Ship of Death: A Terrifying and Implacable Enemy

Posted on May 28, 2020

by Catharine Arnold

In the final part of her Ship of Death essay, Catharine Arnold wraps up the tragic tale of the USS Leviathan, a troopship that highlighted the devastating spread of the Spanish flu.

Whatever the true figure, the dying did not stop when the Leviathan put into port at Brest. Around 280 sick soldiers were still on board on 8 October, and 14 of them died that day. Dozens of soldiers who had escaped dying at sea went ashore to die on land. Those who could walk were expected to make the four-mile journey to the army camp at Pontanezan on foot, during a violent storm. When they arrived at the camp, the barracks was not ready to receive them, and the camp hospital was full. Lieutenant Commander W. Chambers of the United States Navy Medical Corps was already horribly familiar with this situation. In the previous month, 1,700 cases of Spanish flu had arrived in Brest; the death rate of flu and pneumonia cases coming off the troopships was already 10 percent higher than among those ashore. Chambers ordered the local military hospital to create more space in their wards, and the YMCA transformed their hut, initially designed as a club for the doughboys, into a seventy-five-bed hospital. Aid stations along the route were staffed with orderlies, and the YMCA and Knights of Columbus ambulances followed the marching column, collecting the men as they fell. Six hundred men, too sick to walk, were picked up on the night of 7 October. Three hundred and seventy were convalescent, 150 were still sick with flu and 80 had pneumonia. Four who collapsed during the march were dead. Over the following days, hundreds of the men who came over on the Leviathan died. Out of the 57th Infantry alone, 123 died at Kerhuon Hospital, 40 at Base Hospital Number 23 and several at Naval Hospital Number 5 and the hospital at Landernau. Nearly 200 of the flu victims of the 57th were buried at Lambezellec, overlooking the ocean.

The tragedy of the Leviathan illustrated the way in which a troopship could become a liability to the Allies. The vessel, and ships like her, were no more than floating incubators for a virus, which erupted once it hit dry land. The most extreme example was the RMS Olympic, which arrived at Southampton, England, on the night of 21 September after a six-day voyage. The Olympic, a sister ship of the doomed Titanic, carried 5,600 men, of whom 450 had shown symptoms of flu while at sea, though only one died. By 4:00 p.m. on 29 September the flu cases among the passengers had risen. A third of the entire number of troops travelling on the Olympic – 1,947 people – had been admitted to hospital and 140 had died.

Read more about the USS Leviathan here!

Private Wallace survived his dose of Spanish flu and sailed into Liverpool on the Briton, staggering ashore to join his regiment, the 319th Engineers. As the men gathered in a desultory fashion, unsure of quite what to do, the sergeant standing next to Private Wallace swayed under the weight of his pack, keeled over and fell to the ground. A group of officers hurried across and one exclaimed in shock: ‘He’s dead!’

Private Wallace and the 319th took a train to the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash. From there they were to march to the American camp. An army truck picked up the baggage of the sick detail, which Private Wallace had joined. It was raining heavily, and the water was pouring down his neck. From time to time, men collapsed. Eventually, Captain Edward B. Pollister of the 319th found the sick detail and procured a truck to carry his men to the camp. After a wet, draughty night by a tent flap, wracked with pain from the secondary ear infection caused by the flu virus, Private Wallace asked a supply sergeant for a new cap and puttees, and was told to go to hell. Realizing that he had survived Spanish flu on the Briton only to face dying in Liverpool, Private Wallace promptly went AWOL. Heading for the cookhouse, he was taken in by a sympathetic Italian-American cook, who fed him and looked after him until he recovered. Returning to camp, Private Wallace faced no disciplinary action; he had not even been missed in the chaos of the epidemic. Going AWOL had saved his life, but Private Wallace was left with the distinctive stamp of the Spanish Lady, which it took a long time to eradicate: his hair had turned white, and then fallen out.

Back in Washington, the generals began to realize that the losses experienced by the American Expeditionary Force crossing to France were unacceptable. Spanish flu was already enough of a problem in France without the Allies importing it from America. It was understood that one factor was overcrowding, and by the time the Armistice was declared on 11 November, troopship capacity has been reduced by 30 percent. The generals also conceded that it was madness to send troops across the North Atlantic in the autumn with little more than one blanket and no overcoat. A greater effort was made to inspect the health of troops before they sailed, and some were issued with throat sprays and face masks. Troops on the Olympic and the Henderson spent their entire voyage to France wearing masks, although the effectiveness of these was debatable. It was also recommended that only units that had already experienced the influenza epidemic be sent overseas, on the grounds that these units had developed some degree of immunity. But ultimately, few of these precautions made an impact: despite all attempts to contain her, the Spanish Lady remained a terrifying and implacable enemy.

The Leviathan was not the worst example of influenza on a troopship. In the same period, 97 soldiers out of 5,000 perished on the President Grant. When General March declared, in a speech, that every soldier who had died on his way to France had still played his part in the war, the statement brought little comfort to their families.

© Copyright Catharine Arnold 2020


© Stuart Marshall

Catharine Arnold read English at Girton College, Cambridge and holds a further degree in psychology. A journalist, academic, and popular historian, her previous books include The Sexual History of LondonNecropolis, and Bedlam.

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