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The 1918 Spanish Flu at West Point

More than 100 years ago, West Point faced a pandemic, the 1918-19 Spanish Flu, which reportedly infected one third of the world’s population. Estimates place the death toll for the Spanish Flu as high as 100 million people. No part of the globe seemed spared, not even the United States Military Academy.

The West Point Garrison took several measures to mitigate the effects of influenza on post back in 1918. West Point’s elementary school was closed from October 7 until November 4, 1918, and the children’s Christmas celebration (to be held in the Cadet Chapel) was indefinitely postponed that year. Also, according to the December 28, 1918 edition of the Army and Navy Register, the Garrison even ordered a partial quarantine of residents during the latter part of the year.

The Academy side of West Point, however, did not implement the above measures and, according to the 1919 Annual Report of the Superintendent, experienced two separate phases of the Spanish Flu, one during October 1918 and the “recurrence” several weeks later (determined to be around December 1918). “Table I” in the Superintendent’s report shows that virtually all cadets contracted the flu during one of these phases. Unfortunately, one cadet died from the Spanish Flu in October 1918, and two others died during the second phase. The Superintendent’s report called the low fatality rate among the Corps of Cadets, “remarkable.” “This result was entirely due to the untiring devotion of the medical staff, both officers and enlisted men, who never failed in their efforts to relieve the sick,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel W.H. Haskin, Head of the Department of Military Hygiene. “It is all the more remarkable when it is realized that we had no trained nurses at any time and that the enlisted personnel were mostly new men who had received their training within one year at this post.” His report also noted that 13 cadets were granted leaves of absence as a result of the influenza outbreaks, “there being no suitable accommodations to handle convalescent cases of this kind.” (As noted by Sherman Fleek, the current USMA Command Historian, Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur, Class of 1903, who became the 31st USMA Superintendent in June 1919, took heed of the above report when he authorized construction of a new cadet hospital [Building 606], which was built between 1921-23).

In total, Haskin reported that 14 deaths at the Academy were due to the effects of the Spanish Flu: three cadets, two officers, and nine enlisted soldiers. One of those officers was Captain George L. Hardin, Class of 1913. According to his memorial article in the Association of Graduates’ 1919 Annual Report, Hardin died on January 18, 1919 “from the effects of Spanish influenza which developed into pneumonia.” At the time of his death, Hardin was assigned to a detail in the Department of Drawing. “Had he consented to pay more attention to himself and less to his work, there is small doubt but that his illness would have been transitory and of slight severity,” notes Hardin’s memorial article. “Though service overseas was denied him, he died in the performance of his duty just as did those now resting in France and Flanders.”

Hardin’s memorial article reminds the reader that the Spanish Flu occurred simultaneously with the end of World War I. In fact, during the war, more American Expeditionary Forces were hospitalized for the Spanish Flu (340,000) than due to wounds suffered on the battlefields of Europe (227,000), and the illness killed approximately 45,000 American soldiers during World War I.

Given its virulent nature, it is amazing that the Spanish Flu did not do more damage at the Academy. Brigadier General Samuel Tillman, Class of 1869 and 30th USMA Superintendent, essentially made this point in his 1919 annual report, suggesting there was a reason for West Point’s tenacity against the virus: vigilance. He wrote, “Considering that the diagnosis of influenza was made in 652 cases and that there were undoubtedly many other cases not under treatment, the total record of deaths from this disease is very small and redounds greatly to the credit of my entire staff who worked so arduously throughout the entire time.”