Research Notes – The Great War (10) Plague Ship Leviathan

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set partially during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. Some of the older material I’m reposting in order to better organize it. I wrote this post in 2016 during my Spanish Flu research. The epidemic will play a central role in the historical timeline. I hope you find it interesting and don’t mind me recycling! ~ Meg

The early 1900’s and 1910’s saw the launch of many famous super liners –ships designed to carry thousands of passengers across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to the Americas in  luxury and comfort. These were famous liners like White Star Lines’ Titanic and her sister ships Olympic and Britannic, Cunard’s Lusitania and Mauritania, and even larger –Hamburg-America’s Imperator, Vaterland and Bismarck. The Bismarck* would hold the title of largest ship in the world until 1935.

The three German ships had the ill fortune of being launched just prior to the outbreak of World War I and thus spent little time in the service of Hamburg-America before being laid up in port thanks to British domination of the seas.

It was late July 1914, when the SS Vaterland made her crossing to New York City, USA. When the guns of August began to fire, the return trip was determined to be unsafe, she was laid up at her Hoboken, New Jersey terminal and remained there for nearly three years.

In 1917, when the United States entered the Great War, the Vaterland was seized and rechristened as the SS Leviathan by President Woodrow Wilson. She would now be put into service transporting fresh American troops to the port of Brest in France to bolster the exhausted French and British forces.

By late September 1918, the second wave of the epidemic flu was beginning to spread through the troops destined for the front. The giant transport ships, with their confined decks and crowded bunks provided the ideal conditions for incubation of the virus. Circumstances aboard the massive troop ship Leviathan proved to be the worst of all.

On September 29, 1918, SS Leviathan left New York harbor for Brest, carrying 9,000 troops and 2,000 crew on board. By the following morning, the sick bay was overwhelmed with men suffering from the symptoms of flu. It took just three days for 700 more men to sicken and for one of them to die. Bunks were turned into makeshift sick beds. Healthy men were confined to less well ventilated quarters and the disease roared through the ship like a wildfire.

On the fourth day, October 1st, 2000 men had fallen victim to the dreadful disease. The official Navy report states that ‘pools of blood from severe nasal hemorrhages were scattered throughout the compartments, and the attendants were powerless to escape tracking through the mess, because of the narrow passages between the bunks.’

The ship docked in Brest on October 8, 1918 with 2000 men sick with flu and pneumonia, 80 had died and been buried at sea and those left healthy were desperate to get off the plague ship. Nevertheless, 280 of the ill men were too weak to get off the ship and 14 more died before the end of the day. Some 1000 of the remaining patients had to be carried via stretcher to the base camp from the wharf in a convoy that stretched four miles. The American influenza casualties eventually reached into the hundreds.

One interesting side note regarding Leviathan: her crew included Chief Quartermaster, Humphrey Bogart, future American film star. As the senior enlisted man in the Navigation Division, Bogart would have been on the helm whenever the ship sailed in or out of harbor.

Image via flickr

*This ship is not to be confused with the battleship Bismarck, commissioned by the Nazis in World War Two. This Bismarck was a passenger ship, was never actually launched before the outbreak of the war and later was handed over to the Allies as war reparations and rechristened as the HMS Majestic of the White Star Line.

35 thoughts on “Research Notes – The Great War (10) Plague Ship Leviathan

      1. There’s no hurry. I came across the fact that Munch was a patient and thought it would make for an interesting bit to include with my WWI history posts. And of course I immediately thought that you could write the post better than I so….

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  1. Meg, a very interesting post. It was fascinating the conversion of these Ocean Liners as needed. Maybe Wilson should have selected a different name, not the Leviathan, thinking about it now, perhaps it was a bad omen. Nice side note about Humphrey Bogart. Take care, Mia

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    1. Yes, it does have an air of gloom about it. Wilson was the son of a methodist minister, perhaps the biblical connection -the book of Job- appealed. And yes, the bit about Bogey was interesting to me, too. Thanks, Mia. Have a lovely evening!

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  2. Fascinating history Meg. Amazing how disease could spread so quickly through a ship like that. It’s very unfortunate and sad too. Would you want people on that ship to get off until they were better, in fear of spreading the disease to an even greater population? At the same time you really feel for those too sick to leave, left to die. Very interesting about the actor being on this ship as well.

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  3. I thought you might be interested in this.
    This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the greatest pandemic in modern history. It is estimated that up to 5 percent of the world’s population died from it. It was known as the Spanish Flu pandemic, although it most likely originated in the United States, probably Kansas.
    If they had had an efficacious vaccine much of that tragedy would have been avoided. They had a vaccine for small pox, and were developing more. One of the first vaccines draftees and recruits in the US Army received upon reporting to camp during World War I was one to prevent typhoid fever. In our Civil War more soldiers died of typhoid and dysentery than on the battle field. Thanks to a vaccine developed by Almroth Edward Wright, they had an efficacious vaccine to prevent typhoid and the result was that more soldiers died from their wounds than typhoid in that war. This was despite the despicable conditions in the trenches conducive to the disease. Ironically, however, at the end of that war more military hospital beds were occupied by victims of the flu than those suffering from battle wounds. Fortunately, we no longer have to immunize the general population against typhoid because of the advent of modern bathrooms, the encouragement of hand washing, and, most importantly, chlorination of our drinking water.
    At the time of the World War I, flu was thought to be caused by a “filterable bacterium.” While the term “virus” was first put forward by Martinus Willem Beijerinck in 1898, it was still a novel concept in 1918. Beijenick showed that the tobacco mosaic virus could pass through filters impenetrable to bacteria and still cause disease. It was not until 1933, however, that Wilson Smith and his colleagues showed that influenza was a virus, by isolating it and showing it infected ferrets. The real break though in preparing a vaccine, however, came in 1937 when Frank MacFarlane Burnet showed that the virus could be propagated in chicken egg embryos. It now became practical to make a vaccine and that is the way all influenza vaccines were manufactured until very recently. Now, a portion of our vaccine supply is made using cell culture.
    Unfortunately, making an influenza vaccine is a logistical nightmare. The main problem is that the antigenic structure of the virus changes rather quickly over time and the virus does not express antigens that are reliably conserved from year to year. So the first challenge is selecting just what strains of the virus to include in the vaccine. Twice a year the World Health Organization (WHO) meets to set the strains that are to be included in that year’s vaccine. It meets in February to make the decision for the Northern Hemisphere and September for the Southern Hemisphere. Then it takes about six months to make the vaccine. One of the challenges is that it requires fertile eggs, not the eggs from your local supermarket that are laid without the benefit of a rooster being present. It requires a lot of those eggs. By the time you can get a flu shot in September, all sorts of things such as lack of sufficient egg supply and other manufacturing glitches can happen. The biggest worry, however, is that the prevalence of the flu strains circulating in the population will not match those in the vaccine and thus be less effective than desired.
    For a long time, the influenza vaccine was sort of a poor step-child vaccine. It had too low of a profit margin to receive much attention from any of its manufacturers. There has been progress in moving production to cell culture, but it still needs greater government support. I believe this should be considered a national security issue. Proof of this comes from when the pandemic hit in World War I and I give a few examples here. The cruiser U.S.S Pittsburgh was rendered useless by the epidemic. On the S.S. Leviathan, one of the largest ships then afloat and formerly the Vaterland before it was seized by the United States for use in transporting troops to Europe, had to devote a whole deck to the ministration of troops being transported to France because they were suffering from the disease. On the home front, so many soldiers were afflicted it was becoming nearly impossible to supply Gen. Pershing with the troops he was demanding. I am encouraged by the renewed emphasis to push for more research aimed at the development of a universal vaccine. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases just outline a plan for pursuing this goal that was just published this month. [See the August issue of The Journal of Infectious Diseases. (https://doi.org/10.1093/infdis/jiy103).] I hope this effort will receive the full support of our people and government.
    John McMichael, Ph.D.

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    1. Thank you for the information. I read the book: Living With Enza: The Forgotten Story Of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic Of 1918. But I hadn’t read anything about the developments of the vaccines. I appreciate your thorough comment; very interesting!

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