Among requests for candy, fruit, and a baby doll that could “actually sleep,” one seven-year-old girl writing to Santa Claus in a letter published in the Americus Times Recorder on December 11, 1918, addressed a situation that was becoming more deadly by the day. Laura Merle Morrell was concerned about a solider at the newly established air base just outside Americus. “Santa,” she wrote, “don’t forget Mr. Dewey Hicks at Souther Field. He is in the hospital sick with the influenza.” Dewey Hicks recovered, but as December wore on, more and more deaths were reported from the military base. While most soldiers, pilots and officers were focused intensively on the war effort, and subsequently distracted by its end, Souther Field had become a lethal influenza hotspot.
Americus Times-Recorder, 1918.
A year earlier, the land that Souther Field occupied was a quiet place lined with peach trees. Sumter county purchased the land as an orchard from a private grower in 1917 and deeded it to the United States government which set to work converting it into one of the first examples of a new kind of military infrastructure - an air field. It would serve as a training ground for pilots in both world wars, including RAF cadets from England in 1943, and it was the sight of a few other notable occurrences including Charles Lindbergh’s first solo flight in 1923. In May of 1918, Major Carlyle Wash completed the first standard flight at Souther Field, and he was in command of the post when influenza struck later that year.
In early fall, even before the first cases of flu were being reported in the area, Souther Field took action. On October 4, 1918, a quarantine order took effect restricting the soldiers from going, “to any places of public assembly, such as picture shows, theatres, dances, etc.” Apparently, though, there was a degree of faith in God’s divine providence as the restrictions did not prohibit the attendance of church services. In the local newspaper published by the base called “The Flipper,” articles appeared, casually urging the soldiers to follow certain health and safety precautions. The November 1 issue advised men to seek plenty of fresh air and avoid spending too much time in crowded indoor spaces. “Right now I want every man at Souther Field to remember the importance of fresh air. Have plenty of it around, and pull it down deep into your lungs,” wrote “the Doctor.” “The United States is struggling with an epidemic of what is known as Spanish influenza.” He went on, “In the vast majority of cases sufferers contracted this disease by crowding into a building with other people, where there was an insufficient supply of pure air”
October must have been a time of tension on the base, with men alert to every new development relating to the war then raging in Europe. Across the Atlantic, the One Hundred Days Offensive was underway, and fellow US troops were locked in a desperate struggle at the Meuse-Argonne, which would become the bloodiest battle ever fought by the United States military. A headline in the Americus Times Recorder on October 27 read: “Daring Flyers Train Constantly For War.” Throughout the raging combat, influenza swept through the armed forces overseas. It was closing in silently on the home front as well.
The bloodiest battle in the history of the United States military, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was raging while the soldiers were in quarantine at Souther Field, National Archives and Records Administration.
Armistice Day celebration in Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times, 1918.
At the “11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918,” the so-called “war to end all wars” came to a close. The city of Americus erupted into a frenzy of celebration. Citizens took to the streets downtown and stayed out late into the night. Fireworks were “hauled from cellars and fired.” An effigy of the Kaiser was “dragged about the principle streets.” The military men did not stay isolated. “The cadets and officers from Souther Field were in the city in full force.” Arriving in army trucks, several hundred soldiers celebrated with the civilians. They “raced about the streets of the city, with strings of tin cans tied to the autos, yelling themselves hoarse for American and Allied victory in the world war."
Throughout the latter half of the month of November, the spirit of celebration continued, eclipsing the regulations, the restrictions, and the tension of the month before. On November 26, the Americus Times Recorder reported that “The Dancing continent in Americus is looking forward with eager anticipation to the dance at Souther Field tomorrow evening.” The squadron was popular in Americus, and, as many of the men were soon to leave the base, it was important to many members of the community that “the dance be a pleasant memory to the soldiers.” The mess hall was, as the newspaper went on to report, “beautifully decorated for the occasion.” A large crowd of “Americus society folk assembled…at the aviation general supply depot to enjoy the dance.” A jazz band underscored the eager gathering.
Americus Times Recorder, 1918.
Influenza, however, had not yet run its course in Sumter County. Like the cryptic masked figure in Edgar Allen Poe’s 1842 short story, "The Masque of the Red Death," the disease that was running across the globe like wildfire had no concern for the social needs of the soldiers or the desires a proud community had to make pleasant memories for them. Around a week after the dance, on December 6, the name of soldier Lawrence G. Smith appeared in the Americus Times Recorder. The paper announced that he had died at 6:15 that morning of “pneumonia,” the final stage of a fatal case of the 1918 strain of influenza. More announcements from the air base followed close behind. On December 11: “Two More Pneumonia Deaths at Air Camp” and the next day: “3 More Die at Souther Field of Pneumonia.”
Medical Ward at Souther Field, 1918.
With 81 cases of the flu, 28 of which had become pneumonia, at the camp hospital and seven dead by December 12, it was becoming clear that the situation was spiraling into a crisis. Still, Major Wash projected optimism, reporting to the Americus Times Recorder that, “Outside of the pneumonia cases the situation is growing better.” A quarantine was established. Eight “women army nurses” arrived to help care for the overwhelming wave of new patients at the hospital. A few days before, the base had appealed to the local head of the Red Cross in Americus,stating that “the men had influenza and were badly in need of oranges and other fruit.” Only a month removed from the end of the greatest conflict the world had ever seen, the men at Souther Field faced a much more elusive enemy, a phantom against which all their combat training had no use.
On January 9, 1919, the quarantine was finally lifted and soldiers were again allowed to visit the city of Americus, though there were still certain restrictions including visiting “motion picture shows, theaters, or private homes.” This marked a turning point and the start of a movement toward the end of a tumultuous period in Sumter County history. During the last few months of 1918, Souther Field transformed from a place of prompt and early quarantines and restrictions, to an environment that was increasingly relaxed in regards to flu regulations, and ultimately to one of the most concentrated local hotspots of the epidemic. The story of the flu and the story of the first World War are inseparably intertwined throughout the western world, and Sumter County was no exception. It is possible that with the end of the war came a collective exhale and an impulse for celebration, a false sense of safety. But, upon the inevitable inhale, came a final blow from a faceless enemy.