and whistles startled sleeping residents.
Soon the city's two newspapers had extras on the street declaring
in huge type that an armistice had been signed: the war was over.
A wild, spontaneous celebration swept the city, continuing through
People in El
Paso and all across Texas and the
rest of the nation may not have realized it, but they were in truth
celebrating two victories -- a military triumph over Germany and,
for the time being, a defeat of death. America had won a war and its
people had endured a terrible epidemic.
Flu infected 28 percent of all Americans, killing somewhere between
675,000 to 850,000 people, a staggering mortality rate of 2.5 percent.
The virus had claimed the lives of more American military men and
women than German warfare. Worldwide, an estimated 20 to 40 million
people died in the worst pandemic in history.
Suddenly, eighteen months after it appeared, the virus vanished. Except
for their families and friends, few remembered Pennington and Hunt
-- two horseback-era Rangers who died in the line of duty trying to
protect the people of Texas from the worst killer it had ever known.