My grandfather passed away when I was five, but I grew up hearing the story about how he survived the 1918 Spanish flu during World War I, the Great War. During the Covid-D coronavirus pandemic, this story has taken on new meaning to me in a way I never thought it would.
The 1918 Spanish Flu as a WWI soldier
My grandfather was a young soldier in the military during World War II and the outbreak of the 1918 Spanish flu. He was on his way to join the great and horrific battles of Europe, crossing the Atlantic ocean in the middle of winter, when the Spanish flu broke out among the soldiers on his ship.
My grandfather and his buddy decided that it would be safer to sleep out on deck, in below freezing temperatures, than below deck crammed in with thoursands of soldiers sick with the Spanish flu. And so they did.
It can’t have been an easy decision. Outside it was cold and wet. It didn’t just feel freezing, it was actually freezing. The wind blew. Sleeping down inside the nice cozy hold instead must have been tempting.
Every morning my grandfather and his buddy woke with their boots frozen solid to the deck with sea spray.
With their feet still in them.
So every morning they had to chip their boots out of the ice before they could get up. I don’t know what they did this, but I’ve always imagined that bayonets on their rifles might have made an acceptable ice pick.
Both my grandfather and his buddy came down with the flu, but they continued to sleep outside in the freezing weather. Seemingly as a result, they only had what was considered a light case of the Spanish flu.
Sleeping outside and freezing weather, even with the flu, may very well have saved my grandfather’s life. Almost half, perhaps 5,000 out of 11,000, soldiers on board his ship died of the Spanish flu and were buried at sea, before they ever reached Europe.
I can’t imagine being sick with the flu, sleeping in sub-freezing weather, unprotected from the salty sea spray, when what I had ahead of me was the unspeakable horror of fighting in the Great War. It must have taken unbelievable fortitude.
When they finally reached Europe, their forbearance paid off. The soldiers, that survived the Spanish flu on board, landed in a Europe newly at peace. The Great War, World War I, had just ended. So my grandfather served in the occupying forces of Germany.
Coronavirus, Covid-D, and the Spanish Flu
I try to remember this story as we shelter in place to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes Covid-D. We still have our beds, heat, and air-conditioning. (Even if we might run out of toilet paper!)
That’s not to say that this is easy. For people who are experiencing illness, on top of everything else, it’s especially hard. But even absent that, every individual’s hardships are real to them in a very real way. Hardships are relative. We have two graduating seniors in our house, high school and college. All of our kids are at a stage where they are missing important lifetime events. But we can draw encouragement, and perhaps learning, knowing that this is similar to what our ancestors went through before us. They got through it, and so will we!
UPDATE ON THE QUARANTINE LESSONS WE CAN DRAW FROM FAMILY HISTORY
I hesitated to share my direct conclusions from my grandfather’s story without evidence. I have a PhD in biology, but I’m not a medical doctor. But now there is a credible new story out about it in the New York Times.
My grandfather’s survival could have been because he decreased his viral load, the number of viruses he had contact with, by sleeping out on the ship’s deck instead of down in the hold with thousands of sick soldiers. And that is the power of quarantine.
Learn more about the 1918 Spanish Flu and what it can teach us about pandemics
Other Pandemics and Quarantines in History with lessons for the Coronavirus
Emperor Joseph’s Solution to Coronavirus Before modern medicine, the Habsburg monarchy kept epidemics at bay for more than a century and a half. from the WSJ, By A. Wess Mitchell and Charles Ingrao, authors of “The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire” and “The Habsburg Monarchy 1618-1815.”