World War I Letters: Part II – Influenza Strikes Harry

Transcription, Introduction, and Comments
Larry Pearce

Pvt. Harry Hill

Part I: Harry Arrives at Camp
Part III: Well Enough to Tour
Part IV: Home for Christmas?

We rejoin my grandmother, Bessie Reed [Hill] Pearce (1887-1974), and her brother, Harold Alton “Harry” Hill (1891-1945) in a second personal letter from World War I. He is in boot camp in Georgia while she is on the family farm just north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

This letter is on U.S. Engineers’ stationary, both paper and envelop, with the four pages each about half the size of the last letter. We believe that this must have been government issue. It has been almost exactly one month since the last letter. The biggest difference is that the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918-19 that struck the general population of the United States with a vengeance, killing between 20 and 40 million people, has also found its way into the military training camps. Killing more that died in all of World War I and the Bubonic Plague, the virus was called “The Spanish Flu,” “La Grippe,” or “Pandemic.” It has been called the worst occurrence of disease in all of recorded history. Stories were circulating from Philadelphia reporting public health officials collecting bodies door to door and burying them temporarily over the winter until they can be given a proper ceremony in the spring after the epidemic is over. Harry is quite ill, yet doesn’t want to alarm his family. This letter again is postmarked Chattanooga, but is only a day after the date of the later, October 18, 1918, less than a month from the Armistice. This time, Harry has addressed the envelope correctly: Gibsonia. Atop the stationary he indicates Camp Forrest, GA, and Friday evening. As before, I have added some punctuation and formatting for easier reading but, otherwise, have left spelling and grammar in tact:

Dear Sister:
I suppose you think I have forgotten you but that is not the case. I am just recovering from an attack of the flu. I am on light duty since Tues. or at least that what they call it. I haven’t any strength yet nor any appetite. I would like a meal of good home cooking. This stuff we get here is all right when you feel good but doesn’t go down good when you don’t. I got rid of my supper this eve.

We got another issue of clothes today. We got an over coat, three suits of underwear, a pair of trousers and a pair of overalls big enough for Henry Kummer. We got our rifles this eek. It’s an awful job cleaning them. They are packed in grease when we get them. I have been cleaning at mine for half a day and am not done yet. Some of the fellows got their gas masks but I didn’t get any yet. I have missed two weeks of drill. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to drill next week or not.

Two of the 6th Co[mpany] boys died last week. They were both from Butler Co. One was Butler and the other from Glade Run Church. I didn’t know them, only to see them. They died of pneumonia. There is an awful lot of flu in this camp. The hospital is so full they can’t take anymore. I think about half our Co, had it. Some didn’t have it very bad. I was in quarantine for 8 days. They don’t give very much medicine but give you lots of fresh air. I believe I was gaining weight before I got it but I lost all I had gained and then some.

I suppose you are going around now doing your own work. It rained here this afternoon. It is still warm here thru day but get damp and cold at night. The dew runs off the roof like rain in the morning.

How is Dale and the rest of the boys getting along. I suppose Wesley is digging potatoes or thinking about getting started. I sent the boys some cards. Did they get them. I hope this finds you all well. I got 11 letters the week I had the flu all advising me to [be] careful not to get it. I hope you escaped it. I got a letter from Mother tonight. I have about a doz. Letters to write. Tomorrow is wash day if it don’t rain.

[signed] Your Brother Harry

The remark about Harry Kummer surely refers to an over-sized neighbor of Bessie’s, a local farmer for whom a local road is named today. Kummer Road and Pearce Mill Road are important thorofares through North Park.

As for the reference to Glade Run Church, it is an old United Presbyterian Church in Butler County. While the Wesley Pearces were faithful Methodists, all the Hills were devout Presbyterians, and in fact my family would ultimately be members of the Glade Run Church. Nevertheless, to lose two young men from back home in the same week would have been devastating, just as it would be today.

The reference to Bessie’s youngest son Dale, just a month old, is probably an indication that he is sick also, as my father, Ralph, had been in the last letter. Obviously, he recovered as did my dad.

In the next letter, Part III: Well Enough to Tour, Harry is recovered also, and he talks about seeing some of the southern sites. The weather has improved also, and Harry is looking forward to Thanksgiving.

Return to Part I: Harry Arrives at Camp

Last Revised 4/27/20

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