Segment from Contagion

The Things They Carried

Contributor Catherine Moore tells the story of how soldiers returning from World War I brought the Spanish flu back with them.

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BRIAN: The 500-bed hospital where the doctor worked was in Camp Devens, Massachusetts. And a few weeks before he composed that letter, a trainload of soldiers from Camp Devens was transferred to Philadelphia. A number of them were already infected. BackStory contributor Catherine Moore is going to tell us the story of what happened next.

CATHERINE MOORE: Picture the Port of Philadelphia, 1918. Workers at the largest shipyard in the world are grinding out warships. Over at the Navy Yard, sailors are scurrying in what would be the final months of their efforts to beat back the Hun. A few blocks away, the streets are packed.

It’s not just any crowd. It’s a parade, a Liberty Loan parade kicking off the government’s latest effort to fill up its ware coffer. Each state must do its part to meet the country’s $6 billion goal.

MALE SPEAKER: If you can’t enlist, invest.

CATHERINE MOORE: A poster drives home the by-now familiar message that true patriots put their money where their mouth is.

MALE SPEAKER: Every Liberty Bond is a shot at a U-boat. Crush the Prussian. Buy a bond.

CATHERINE MOORE: At the parade, spectacles abound. People lean out of windows to see an aircraft hull rolling down the avenue. Warplanes fly overhead. Songs and speeches cajole people into buying bonds. And over at Willow Grove Park, John Philip Sousa strikes up his band. That was the scene on September 28. Three weeks later, over 12,000 Philadelphians would be dead from the Spanish flu.

Let’s back up. Philly’s ticking time bomb really begins on September 7, when 300 soldiers from flu-stricken Boston arrive at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. By the 15th, 600 sailors here report sick. And just in case you’re picturing a bunch of guys with ickiness and some fever, considered that symptoms from the Spanish flu included frothing blood, brown spots, bleeding from the eyes and ears, and turning blue, so blue in some cases that one doctor found it hard to distinguish between his black and white patients.

The Naval Hospital runs out of beds. Patients are sent to the civilian hospital, where 3/4 of the medical staff is overseas at war. Meantime, soldiers have left Philadelphia on boats and trains, crisscrossing the country. Many are gravely ill upon arrival. And all this time, Philadelphia authorities haven’t done much of anything except deny that there’s a threat at all.

And the press isn’t exactly helping to ring the alarm bell. The news of the day was often told with a cheerful spin as editors strained to keep up morale. In fact, the Spanish flu gets its nickname from the fact that Spain, a neutral country, didn’t censor the horrors of the epidemic in its papers. Finally, on the 18th, a PR campaign is launched. A polite poster is printed.

MALE SPEAKER: When obliged to cough or sneeze, always place a handkerchief, paper napkin, or fabric of some kind before the face.

CATHERINE MOORE: By the end of the epidemic, the signs would read–

MALE SPEAKER: Spitting equals death.

CATHERINE MOORE: There’s some pressure to call off the parade. But perhaps more than disease, authorities fear public panic. A panicked country, after all, can’t win a war. And so the parade goes forward, and hundreds of sailors from the flu-ravaged Navy Yard rub elbows with a crowd of 200,000 that stretches for miles.

Within 72 hours, about the time it takes for the flu infection to develop, every hospital bed in the city’s full. And over the next several weeks, 12,000 Philadelphians will die. Wagons will roam the streets, medieval style, collecting the dead. Corpses will be stacked in tenement hallways. They’ll be buried in mass graves with steam shovels.

In the end, six times as many Americans would die from the flu than on the battlefield in World War I. But when the nation wrapped up its bond drive on October 19th at roughly the peak of the epidemic in Philadelphia, the country had met and exceeded its war bond quota.

PETER: That piece comes to us from reporter Catherine Moore. You can hear more of Catherine’s pieces on our website,

ED: That’s some powerful stuff, isn’t it, Peter?

PETER: Mm-hmm, yeah.

ED: It sounds a lot like what we were talking about earlier in the show about the epidemic in Philadelphia back in 1793. What’s changed?

PETER: Well, what’s striking is government could do nothing then, and it could do nothing in World War I. But there was capacity in government. In fact, that’s part of the problem, isn’t it, Brian? I mean, they could mobilize all those people.

BRIAN: We did. And look, we were very slow to mobilize for World War I. Let’s not kid ourselves. But once that mobilization got going, it was a juggernaut. And you can hear that in Catherine’s piece. $6 billion for a bond drive, millions of Americans contributing it. So a lot has changed, but it turns out that this function can be just as lethal as heading for the hills back in your days, Peter.

PETER: Yeah, well, we’re talking about urbanization and density in this instant cities. In a way, public health measures had made cities safer, but this was bringing people together on the streets. And that was just an incubator of contagion.

BRIAN: It’s time for a short break.

PETER: If you have a question about epidemics and how Americans have handled them, shoot us a message on our website. You can also weigh in on future topics. That’s We’ll be back in a minute.

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Not So Safe Space Listening Notes By Hayley Duncan, Middle School Social Studies Teacher, Lake Lure Classical Academy