When Our Boys Had Influenza

New York Tribune/December 15, 1918


Few of us realize that during the recent epidemic of influenza the boys of our armies were taken off the boats and brought into the city on stretchers by the hundreds to die, or recover, if they were able to overcome in their grim struggle with death. Most of them had been taken ill in midocean, and by the time they got to shore they generally had pneumonia.

The majority were taken to the Willard Parker Hospital for contagious diseases, where there were two thousand of these cases at a time throughout the duration of the epidemic. The heroism displayed by the women on the staff, aided by the Home Defence nurses who gallantly stepped into the breach, was indeed the heroism of war—a heroism that lived silently on day after day without the fanfare of trumpets, without even the feminine comfort of a becoming uniform; for what could be more hideous than the rough, dry, ill-fitting garb which is donned in a hospital for contagious diseases?

Miss Heller—Division of Relief

The Red Cross, too, sent its help. “The Division of Military Relief for Hospitals” is its official title, but it was all vested in one single woman, Miss Eugenie Heller—white haired, plump, smiling, the very embodiment of kindliness and humor. “For,” says Miss Heller, with a twinkle in her eye, “when a job is so bad that nobody else will take it, it’s always passed over to me. And I do it.”

Patrolling the wards of Willard Parker for fifteen hours a day at a stretch, with no pay and an excellent chance of catching the “flu”—she’s done it now for eleven weeks—is certainly heroism!

“Just what is military relief?” I asked her.

“It’s doing everything for a sick man except the technical nursing of him,” she replied. “That is to say, keeping him good tempered, writing his letters, reading them to him when he is too sick to read them himself, buying for him any little thing he may need—and many times filling his last wishes,” she added thoughtfully.

“I went around with two baskets, each of which, by the bye, weighs twenty-five pounds, and containing everything the boys might ask for, from boxing gloves for the convalescents to a rosary. Nobody has been allowed to visit the hospital, and the men have been isolated from any outside human contact.

“Perhaps my chief work was correspondence. I’ve written 350 letters to mothers in four weeks—just personal notes about their boys. I know how much more such letters meant to them than an official report. And I made the boys, directly they were well enough to hold a pencil, write a postcard home every day. At first they protested vigorously. They are in the habit of writing once a month ‘or so,’ and they ‘don’t see why,’ etc. But they do it. And they even began to enjoy the habit, when it brought a letter a day back. Forty-three thousand postcards I sent off in six weeks, and I felt triumphant.

The Kid Lieutenant

“They were very brave. Most of them were youngsters, and all they needed was a little jollying up. I remember one who was very sick—he was a bit of a worry to his nurse. ‘Now, don’t carry on so, kiddie dear,’ I said to him. Sick as he was he drew himself up.

“ ‘I’m a lieutenant,’ said he.

‘But, then, you don’t wear stripes on your pajamas, so you’re just a kid to me!” I laughed at him, and we became great pals.

“They always wrote home and said they were better and all was well with them, however matters stood. One poor, dear lad I held in his very last moments managed to scrawl a card to his mother to say he was feeling ‘fine.’

“But we hadn’t only our boys. We had them of every nationality. The Americans and English were pretty much alike—they’d lie still, and when they got better they’d be calm and quiet. But the French, bless them, were sometimes a bit of a circus. When they were really ill they were always certain they were heading straight for the other land. But once they got well enough to talk, all they wanted was to get out, somehow. ‘Que je m’ennuie; que je m’ennuie!” they would exclaim. ‘How bored I am!” And I just wonder how many times I was told—for luckily I spoke their language—that no French hospital would EVER be built facing a gas tank, as this was.

“We had a lot of Japanese. They were scrupulously polite and formal. And each one as he left would come to me and make a little set speech of gratitude, his hand on his heart, ending with a low bow.

When Even the Germs Gave In!

“The Hindoos, and there were many of them on the boats, were difficult. They would insist, sick as they were, on cooking their own rice and keeping the pans under the bed. Imagine, with the germs flying around! But there was nothing for us to do: we just had to allow it. If one of us even touched those pan they would wipe them with their very dirty turbans. So we learned to let the pans alone!

“They came to us with nothing but these turbans and a few rags tied around their waists, and when it was time for the first batch to leave I gave them some warm B. V. D.’s. To my utter horror I saw them leaving the hospital with the B. V. D.’s on the outside and the rest of their clothing tucked into them. I protested, but they insisted they looked too nice to hide under anything else.

Don’t Want To Be Read To

“The boys want practical things done for them—mostly things that demand good, sound, hard work. And they do not want to be read to. Why is it that the Red Cross has 4,000 applications a month from women who would like to read to the boys? Has anybody ever met a sane, normal man, sick or well, who would allow a woman to read to him? I wouldn’t dare even suggest it to them myself!

“They need the best of everything. And if the women cannot give it to them they should stay at home. I wish I could raise a word of protest against a society here that advertises much about the splendid work it does in taking flowers to the hospitals. The flowers that were brought to the Willard Parker each day for those poor, overworked nurses to put in vases—for, of course, the society didn’t go further than the outside steps of a hospital for contagious diseases—were just garbage left over from some florist shop, where it could not be sold: they had been in the shop for days.

“I’ve a word of comfort for the girls left behind. My work made me hear many secrets, and of all the thousands of stories I listened to I learned of but one serious case of a young soldier who is returning to Europe to marry a French girl.

“But let our girls be careful. They’re not getting back the men they sent away. These men have been near grim tragedy and death. They have seen into the far beyond and they have finished with the shams and the make believe. They know the real thing when they see it, and they won’t ever again stand for anything else from their women folk.

“And the women have much to learn,” she concluded.

(Source: https://www.newspapers.com/image/469247360/?terms=influenza)


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