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WWI Death Transports & Ghost Ships

Updated on February 19, 2016


This engraving of a mythical Leviathan represents well what happened aboard the ship with the same name
This engraving of a mythical Leviathan represents well what happened aboard the ship with the same name | Source

Ghost Ships

The 1918 influenza virus that killed 121 million people in the most conservative estimate is now referred to as H1N1 in swine. The virus had an incubation period of two days from the time the victim was infected before he showed symptoms. During those two days before he knew he was sick, he was contagious. The infected individual remained contagious until all of his symptoms were present. Then as he suffered and often died he was no longer contagious.

A one week quarantine of soldiers on a receiving ship before sailing would stop the disease from spreading. A receiving ship is actually a floating barracks waiting to sail.

Though only weeks away from peace, General John J. Pershing, in charge of the American Expeditionary Force, demanded fresh troops. The army had to decide whether to continue to transport soldiers to France during the epidemic. Because of the effort of Gorgas, the army knew the cost.

Meanwhile the Leviathan was loading.

USS Dorsey

Launched April 9, 1918. The Dorsey operated out of New York.
Launched April 9, 1918. The Dorsey operated out of New York. | Source

The Leviathan

The Leviathan was once the pride of the German passenger fleet. The ship had been in New York when America entered the war. Among all the German ships confiscated in the United States, she was taken undamaged.

In mid-September on a return voyage to America from France, several crew and passengers were buried at sea. They died of influenza. Nevertheless, the army would ferry one hundred thousand troops to Europe.

The army did remove all men showing influenza symptoms before sailing. And to contain the virus on board, troops were quarantined. Military police carrying pistols enforced the quarantine.

The soldiers were sealed into separate areas of the ship behind watertight doors. Each area was crowded with men and bunks. The portholes remained closed at night due to fear of submarine attack. Even during the day the ventilation system could not keep pace with the massive overcrowding. Each room generally held 400 men.

So while the stench and claustrophobia may have overwhelmed them, at least, so they believed, they were safe from the virus. The plan was a preventive plan intended to not get the disease at all. But what if the virus lay dormant ready to spring. If that were the case, then the measures taken at prevention would be the exact conditions necessary for a full fledged outbreak.

The men went to mess one group at a time. But they breathed the same air and ate at the same tables. Their hands opened the same doors.

Within forty-eight hours of leaving port, soldiers and sailors struck down with influenza overwhelmed the sick bay. The sick displaced the healthy from one quarantined room after another. The nurses became sick.

Colonel Gibson, commander of the Fifty-seventh Vermont, wrote of the experience on the Leviathan: "The ship was packed . . .conditions were such that the influenza could breed and multiply with extraordinary swiftness. . . .The number of sick increased rapidly, Washington was apprised of the situation. . . .The conditions during the night cannot be visualized by anyone who had not actually seen them. . . .Groans and cries of the terrified added to the confusion of the applicants clamoring for treatment and altogether a true inferno reigned supreme." (The Great Influenza, The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. John M Barry, Penguin, 2005)

Barracks 1917

One of many hastily erected barracks to accommodate American draftees. Immediately over-crowded with insufficient heat, the camps were a fertile ground for disease.
One of many hastily erected barracks to accommodate American draftees. Immediately over-crowded with insufficient heat, the camps were a fertile ground for disease. | Source

The Briton

Veteran soldiers who experienced the first, more mild wave, of influenza in April had developed immunity. Always the new men were at risk. Influenza deaths among the military in Europe were roughly half of those in America. The explanation appears to be that the soldiers at the front were exposed in the spring outbreak.

The same conditions as experienced on the Leviathan were present on other transport ships. The story told from the Briton included blood on the deck from hemorrhaging soldiers. The men lay on the deck because every possible space for the sick was in use. Their blood was tracked making the decks wet and slippery.

Robert Wallace aboard the Briton remembered lying on deck when a storm came, remembered the ship rolling. They lay drenched, coughing. Each morning orderlies carried away bodies. (The Great Influenza, The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. John M Barry, Penguin, 2005).

At first the deaths were separated by hours. A week after departing New York, the officer of the day was no longer bothering to note details. He was writing only a name and a time. Sometimes two names at the same time followed by two more a minute later. The bodies were consigned to the sea.

The transports became floating caskets. Still, the army continued to ferry more men into the maelstrom. For every death, another four or five men were ill enough to be incapacitated for weeks. These men could not help in Europe.

The reason for this? If American soldiers stopped arriving in France, then German morale might soar. The war would end in a little more than a month. The epidemic had made training in the military camps at home impossible. But the transports continued.

General Peyton March, the commander of the army, insisted, "The shipment of troops should not be stopped for any cause."

Camp Grant


WWI and the Influenza Pandemic

The influenza pandemic of 1918 cannot be addressed separately from the world at war. The movement of troops is what spread the disease. The focus on war is what prevented the government and private sectors from containing the spread of the disease.

In the end it was the army scientist who investigated the disease and brought what relief was possible. The government had a single focus and that was waging war. The epidemic killing millions of civilians was not addressed by President Wilson.

Nor can the war be separated from the pandemic. Battles and victories are part of war. The endless discussion of tactics and weapons and supplies are, of course, discussed as reasons for victory. The political situation of authoritarian governments versus representative governments is what changed the world.

Still, the German generals claimed that the influenza effectively halted their final offensive, not the enemy.

The scientist worked toward finding the cause and from that a serum to prevent the deaths as they had done for polio and typhus and other bacterial infections. Koch worked in Germany. Pasteur worked in France. Welch, Avery, Lewis worked around the clock for the American army. Despite the governments involved in the war denying the pandemic and falsifying the numbers, the scientist shared what information they had and discoveries they made.

It would take decades to reach an understanding of a virus. As a result of the constant study, scientist would learn priceless information about the immune system. The immune system's over-reaction was the reason for the disproportionate death rate among the young and healthy. Later this information would be used to fight HIV.

In 1943 Avery, along with others who continued to work on the make-up of the influenza virus, would discover DNA. They were searching for why and how a virus mutated and adapted. Did the great pandemic of 1918 result in these discoveries. Yes, it did.

The only other positive result from this tremendous suffering was the emergence of the American Red Cross. Mobilized by President Wilson with the task of recruiting nurses for the war effort, the Red Cross performed this task and more.

The WWI transports of death across the sea and inland by train have no positive side. They were a harsh lesson indeed of what enraged nature can do to man. And of what man is capable of doing to man.


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