Letters brought 1918 pandemic home

Posted May 15, 2009, at 9:21 p.m.

Ripley farmer Clifton “Cliff” Skillings was drafted into the Army to battle the Germans during World War I. As he entered the military, he didn’t know that he would shortly be fighting another battle — a battle for his life — that would kill many of the young soldiers around him.

Skillings, 23, took a train from Maine in August 1918 to Camp Devens, Mass., a military base located about 35 miles from Boston that was built for 36,000 men, but actually housed more than 45,000. It was later named Fort Devens.

A month after Skillings arrived, the first soldier at the camp fell sick with influenza. Within two weeks, the flu exploded to 6,000 cases, and by mid-September nearly 9,000 had fallen ill.

“Lots of the boys are sick and in the hospital,” Skillings wrote in a Sept. 23, 1918, letter to his parents back in Ripley. “It is a disease. Some [thing] like the Gripp. Some have been pretty sick. I don’t think I will get it.”

He was wrong.

Six postcards and 19 letters sent by Skillings to his parents, many describing his battle with the flu, have survived the past century. Click here to view excerpts from the postcards and letters.

Bangor resident Jane Boudreau found them in the bottom of a box she purchased a decade ago at an auction. She said last week that she read the letters, then put them away. Only recently, as news the H1N1 virus was again making headlines, did she think of the letters and call the Bangor Daily News.

Soon after Skillings wrote to his parents not to worry, he was coughing so hard a fellow soldier reported him to a sergeant, who summoned a doctor.

“The Dr. took my temperature & went to the orderly room & made out a slip & sent me up to the base hospital,” he wrote on Oct. 13, 1918. “He thought I was coming down with that new disease.

“Everything tastes rotten, even the water taste funny,” he wrote, adding later, “Ma, don’t you worry for there is nothing to worry about. I am allright. I am in no danger.”

His handwriting is light compared with his earlier letters, and the paper and envelope is the first with pinholes and discoloration because, “They have to be fumagated before they leave the hospital,” Skillings wrote.

Some soldiers in the infirmary with him had normal flu symptoms — a high fever, head and body aches and vomiting — but others bled from their ears and noses, coughed up blood, suffered delirium and seemed to turn blue from cyanosis that shuts down their lungs’ ability to carry oxygen.

Those men suffocated as their lungs filled with a bloody, frothy substance, and it only took a few hours, Dr. Ray Grist, an Army physician at Camp Devens, wrote in a Sept. 29, 1918, letter to a friend named Bert. Grist’s letter was found in a trunk in Detroit in 1959.

“Two hours after admission they have the Mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the Cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white,” he wrote. “It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate.

“It is horrible,” he said. “We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up.”

Nurses from Maine, including 10 from Central Maine General Hospital in Lewiston and six from Milo, loaded trains heading south to help out at the encampment. At the same time, relatives of sick soldiers arrived at the camp in droves to comfort their loved ones, according to historical sources.

Capt. William Lawry, 36, a Maine state Senate secretary, got the flu while visiting Camp Devens and died on Sept. 23, 1918, after arriving home. He left a wife and two young children behind, and also probably spread the disease to an unknown number of people during his trip home.

Dr. Leverett Bristol, the state commissioner of health at the time, said, “Most of the cases in this state are traceable to people who have gone to Massachusetts, particularly to Camp Devens, and brought the germ of the disease back with them.”

The flu was quickly becoming an epidemic in Bath, Lisbon Falls and Portland, which had more than 300 cases reported by Sept. 27, 1918, and already had lost four nurses.

That was also the day Skillings entered the hospital. Sixteen days later he remained hospitalized.

“I am some weak,” he wrote on Oct. 13, 1918. “It is awfull hard work for me to sit down and write a letter.”

As the flu spread, state officials began talking about how to contain it.

On Sept. 28, 1918, the Portland Board of Health ordered that theaters, moving picture houses, dance halls and schools be closed, and a week later expanded the ban to include churches, club meetings and other indoor gatherings. Many other communities followed suit, according to historical sources.

Bangor’s Board of Health issued an order closing “all places where people gather in considerable number and in close contact,” an Oct. 1, 1918, Bangor Daily News article said. At that point, 200 Bangoreans reportedly had the illness.

At Camp Devens, Skillings was taken to the No. 9 hospital ward, a building packed with cots that held severely sick soldiers.

“When you went to the building down back, more often than not, you didn’t come back,” Robert Harvey of Harmony said this week. Harvey had lived with the Skillings family in Ripley as a youth.

As Skillings entered his third week in the infirmary, he wrote home and told his parents he was battling two diseases.

“You see I had the influenza first, then … I broke out with the measles,” he wrote on Oct. 20, 1918.

During the 1918 influenza, a good number died from secondary diseases that attacked a person’s weakened system.

Camp Devens’ hospital was built to handle 1,200, so barracks were changed into emergency hospital wards.

One was made into a morgue.

“It takes special trains to carry away the dead,” Grist wrote. “For several days there were no coffins and bodies pile up something fierce … we live it, sleep it, and dream it, to say nothing of breathing it 16 hours a day” the doctor wrote.

Military officials tried to isolate the disease by quarantining the sick, but failed miserably because the infected didn’t always show signs. Soldiers moving among camps and to Europe to fight in the Great War spread the disease.

Estimates are that the 1918 flu killed between 20 million and 100 million worldwide, including more than 675,000 in the United States. Approximately 47,000 Mainers got sick and around 5,000 died, but historical sources note the disease was underreported. Half of the deaths in Maine occurred in October 1918.

In Bangor, 946 cases of influenza were reported in an Oct. 21, 1918, Bangor Daily News article, titled, “Grip seems to be losing its grip,” on the city.

The Queen City lost 53 locals from the flu and its complications, the newspaper reported.

After 26 days in the hospital, Skillings was finally strong enough to send his parents the letter they assuredly had been waiting for. “I have got out of the hospital last night,” he wrote on Oct. 23, 1918.

Even though he was out of the hospital, Skillings remained in “marked quarters” and was not allowed to leave the barracks.

“You can’t even go across the road to the YMCA, but I am not alone,” he wrote. “It has about all died out in camp now and they don’t want it to get in again,” he said later.

Cliff Skillings beat the odds, returned to his family’s 85-acre Ripley farm in 1919 and married his sweetheart, Ethel Lord, the next year.

He died June 18, 1979, at the age of 84.

In addition to Skillings’ handwritten letters and postcards and the Bangor Daily News articles, this article also used as sources the Maine and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Web sites, and the Maine State Archives.

nricker@bangordailynews.net

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