remembered a batch of letters from his grandfather, a World War I soldier who battled the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919.
Culhane wrote that "Spanish influenza has made an appearance here," resulting in a quarantine of soldiers.
"I'm coming, I'm coming
For my head is bending low
I hear those gentle voices calling
Old Black Joe"
Bob Dylan: Hard Times
As World War I rages in Europe, fresh U.S. Army soldiers pass the time on a train ride to to Camp Forrest, Georgia. "The boys are just starting to sing," Martin Aloysius Culhane wrote on September 6, 1918, to his friend back home. "They've gotten back to 'Old Black Joe' so far."
Stephen Foster's classic song from the Civil War is about the death of slaves who had become his friends. But Culhane, known as "Al," and the soldiers who sang along could not know how much death would hunt the recruits on that train, most of whom never made it to Europe to fight in the Great War.
They would find themselves in the deadliest influenza pandemic in history.
Culhane's letters to his older brother Frank and his long-time "chum" Clif Pinter are a young soldier's firsthand account of life as a draftee private and how he coped with a disease that would haunt Army camps around the United States and eventually infect people around the world. Some estimates say as many as 50 million people were killed by what's called the Spanish influenza in 1918 and 1919, far more than the number killed in combat during the war.
Three weeks after the train trip to Georgia, Culhane, a 21-year-old clothing salesman from Chicago, Illinois, writes again. Already the flu occupies his thoughts. Learn more about the current swine flu »
"Received a nice letter from Phil Byrne he reports he is getting along fine, is feeling better than he has ever before." Byrne, a friend from Chicago, was one of the early survivors of the Spanish flu. Other members of the Byrne family took ill a few months later, according to the letters.
In the same letter he mentions how the Army was trying to protect the troops at Camp Forrest:
"Since noon today our camp has been under quarantine to prevent an epidemic of Spanish influenza. We have had no cases thus far but it is the intention of the medical officers to prevent any case of the disease from making an appearance. All the men who have even slight colds have been put into separate barrack which, of course, were immediately christened 'the TB ward' by the rest of the company."
That same day, September 28, 1918, he wrote his brother Frank, a Navy sailor at home awaiting orders, "Well the Spanish Influenza has made an appearance here and we are under strict orders no visits to Chattanooga, we are certainly the hard luck guys when it comes to this quarantine proposition."
At first the threat of Spanish flu is just an inconvenience for Culhane: "I am just about fed up with staying in a district about a block square for three weeks. There is no canteen in the quarantine district and we have a hell of a time getting small supplies."
Just six days after complaining about the inconvenience, a brief but frightening note: "Receive the enclosed letter for your information then see that Frank gets it unknown to the rest of the family."
What Culhane didn't want his mother, sister and younger brother to know was that he was in the infirmary with the Spanish flu. He asks his friend Clif to write often and encourage letters from "my friends, without of course, telling them that I am a little under the weather." His euphemism hid the fact that in some places more than 30 percent of people who contracted Spanish flu died. In the United States the mortality rate was lower, but still a devastating 3 percent.
It was a crisis for the Army. Military bases, with thousands of men from all over the country in tightly packed barracks, were fertile breeding grounds for the flu, especially one as easily spread as this one. And unlike most flu strains that mostly strike the elderly, the very young or the sick, Spanish flu hit healthy, young adults like Army draftees.
Just three days after telling his friend about being sick, Culhane wrote that he was feeling better.SNIP