The Spanish Flu Orderly

My mother’s father, Dr. Jose R. Palomo, was born on the island of Guam in 1898, before the island was ceded by the Spanish to the United States as part of the spoils of the Spanish-American War. When he was 14, he was sent to Manila for more education than what was available on Guam. (You remember 1912 — that was the year the Titanic went down.)

Liceo de ManilaHe went to school at the Liceo de Manila, and in his memoir, Recollections of Olden Days, he described how the school had no organized athletics, but rather all able students were encouraged to join the Batallón del Liceo de Manila, a “quasi-military activity”. They got snappy uniforms (see the photo of him above) and learned to march and drill with dummy rifles.

When he graduated from the Liceo, he took a steamer to San Francisco and a train across the US, and eventually arrived in Pittsburgh in September of 1918. He applied in person at Carnegie Tech to study engineering. At that time, Carnegie had been taken over by the US Army authorities in order to train engineers for the Army.

“In just a few hours, I was sworn in as a member of the SATC (Student Army Training Corps). It was a day of fast changes for me. I was a civilian in the morning and a soldier in the US Army by late afternoon.”

His mornings consisted of engineering studies, and in the afternoons they had military training. Here is what Grandpa recalled from October of 1918:

“I enjoyed the afternoons the most, a time when we received military training. Our commanding officers would would march our company to a pleasant section of Schenley Park which was near our school. In this area, we went through various exercises, all of which I had already learned at the Liceo.

Schenley Park in 1916, view towards Flagstaff Hill
Schenley Park in 1916, looking towards Flagstaff Hill. (I’m assuming that’s the flagstaff in the background there.) Carnegie Tech is behind the line of trees in the upper left.

It was on one of these occasions, a very pleasant afternoon, when an Army officer approached our Captain and pointed to two squads in our company. I was a member of one of the squads. An open truck approached us and our two squads were ordered to jump on board. We were told nothing about this strange manoeuver; the officer took his seat next to the driver and off we went at great speed.

Ambulance truck 1917
Perhaps the truck was something like this, though this is an ambulance.

We were sure that we were heading towards the building where we were quartered in the basement. The officer in charge told us to pack up our belongings, put them in the truck, and then jump in. The driver quickly turned the truck around and drove off at high speed in the direction of downtown Pittsburgh, past Carnegie Tech. He soon slowed down and pulled into a large yard dominated by a three story building. He drove behind the building and stopped in front of a large barn. Our officer ordered us to get down and put our belongings in the barn.

Everything seemed to me like a bad dream. Our officers told us that we were at the local maternity hospital. However, all the maternity cases had just been transferred to another hospital, for the Army had commandeered the small maternity hospital in order to take care of military personnel who had become afflicted with the Spanish influenza that was then raging all over the world.

The officer who commandeered us from Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park assembled our two squads and told us briefly that we were to serve as orderlies and that a nurse on each of the hospital’s three floors would tell us what to do. We were then divided among the three floors. It was my good fortune, or perhaps my bad luck, to be consigned to the third floor along with a few of my companions.

Soldiers on cots during Spanish flu pandemic
US Army soldiers during Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

I was shocked, simply aghast, by what I saw. Folding cots were spread close to each other all over the floor and on these cots young men lay in twisted shapes, coughing loudly and spitting harshly onto wrinkled newspapers spread on the floor alongside their cots. The floor nurse told me to pick up the saliva soaked newspapers, stow them in a large canvas container and replace them with unused ones stacked in a corner of the room.

Before I had worked very long on my share of the floor, I spied a cupboard with some equipment inside, the most attractive of which was a nice white bucket. I went quickly to the cupboard and picked up the bucket, intending to use it instead of newspapers. Before I got back to my station on the floor, I hear a loud shout. “Soldier boy,” shouted our floor nurse, “put that bucket back where you found it.; don’t you know that is a placenta bucket?” I was aghast, not to say disappointed, but I started back with the bucket, murmuring under my breath “these Americans are strange people; why should anybody put a plant in such a nice, white bucket?”

Hospital ward during Spanish flu pandemic
A typical flu ward in those days. By his description, the ward where Grandpa worked was much more primitive.

Frustrated in my quest for a bucket for my hard spitting patients, I rushed all over the place looking for unused newspapers. Suddenly a loud voice coming from the main floor shouted that all orderlies must report to the dining room for supper. At this rough invitation, we all rushed to get away from our floor of contagion. I forgot to mention that the first thing the floor nurse asked us to do was to put on gauze masks to protect us against contagion from our patients.

After thoroughly washing our hands and faces in a washroom near the dining hall, we sat down at a large dining table. I was tired and hungry, and had visions of roast beef and mashed potatoes. My comrades evidently had the same gustatory hallucination for when the waiters came in with large plates loaded with something that looked like short hollow tubes topped with something of a yellow color, loud groans broke out from my fellow diners.

In a low voice I asked my neighbor on my left what was being served. He said, “macaroni and cheese” in a rather disconsolate voice. We were hungry and tired and the hour was late, so we ate in somber silence. Then an official came into the dining room and announced that we were excused from further duty and had to report to the barn, where we were to spend the rest of the night.

Such good news infused some good humor into our flagging spirits and we literally ran to the barn, where we found some of our comrades already spread out on their cots. One of them was still awake and cautioned us that we should keep our socks on for the night because the rats were large and hungry. I took his advice and more — I slept with my boots on.

Early the next morning an Army truck roared to a stop in front of our barn door. Out jumped our company captain who ordered us to get ready as he was going to take us back to camp. Back to the Carnegie Campus we went to resume our regular duties.”

Conditions Are Better Now

Given the sanitation conditions in the wards at that time, it is no wonder people died in the millions. Now we have ways to measure how much oxygen a patient is getting, and respirators (not enough, but we have them), and antibiotics for fighting concomitant infections. We have control over so many factors which can help us contain this pandemic. Like staying home!

Fortunately, Grandpa did not come down with influenza from this one nightmare afternoon of working in the wards, though SATC members in other locations did. The next month the Great War ended, so he never had to go to war either.

Grandpa’s Tips on Staying Healthy

His whole life he was scrupulous about washing his hands. Grandpa once told me that he avoided touching his face to keep germs from transferring there. He said he used his right hand if he had to touch himself above the waist, and below the waist he would use his left hand, so as to minimize microbes getting to his mouth, nose and eyes.  He put on a clean shirt for dinner every single day. And he used peroxide and baking soda to brush his teeth.

He died two weeks shy of 98, with all of his teeth.

My grandpa in the 1960s
Grandpa in my childhood

2 Replies to “The Spanish Flu Orderly

  1. Nice read. What are the odds that your Grandpa survived such dense exposure! Glad he did so that you are around to share this.

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