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1918 – Illness Breaks Out at Camp Alfred Vail!

Getting sick is never fun, and the Spanish Flu epidemic that hit Fort Monmouth (when it was still Camp Alfred Vail) was no different. If you recall from last year, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic of swine flu (H1N1 virus).  The last big flu pandemic was in 1918 with the Spanish flu, and this directly affected those stationed at Camp Vail.

 Beginning in May of 1917, American men between the ages of 21 and 29 were required to register for the draft (ultimately, the draft would be expanded to include all men between the ages of 18 and 35). Once drafted, men were sent to military camps across the United States. These camps were often breeding grounds for disease and the Public Health Service aggressively worked with the War Department to protect soldiers from diseases ranging from smallpox to dysentery, syphilis, and cholera.

 In 1918, American soldiers, stationed in military camps across the United States, were among the earliest victims of the pandemic. As the disease spread, military hospitals, both in the United States and abroad, quickly overflowed with influenza patients.

 Camp Alfred Vail was hit particularly hard by the influenza outbreak that struck the nation in September 1918.  As outbreaks occurred, units were quarantined, until eventually the entire camp was isolated. 

Letter dated October 23, 1918, from SGT Ben McCall at Camp Alfred Vail to his friend who lived in a neighboring town.

While quarantine was better than getting sick, it prevented the men from obtaining a weekend pass to visit their off-post friends and family, much to their dismay.  The quarantine meant that some people were unable to leave post for weeks.  Letters were their only way of communicating during that time.  In a letter from SGT Ben McCall stationed at Camp Vail to his friend Amelia Armstrong:

Have you been lucky enough to escape the Spanish “Flu” or have you also been among the unfortunate ones?  I guess I’m too contrary to catch anything, as I’ve been feeling fine and have worked every day.  We have been in strict quarantine up until last Sunday afternoon when we were partly released.  We can visit Oceanport, Shrewsbury and Little Silver but none of the large towns, nor can we have any of our friends come out to see us.  We’ve lost three of our fellows and five from the Radio Lab.  I’ve been very fortunate in not getting sick and… have no complaint at all.

 By the time the quarantine ended in November, eleven deaths had occurred and the hospital had treated a total of 267 cases.  The New Jersey Department of Health and Human Services reported on their website that more people died from the pandemic than from World War I Because patients experienced symptoms not traditionally associated with influenza, physicians found the disease especially difficult to diagnose in 1918. In the early stages of the pandemic, many physicians and scientists even claimed that influenza patients were suffering from cholera or bubonic plague, not influenza.

Note: This blog co-written by Staff Historian Chrissie Reilly, and Suzanne Moore, History MA, Monmouth University who interned in the historical office Summer 2010.  Many thanks to Suzanne for the excellent transcriptions of over 300 letters, and to Karin Vogel for loaning the collection to the office for scanning and transcription.

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  1. Leslie Powell says

    Is there an official list somewhere showing the names of the soldiers who died at Camp Alfred Vail during this epidemic? I have a great-uncle who served with the 122 Aero Squadron and passed away at Camp Alfred Vail on October 17, 1918.