Fort Riley has been home to General George Custer, the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments, Blackjack Pershing’s 1st Infantry Division (“The Big Red One”) as well as the one of the greatest natural disasters to cast a shadow over all of humanity: the Spanish Flu of 1918. Similar to the more recent 2009 Novel H1N1 (“Swine”) Flu, this pandemic strain of influenza quickly evolved and spread from a pig farm in Haskell County to Ft. Riley. Soldiers quickly became infected by this virulent and deadly strain of flu. It could have easily been discovered and contained in this small Kansas town.
· One can be infected with influenza and spread the virus days before feeling ill
· World War 1 was going on in Europe
Hundreds of soldiers—dozens of them infected—were being shipped out of Ft. Riley to the green fields of France by the day. Within weeks, the flu had spread across France, Europe and on towards Asia and Africa. It didn’t actually cause significant mortality to the United States until it came back to Boston, Massachusetts in its second wave (but that’s a tale for another day).
By the middle of 1919, the Spanish flu had killed over 100,000,000 people.
Why then will it always be called the “Spanish Flu”? Historically, epidemics had been named after the region around Ground Zero. Lyme disease is from Old Lyme, Connecticut. The Hong Kong flu was from the Pearl River delta near Honk Kong. Syphilis has been called the French Disease by the British and the British Disease by the French (but that’s a tale for another day). When the great influenza of 1918 first hit the front pages of newspapers, it ran as a story of European tourists in Spain first contracting the disease. Nowadays it’s bad for tourism and the pork industry to announce “Swine Flu” or “Texas Flu” so we have a sanitized moniker like 2009 Novel H1N1 Influenza A.
So what about Kansas? After the initial wave of infections and deaths—with most of the original infected shipped out to France—the Kansas state government took action to shut down public gatherings: schools, church, movies. All together about 30,000 people were infected. Thousands died. Considering this was ground zero, Kansas was very lucky.