100 Years Ago: The Leviathan–Transport Ship of Death

Watercolor of the SS Leviathan at the National Archives.

On the 29th of September 1918 the transport ship Leviathan left the docks of Hoboken New Jersey on its voyage to Brest, France carrying troops and medical personnel. The problem started even before the ship departed, the passengers became victims of the dreaded influenza. This vivid story found in Vermont newspapers is a well-documented first hand account of how quickly and ruthlessly the “Spanish flu” took the lives of  previously healthy soldiers during WWI.

Troops and Sailors relaxing on the ship’s foredeck, while she was en route from the United States to France in 1918. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

The deaths on the ship, Leviathan, seem to be the heaviest among the Vermont recruits, though there were other New England men among the casualties, along with recruits from the National Guard regiments of Philadelphia, Chicago and Tennessee. Major Ernest W. Gibson of Brattleboro, Vermont who was captain and personnel adjutant in the 57th Pioneer Infantry during WWI was the author of this account, published in The Bethel Courier (Bethel, Vermont) newspaper in 1920.

The headline read: LEVIATHAN A CHARNAL SHIP. Horrifying Voyage Across of the 57th Pioneer (1st Vermont) Stricken With Influenza, Described by Capt. E.W. Gibson. (Originally published in the Brattleboro Reformer). “the regiment’s (57th Pioneers) trip across the Atlantic to France on the big steamer Leviathan, on which were many Brattleboro (Vermont) young men, especially with reference to the conditions which prevailed as a result of influenza. His account of the trip, in which are incorporated extracts from an official report, brings out some horrible conditions which the public has little realized. Every Vermonter should read in its entirety Major Gibson’s story which follows:–

In February 1918, the First Vermont Infantry, which had been wrecked the short sighted and entirely wrong policy of the war department, was given the new name of the 57th Pioneer Infantry. The remains of the broken National Guard organizations of New England and New York were re-designated as Corps and Army Troops, assembled at Camp Wadsworth, there filled up with drafted men and sent overseas.

The 57th Pioneer Infantry had about 50 commissioned officers and 450 non-commissioned officers from Vermont. These were men who had clung to the old organization with a fine sense of loyalty to their state. The other commissioned officers of the regiment as finally completed came from the National Guard regiments of many states. The balance of the enlisted personnel came from Philadelphia, Chicago, and from Tennessee. On the sixth day of September, 1918, about 3,000 men from Tennessee were called into service. They came from the cities and villages, off the cotton plantations and from the mountain homes of that state. These boys were a home loving, God fearing lot of men. To many the trip to camp was a first experience on a railway train. Twenty-five hundred of them were assigned to our regiment on the 12th day of September. They were equipped, inoculated, vaccinated and on the 23rd day of September, 11 days after coming to the regiment, started on the long trip to France. At Camp Merritt we stopped long enough to secure equipment to conform to the overseas standard, so far as available, and drop such men as were undesirable. We were assigned to sail on the giant Leviathan, then moored at her pier in Hoboken [New Jersey].

The first battalion assigned to guard duty aboard the troop ship moved out from camp about 1 o’clock on the morning of the 28th of September. The second and third battalions marched out from their barracks about 1 a.m. on the morning of the 29th of September. We had proceeded but a short distance when it was discovered that men were falling out of ranks, unable to keep up. The attention of the commanding officer was called to the situation. The column was halted, the camp surgeon was summoned, the medical examination showed that the dreaded influenza had hit us. Although many men had fallen out we were oredered to resume the march. We went forward up and up over that winding moonlit road leading to Alpine Landing on the Hudson, where ferry boats were waiting to take us to Hoboken. The victims of the epidemic fell on either side of the road, unable to carry their heavy packs. Some threw their equipment away and with determination tried to keep up with their comrades. Army trucks and ambulances following picked up those who had fallen and took them back to the camp hospital. How many men or how much equipment we lost on the march has never been determined.

Photograph of some American Red Cross Nurses aboard a ship. 9,000 women served in active duty as nurses. Library of Congress.

On board the transport the men continued to be stricken and 100 of these were taken off and returned to shore before sailing. On Sunday afternoon, the 29th, tugs pulled the great ship into mid-stream, turned her prow in the direction of open ocean, the great propellers began to turn and we were off to the Great Adventure. We had on board 9,033 officers and men and about 200 army nurses on their way to hospitals in France. The presence of the nurses was very fortunate as it afterwards turned out. The ship was packed, conditions were such that the influenza bacillus could breed and multiply with extraordinary swiftness. We were much of the way without convoy. The U-boat menace made it necessary to keep every port hole closed at night, and the air below decks, where the men slept, was hot and heavy. The number of sick increased rapidly. Washington was appraised of the situation, but the call for men for the allied armies was so great that we must go on at any cost. The sick bay became overcrowded and it became necessary to evacuate the greater portion of E deck and turn that into sick quarters. Doctors and nurses were stricken. Every available doctor and nurse was utilized to the limit of endurance. The official report of the medical officer to the commanding officer made Oct 11, 1918, on file with the war department is a correct and interesting account of the conditions. It follows in part: “There are no means of knowing the actual number of sick at any one time, but it is estimated that fully 700 cases had developed by night of September 30. They were brought to the sick bay from all parts of the ship, in a continuous stream, only to be turned away because all beds were occupied. Most of them lay down on the decks, inside and out, and made no effort to reach the compartment where they belonged. In fact, practically no one had the slightest idea where they did belong, and he left his blankets, clothing, kit, and all his possessions to be salvaged at the end of the voyage.

U.S. Army Camp Hospital No 12, La Valdahon, France, General Surgical Ward, WWI, from the National Library of Medicine Digital Collections.

“Late in the evening of this day the E deck ward was opened on the starboard side and was filled before morning. The conditions during the night cannot be visualized by anyone who has not actually seem them. Pools of blood, from the severe nasal hemorrhages of many patients, were scattered throughout the compartment, and the attendants were powerless to escape tracking through this mess because of the narrow passages between bunks. Everyone called for water and lemons and oranges. A plentiful supply enabled their desire to be gratified, but within a few minutes of the first distribution of the fruit, the skins and pulp were added to the blood and vomitus upon the deck. The decks became wet and slippery; the filth clung to the clothing of the attendants; groans and cries of the terrified sick added to the confusion of the applicants clamoring for treatment, and altogether a true inferno reigned supreme.

“As noted above, the sick bay was filled a few hours after leaving Hoboken. Until the fifth day of the voyage, few patients could be sent to duty because of great weakness following the trop in temperature as they grew better. The E deck ward was more than full all the time and there were many ill men in various troop spaces in other parts of the ship.
“Morning of the 2nd of October brought no relief. Things seemed to grow worse instead of better. The first death from pneumonia occurred on this day, and the body was promptly embalmed and encased in a navy standard casket.

“October 3, 3 deaths; 900 cases.
“October 4, 7 deaths. The sea was rough and the ship rolled heavily. Hundreds were miserable from seasickness and others from terror of the strange surroundings and the ravages of the epidemic.

“Each succeeding day of the voyage was like those preceding, a nightmare of weariness and anxiety on the part of the nurses, doctors, and hospital corpsmen. No one thought of bed for himself, and all hands worked day and night. On the 5th there were ten deaths, on the 6th there were 24, and on the 7th, the day of arrival at our destination (Brest), the toll was 31. The army ambulance boat was promptly along side and debarkation of the sick began about noon. The sick bay was cleared first, and we at once thereafter began to clean up in preparation for the wounded to be carried westbound. E deck was then evacuated but all the sick could not be handled before night, about 300 remaining on board.

“On the 8th these were taken off by the army, but not before 14 more deaths had occurred. The nurses remained until the last sick man was taken off. It is my opinion that there were fully 2,000 influenza cases on board during the voyage. Pneumonia cases must have numbered at least 100, but in the unavoidable confusion due to the rapid spread of the influenza, it is impossible to be exact.”

“Cases of pneumonia were found dying in various parts of the ship, and many died in the E deck ward a few minutes after admission. Owing to the public character of that ward, men passing would see a vacant bunk and lie down in it without applying for a medical officer at all. Records were impossible, and even identification of patients was extremely difficult because hundreds of men had blank tags tied about their necks, many were either delirious or too ill to know their own names; 966 patients were removed by the army hospital authorities in France.

Photograph from U.S. Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History.

“Deaths–Ninety-one deaths occurred among the army personnel, of whom one was an officer as follows:–
“October 2d, 2 deaths
“October 3d, 3 deaths
“October 4th, 7 deaths
“October 5th, 10 deaths
“October 6th, 24 deaths
“October 7th, 31 deaths
“October 8th, 14 deaths
“October 10th, 1 deaths”

On board ship Col. Fred B. Thomas of Montpelier was commander of the guard; Lieut.-Col. B.S. Hyland of Rutland was in charge of the messing. These officers performed their duties with ability. Among the other officers Capt. Guy Cowen of Rutland and Capt. John F. Sullivan of St. Albans had important positions and rendered most efficient service. The administration force of the regiment was crippled. All of the sergeant majors with the exception of Frank McLaren of Bennington were sick. McLaren was on duty day and night, and he did his work with a cheerfulness that was heartening to all who came in contact with him. Capt. C.N. Barber was just recovering from an operation, laboring under great suffering, stuck to his post as long as possible.

Upon the arrival at Brest, the organizations were lightened ashore and were marched about five miles to the mud flats beyond the city of Brest. This proved a repetition of our march to Alpine Landing. the lassitude of the men made it impossible for hundreds of them to make camp with their comrades. They were picked up by Y.M.C.A. and K.C. men and ambulances to be taken to hospitals or helped into the camp. That night the men slept in their pup tents and in the mud.

The only entrance to the camping area was through a lane filled with slippery French mud. The two adjutants were up a good portion of the night lighting the stragglers down the lane to where their companies were billeted. Several hundred never reached the camp or their organizations. The hospital record shows that 123 of our regiment died at the Kehruon hospital, nearly 40 at Base Hospital No. 33, several at the Naval Base Hospital and some at Landernau. All of these deaths occurred within a few days of landing. The remainder of the regiment almost immediately proceeded to the advanced sector, and several more men died at Base Hospital No 15 at Chaumont, and the hospital near Humes.

In those tragic days Vermont lost some of her finest young men. The names of some of the Vermonters follow:–Lieut. William P. Tighe, Rutland; Reg. Sgt. Major Elmer A. Gray, Brattleboro; Color Sgt. Thomas A. Lafond, Rutland; Sup. Sgt. Charles M. Beckwith, Bethel; 1st Sgt. E.H. Johnson, Lyndonville; 1st Sgt. R.D. Wakefield, Burlington; Sgt. Gordon A. Preston, Fair Haven; Mess Sgt. Fred F. Bastian, Brattleboro; Sgt. Joseph Yarker, Brattleboro; Cook Eugene J. Belanger*, Montpelier, Corpl. Howard L. Bailey, Johnson; Corpl. Francis A. Guild, Orleans; Priv. John A. MacDonald, Brattleboro; Corpl. Grover, Townshend; Corpl. Arthur J. Deslisets, Montpelier; Priv. Walter E. Webb, Priv. Carmi Reed.

Photograph of French battlefield cemetery of WWI, from History of the 314th, 1918

Nearly 200 of our regiment, men who died at Brest, are buried in the American cemetery at Lambezellec [Editor’s note, in 1919 those buried at this cemetery were disinterred and moved to monument burial locations in Europe. Starting in 1920 some of these were “sent home” if the family requested same]. This cemetery is well located on a height of land, from which one, looking to the West toward the Land of Liberty, gets in the distance a view of the waters of the great ocean separating the sleepers from their homeland. One of my last acts before leaving France was to visit this cemetery, pick out the graves of our Vermonters, pay honor to their sacrifice, and say a word of farewell to these men who sleep there in the soil of our Sister Republic.”

— E.W. GIBSON


[Editor’s Note: this story is part of an on-going series about heroic New Hampshire men and women of World War I.  Look here for the entire listing].


***ADDITIONAL RESOURCES***

VIDEO: Brest France and SS Leviathan, 1918, National Archives.

VIDEO: WWI Pioneer Infantry

 

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9 Responses to 100 Years Ago: The Leviathan–Transport Ship of Death

  1. This account is truly shocking, to the point of being painful to read. How anyone could have given the order for that ship to sail knowing that a highly contagious, fatal illness was already on board is beyond me. If the war effort needed cannon fodder, a ship full of sick and dying men wasn’t going to provide it.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Liz, I have read a great deal about World War I. The orders were to get the ships, and more importantly, the men “over there” no excuses. They did exactly that regardless of the cost. The training and embarkment camps at this time were no better for flu deaths, so actually keeping them in the port might have caused more deaths, we just will never know because there is nothing to compare it to.

  2. Amy says:

    What a harrowing, awful story. You have to wonder—why didn’t they turn back? And would it have made any difference?

    • Janice Brown says:

      Amy, the orders were to get the men there, no matter what. The flu was hitting all the soldier camps hard just there are very few diaries that talk about it with specifics. I printed this story because first it involved a soldier I was writing about, and then because even as gory as it is, it is one of the very rare first hand accounts of the effect of influenza on the troops. You won’t think about the so-called “Spanish Flu” the same way again. Nor will I.

      • Amy says:

        You are right. I have just always imagined the flu as we know it—fever, achiness, stomach or cold symptoms. Misery, but not life-threatening for most and certainly not with nasal hemorrhaging, etc.

  3. The nurses were the true heroes. I have always imagined the influenza of the time must have been horrific considering the loss of lives as seen in the death records of the times. Most of these include very little information. The explanation can be found in this story. The doctors and nurses just didn’t have the time for the formalities, i.e. to fill out more than the name, date, cause of death.

  4. Wow – what a sad story. I had never heard about the ship and history of this. Thanks for sharing!
    Debbie

  5. Richard Rabbett says:

    Hi Janice – stumbled across this article – great read. I am one of the foremost collectors of memorabilia and artifacts from Leviathan and shared this with members of a Facebook group I moderate for the ship…good reading…nice to see an article by a local author! Cheers, Richard Rabbett, Boston

    • Janice Brown says:

      Richard, thank you for stopping by my blog, reading and for your kind comments. The Leviathan, of course, made several trips across the Atlantic. I only focused on this one because I found the newspaper article to be a fascinating read. Much of my research included deaths by influenza and the story really hit home on how terrible and devastating the flu was in 1918. Isn’t FaceBook amazing as a tool to share information with people who have a common interest 🙂 Best wishes to you!

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