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Oklahoma Memories

Spansh/Swine Flu

2009-11-09

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"And they had very little care, and they just died like flies." That's Harry Bathurst, who served in the Army during World War One, describing what happened to his friends when the Spanish Flu hit their training camp in 1918.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

In 1918, the world was at war. Thousands of soldiers on both sides were dying in the trenches of France as the war ground on, but soon an enemy far more devastating than the artillery and gas shells being fired by both sides appeared. In March 1918, the Spanish Flu, as it was called then, first appeared at Fort Riley, Kansas. Because of the war, Army bases were jammed with men, causing the flu to spread with a speed never seen before.

Harry Bathurst in Cherokee, Oklahoma, received his draft notice in March 1918.

"I joined the Army in 1918. At that time people were very patriotic. I remember the day that I went to the Army, several other young men went at the same time. The little town of Cherokee which is the county seat of Alfalfa County had a big celebration, and they put on a free dinner for us. They had the bands playing, and we had speaking. The whole town, and in fact the whole county, went to the depot to see us off."

It didn't take long for the flu to catch up with Bathurst.

"The Spanish Flu broke out, and my buddies, all of them, nearly all of them took the flu and went to the hospital, as long as there was room in the hospital. The hospitals became full, and they put beds in the aisles, and later on even the aisles became so full that they had to put the sick boys in the kitchens, and they had very little care, and they just died like flies."

Bathurst was surprised that not just the men were stricken.

"Also in World War One, they were using lots of horses. We had many wonderful fine horses in our camp, and they also got something that very similar to the flu, and they died like flies, so it looked like for a while that things were pretty serious."

The first reported case of Spanish Flu in Oklahoma City was a young woman named Corrine Smith who was diagnosed September 28, 1918. By October 1st, Oklahoma City doctors were dealing with more than a thousand cases of flu. Two days later, the number was 2,000.

In the late summer of 1918, Guy Moore, an Oklahoma corpsman from Pawnee, Oklahoma, saw his first cases among returning British infantrymen at a hospital in Southampton, England.

At Camp Doniphan near Fort Sill, from September to December 1918, there were about 4,000 troops stationed there, and more than 2,000 cases of flu.

By late September 1918, the pandemic was so widespread, the Army cancelled a call-up of 142,000 draftees and quarantined all the stateside camps.

In all, almost 100-million people died worldwide from the flu. The flu took the lives of more soldiers, both allies and German, than did death in combat. This pandemic has been described as "the greatest medical holocaust in history" and may have killed more people than the Black Death.

In the spring of 1919, 7,350 Oklahomans had died from the effects of the Spanish Flu. Bathurst was lucky, he survived the pandemic, came back to Oklahoma, served for a number of years as the county agent in Kay County before retiring in 1964.

The interview with Harry Bathurst was recorded in 1973 and it's a part of the oral history collection in the Archives Division at the Oklahoma History Center. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to the collection, preservation, and sharing of our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.