An earlier pandemic touched the lives of the Trumans
A century ago, in 1918-19, the world was ravaged by a terrible pandemic. It was called the Spanish flu, but it probably originated in the United States, in training camps teeming with soldiers preparing for military service in Europe during the First World War.
In a single month, October 1918, nearly 200,000 Americans died of the disease. This horrific strain of influenza soon spread to the farthest corners of the world. Before it disappeared as swiftly as it had emerged, the Spanish flu killed approximately 50 million people – more than three times the number of persons who had perished in the war itself.
Among the people who lived through the pandemic were Harry S. Truman and his fiancée Bess Wallace. Truman was in France, commanding an artillery battery during the last months of the war. While overseas, he corresponded regularly with Bess, who was living with her mother in Independence. (She had agreed to marry him when he returned home.)
Truman soon learned that Bess and his sister, Mary Jane Truman, had fallen ill, possibly with the Spanish flu.
“I am so glad you are out of danger from that awful flu,” he wrote Bess on Jan. 12, 1919, more than two months after the war ended on Armistice Day. “You’ve no idea how uneasy I’ve been since hearing you and Mary had it. We over here can realize somewhat how you must have felt when we were under fire a little. Every day nearly someone of my outfit will hear that his mother, sister, or sweetheart is dead. It is heartbreaking almost to think that we are so safe and so well over here and that the ones we’d like to protect more than all the world have been more exposed to death than we.”
In addition to Bess and Mary Jane, Bess’s brother Frank Wallace and Truman’s cousin Ethel Noland also fell ill during the pandemic. All four were fortunate enough to recover.
Truman may have felt comparatively safe in Europe, but in reality he and the men under his command were just as vulnerable to the Spanish flu as their loved ones on the home front. Captain Truman had brought the artillerymen of Battery D through the war without losing a single man in combat, but the roster indicates that five members of the battery died “in the line of duty” while in France or on the ship coming home. One died of appendicitis, but the other four may have been victims of the pandemic.
Tens of thousands of U.S. servicemen were hospitalized because of the Spanish flu, in the United States as well as in Europe. At Camp Doniphan in Oklahoma, where Truman had undergone his training, 51 men died of the flu.
In her earliest surviving letter to Harry, dated March 16, 1919, Bess expressed concern for her fiancé’s health. “Was mighty glad to get your letter of Feb. 18,” she wrote. “Hadn’t heard for such an age [and] was afraid you were sick!”
This letter can be viewed on the Truman Library website, at https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/library/personal-papers/harry-s-truman-correspondence-file-1919-1943/march-16-1919
But Truman was able to avoid the Spanish flu. His only serious episode of illness during his military service occured on the ship coming home from France, when (as he wrote to Bess on April 24, 1919), he suffered so terribly from seasickness that “I wished most sincerely that I could go back to the Argonne Forest and at least die honorably.”
On May 6, 1919, Captain Truman received his honorable discharge at Camp Funston in Kansas, where some scholars believe the first cases of the Spanish flu had been recorded a year earlier. On June 28, 1919, he and Bess Wallace were married in Independence.
More information about Truman’s service in World War I will be featured in the Truman Library’s newly renovated museum, which may be opening in the late fall.
Randy Sowell is an archivist at the Truman Library in Independence.