Today marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, later known as Veterans Day. On November 11, 1918 – at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month – World War I ended. It is estimated that the “war to end all wars” killed 20 million and wounded 25 million. From the United States, 116,516 soldiers were killed and 204,002 wounded.
My great uncle Tom Slattery (8/3/1888-2/7/1974) was stationed at Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, along with 50,000 other soldiers. Though over the years I have learned about WWI, I didn’t know what was going on stateside during this time until I read Tom’s weekly letters to his family back in Covington, Indiana. He ran a medical ward at the camp’s hospital and did not hold back when describing the illnesses, deaths, and suicides that became part of his daily life.
At thirty years old, he was the tenth child of eleven born to Eliza McCabe (Trim, Ireland) and John Slattery II (Limerick, Ireland). Not all of the children made it to adulthood, including the eleventh son, so Tom was considered the baby of the family. In the family photo, Tom is the boy in the lower right-hand corner.
Tom arrived at the camp in March 1918 and for the first six months, he thought life there was pretty “swell.” He writes about the variety of entertainment available to the soldiers – all for free – and the abundance of food that is making him fat. He expects any day to be sent “over there” (France) along with his friends, but instead, he continues to take care of the sick, earning a few promotions along the way.
September 30, 1918
Well we are sure having a time of it now. The whole camp (it seems) is getting influenza (Spanish type). An epidemic which is in several camps over the country. The Great Lake camp is in quarantine with most of the men sick. It started three days ago and I have been working most all the time since. This is my fourth night on duty and two days. We are about all in and there is no sign of a stop of the stream of patients coming in. Have been admitting better than five hundred every day and today it was 600. We all had to move out of our barracks this morning to give room to them. Made wards out of every available building. We are sleeping in tents (or will when we get a chance). I am Ward Master in a big barracks of four rooms and porches and every inch of them full of bed. Have from 6 to 9 orderlys under me. Have from 175 to 200 patients. Are very short of nurses to since have had to open so many new wards. Everything will be filled up here today and then I don’t know what we will do with them. Hang them on nails I guess.
October 5, 1918
This is one H-L of a place. Working 24 hours a day and everybody about all in. Admitting about a 1,000 influenzas a day and they are getting pneumonia by the hundreds. 21 died yesterday that was the ones I know of. There is no telling how many more. Every available place has a cot. We are sure having a time taking care of them. I have worked all day and night 2 days this week and to 11 pm every nite. Some Dr haven’t been to bed at all. I am feeling as good as ever though. Just get a little tired. We are quarantined so can’t leave if we wanted to or had time.
October 9, 1918
Conditions are not getting any better. Admitting about 1000 influenza patients a day. And a big percentage of them change to pneumonia. Death rate has been awful. I have nothing but pneumonia on my ward or barracks. Sent out all Influ’s yesterday and got in 125 pneumonias all with a temperature of 104 and up. Had five die already in one hour. We are all about crazy. Working about 18 or 19 hours a day and still not get any thing done.
It is estimated that 25 million Americans contracted the flu, and it killed 675,000. According to the Camp Zachary Taylor Historical Society, the flu killed 21,000 servicemen in the United States, with 950 of them at Camp Taylor. Approximately 43,000 servicemen died worldwide of the flu.
I inherited Tom’s letters from April 1918 to July 1919. After the war ended in November 1918, he hoped he would be discharged right away, but soon realized, as a member of the medical staff, he would be one of the last to be let go. Unfortunately, I don’t have that final letter from September 1919 where he would have shared the good news with his family, but I do have dozens of other interesting ones. I have transcribed the letters below. If you are a history buff, I hope you find them as fascinating as I did.