The Weekly Postcard No. 53

We have yet to see an American Great War postcard, and this one, showing members of 308 HQ Company at Camp Upton, near Yaphank on Long Island, New York State, in January 1918, is not only rather a good one, I think, but opens the door to another, possibly familiar, tale of woe. 

Probably due to the influx of soldiers from another already infected training camp – fourteen of the largest camps in America had reported an earlier wave of influenza outbreaks as early as March, but little serious notice had been taken – Spanish flu duly arrived in Camp Upton in mid-September 1918.

In days, 171 of the 43,000 men stationed at the camp were in the camp’s hospital with flu-like symptoms, and all leave had been cancelled.  The camp was closed to visitors, the camp commander nevertheless telling the New York Times that there had been no deaths and that the camp had not been affected as badly as others.

Famous last words.  Within a fortnight, there were over 3,000 influenza cases at the camp, and seventy five soldiers had already died.

According to the New York Times, ‘Soldiers will not be permitted to sit opposite each other at mess tables. Foodstuffs other than in sealed packages will not be sold in the post exchanges, and no person unmasked will be permitted in any YMCA or other welfare building’.

Men were directed to remain in their own section of the camp unless unavoidable, and a single case of flu would see the lockdown of a whole barracks (above, with the camp hospital in the distance).  1st October saw the death toll rise by fifteen, 4th October saw a further 500 men hospitalised, the total now exceeding 4,300, and the deaths continued, another twenty men dying on 5th October.

The camp hospital had by this point been overwhelmed, temporary hospital wards having to be established, sheets were hung between beds (above, although the sheets in this picture are unused, perhaps temporarily rolled up to allow the photograph to be taken), and all men in the camp were instructed to wear gauze masks to prevent transmission of the disease.  The Journal of the American Medical Society reported that medical officers were horrified at the sight of ‘the hopelessly sick and dying and at the magnitude of the catastrophe’.

And yet, within a fortnight, the measures taken rapidly began to slow the spread of the epidemic and by 22nd October, when just eleven new flu cases were admitted to the camp hospital, the crisis was deemed to be over.  In little more than a month the flu epidemic at Camp Upton had seen more than 6,000 men and women hospitalised, and 404 deaths.

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14 Responses to The Weekly Postcard No. 53

  1. Nick Kilner says:

    Well thats certainly topical ;-). Some great photos!

  2. sendergreen says:

    In the second panel above… on the post card there is a notation ” 1st PL (platoon) 308 HQ COY, US Army Camp Upton JAN 1918. It’s in a different ink and script than the writer’s. It was an anomaly for me for a moment, then I thought …. I couldn’t remember ever seeing a US Army Company referred internally as a “Coy”.

    Coy, I thought of as being a Commonwealth term. Was there a secondary screening of outgoing US Army mail by their U.K. hosts?

    • Magicfingers says:

      Brilliant, Sherlock. If I may play Dr. Watson to your Holmes, how about it was written by an English postcard collector or seller at a later date, and it was he who added the ‘y’ to ‘Co’? As is, surely, the writing top right (English form of dating – day/month/year).
      Talking of Holmes, anyone out there looking for a TV binge could do a lot worse than the 41, I think, episodes with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock – brilliant, brilliant performances, which in the end kinda helped to kill him.

  3. Magicfingers says:

    Heh heh. We are agreed.

  4. Daisy says:

    Hey Magicfingers,
    In November 2018 I spent a week in the American northeastern sector and found it fascinating. Amazing huge cemeteries and untouched battlefields, different to the Somme and Ypres.
    The staff at each of the cemeteries were very friendly. Not many visitors out in the Argonne…

  5. Magicfingers says:

    And an area I would like to visit myself. Was that the same trip as your visit to Somme American Cemetery?

    • Daisy says:

      No, different trip. I’ve been twice to the Somme American Cemetery. First time by myself in July 2014 where at the end of the day the American Cemetery Director invited me to lower the flag and assist his French counterpart to fold the flag in the respectful cross manner to finally arrive at a triangle. The second time in April 2016 my wife and 7 year old son had the same wonderful experience…
      You should go…

  6. Magicfingers says:

    I would like to – let’s not forget, however, that you do feature here:
    I hope you have continued and read the post that follows this one ‘A Kansas Tale’?

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