BREMERTON — The influenza epidemic of 1918 did not spare the fledgling town of Bremerton.
However, few places actually did escape its ravages: 40 million of people died the world over, wreaking the worst human cost from an epidemic since the plague in Europe during the Middle Ages.
For Bremerton, the worst impact from the Spanish flu hit Bremerton in September 1918, as the Great War was winding down and people (and the Navy) were preparing for the Armistice.
Few, if any, families in Bremerton escaped without at least one family member coming down with this savage affliction. Local doctors and other medical personnel worked round-the-clock to stave off the threat, but with only limited effect. At least one doctor, Dr. John Munns, died. Another physician, John Schutt, was confined to his home, but made it known he was anxious to report back to lifesaving duty. One local attorney, Marion Garland, was written off as a soon-to-be casualty, but Garland rallied and finally recovered.
No one ever made an accurate survey of deaths in the Bremerton area. Within PSNS alone, there were a reported 70 deaths, and the newspaper carried a constant stream of death announcements. Nationally, about 6 percent of all cities’ population succumbed.
The first town citizen to die in Bremerton was a local contractor named Michael Benbennick Jr., who fell ill in October and passed away before the end of the month.
But it didn’t take long for the victims to start to fall. Medical personnel opened a crude hospital to accommodate victims, with Benbennick’s wife being the first admitted. By the end of the first day, every bed in the hospital was full.
Local newspapers attempted to manage the growing panic by somewhat spuriously running almost daily announcements that the epidemic was losing steam. It wasn’t.
On Nov. 6, 1918, just five days before the Armistice was signed, Bremerton residents were asked to interpret for themselves twin announcements: “The epidemic is past,” said one, but was followed by another, contradictory announcement: “Bremerton residents must wear masks.” That directive was lifted just a week later.
When a hospital annex opened, 27 additional patients were admitted. The local officials announced that the epidemic might not be over. Eventually, nearly a third of the local population was affected.
It took a while for the global enormity of the pandemic to settle on people. Nationally, an estimated 675,000 Americans died, 10 times as many as were killed in the Great War (known today as World War I).
The American Medical Association offered a grim eulogy to the year 1918, as one of peace and optimism, but also unspeaking suffering and bloodshed:
“The year 1918 has gone: a year momentous as the termination of the most cruel war in the annals of the human race; a year that marked: the end, at least for a time, of man’s destruction of man; unfortunately, a year in which was developed a most fatal infectious disease, causing the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Medical science for four and a half years devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there. Now it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all — infectious disease,” (AMA Journal, 12/28/1918).
— This is the second week of the Bremerton Patriot’s series of articles that peek into Bremerton’s 125 eventful years as a community. Follow the series online at www.BremertonPatriot.com, on our Facebook page, facebook.com/CKReporter and on Twitter, twitter.com/ReporterPatriot.