The Washington Navy Yard & the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918/1919

"Many of our homes are sad now days...."

by John G. M. Sharp

At USGenWeb Archives
Copyright All right reserved


Health and sanitation were frequent concerns for both workers and management at the Washington Navy Yard and Naval Gun Factory. Outbreaks of diseases such as influenza on large scale in closely packed installations could be devastating to employee health, productivity, and morale. One of the worst disease outbreaks was the great influenza pandemic of 1918. This pandemic struck the United States hard. Ultimately the death total for the nation was close to a million people. Because this virulent flu strain (H1N1) peaked initially among naval personnel on shore duty in the last weeks of 1918, one scholar has called this "largely a naval affair."1 The outbreak was often referred to as the "Spanish flu" but the 1918 pandemic did not, as many people believed, originate in Spain. This nickname was actually the result of a widespread misunderstanding, to Spain’s consternation.2 Scientists are still unsure of its source. France, China, and Britain have all been suggested as the potential birthplace of the virus. In the  United States the first known case was reported at a military base in Kansas on March 11, 1918. Researchers have also conducted extensive studies on the remains of victims of the pandemic, but they have yet to discover why the strain that ravaged the world in 1918 was so lethal.3

1 Crosby, Alfred W America’s Forgotten Pandemic the Influenza of 1918 (Cambridge University Press: New York 2004), 57

2 Kolata, Gina, Flu the Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic and the Search for a Virus Cure 2011

3 Andrews, Evan "Why Was It Called the 'Spanish Flu?' History 27 March 28, 2020 accessed 28 March 28, 2020

The disease moved down the eastern seaboard rapidly moving though the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and then within days to other naval installations, including the Washington Navy Yard and Naval Gun Factory.  On Saturday 21 September 1918, the first influenza death occurred in Washington DC.  Three days later a second death occurred and suddenly the death toll began to rapidly rise.4 By the second week in October the Washington Post reported that the district was making a "Brave fight against peace, propaganda, and epidemic." The Post noted the influenza was now so virulent that public meetings and parades scheduled for Liberty War Bond sales were called off less the contagion spread. The resulting sharp decline in Liberty Bond sales were blamed "on the Hun and Flu"5

4 Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (Penguin Books: New York 2004), 311

5 Washington Post, 12 October 1918, 1

As the influenza epidemic grew more severe the need to avoid contact with the infected became ever greater and the need for precautions was presented on posters even in verse:

"Avoid the hug,
Avoid the lip,
Escape the bug
That gives the "grippe."6

6 Marin, Albert, Very, Very, Very Dreadful: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (Albert A. Knopf: New York 2018), 65

The disease became so commonplace that one observer heard local school children jumping rope and singing:

I had a bird and his name was Enza
I opened the window and

7 Emmeluth, Donald Alcamo Edward I., Influenza  (Facts on File Chelsea House New York 2008), 89

Although the disease struck a large portion of the adult population and because of the federal government’s concern for war production and secrecy, very little regarding influenza contagion was reported in the national or Washington DC press. As might be expected, the inclination of politicians, navy officials, and even journalists was to mitigate the severity of the epidemic in all public pronouncements. The government wanted to maintain order and keep up the war spirit.

The disease’s high morbidity rate has been attributed by one scholar to its devastating assault on the lungs and the entire pulmonary system; "Flu victims suffered massive pneumonia and fatal pulmonary complications: they literally drowned in their own body fluids. Lungs filled with fluid and their skin became markedly discolored from the lack of oxygen. Mysteriously, it killed more young than old. The death rate was greatest among ages 15 to 40."8

8 Helton, E.L. Resources For Teachers: The 1918 Pandemic Influenza In Text And Images Meadowbrook Publishing: Kindle edition 2020) p 136

Influenza at the Navy Yard

Things were bad at the Navy Yard and the Navy Annual Report for 1919 stated:  "Out of a complement of 10,000 employees, 2831 were stricken during the influenza attack."  The report’s author continued, "An effort was made to determine fatalities, but no reliable data can be found."  The Navy Department, however, estimated the fatality rate for its uniformed personnel at 6 per 1000 sailors. A similar mortality rate for NGF civilian workers is probable.9

9 The Annual Report of the Navy Department for Fiscal Year 1919, (U.S Government Printing Office: Washington DC 1919) p.23 and 70 

Posted  to all employees at Washington Navy Yard and Naval Gun Factory was "Circular 1"  from the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery which warned:

For the protection of others, if you are really sick stay at home and remain there until the fever is over. A day in bed at the very beginning may also save you from serious consequences. . .

If you are up and about, protect healthy persons from infection—don’t spray others with the secretions from your nose and throat in coughing, sneezing, laughing, or talking. Cover your mouth with a handkerchief. Boil your handkerchiefs and other contaminated articles. Wash your hands frequently. Keep away from others as much as possible while you have a cough.10

10 Influenza Circular No.1, No. 130212-0, dated 26 September 1918 Department of the Navy, Bureau of Medicine, Division of Sanitation.

Naval Gun Master Optical Mechanic, John Henry Von Herman, in his War Bond speech urged fellow mechanics to buy Liberty Bonds; candidly he acknowledged the influenza toll, "Now, I know that many of you are having very hard luck just now, there is much sickness among us and many of our homes are sad now days...."11

11 Von Herman, John Henry Official Personnel Folder, speech dated 18 Oct. 1918 National Archives and Records Administration, National Personnel Record Center, St. Louis, Missouri.

Many federal employees at State, War and Navy Departments became ill in almost every office and installation. As respite, management had many office employees marched out of their Victorian structures and aired for 20 minutes. "Then they were shooed back to their desks in this elemental attempt to foil infection."12

12 Melder, Keith and Stuart Melinda Young City of Magnifcent Intentions A History of Washington District of Columbia  (Intact: Washington D.C. 1997), 343. Also see The Deadly Virus The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 National Archives and Records Administration Washington DC access 28 March 2020

The influenza brought dread of contagion which became so great that many feared to drive ambulances or go near the sick. The mortality rate in the District reached such levels that one District of Columbia Health Officer complained that mortuary and funeral parlors were gouging the public and were "nothing short of ghoulish" since they had dramatically increased the price of funerals and coffins.13

13 Crosby, 83

Some brave navy yard employees however, responded by volunteering to drive for DC Health Department.14

14 Washington Post, 15 October 1918, 9

The official mortality count for the Naval Gun Factory, like that in Washington DC, is almost certainly an undercount, for as Louis Brownlow the District of Columbia Commissioner of Public Health would later recollect: "No one will ever know the number of [influenza] cases in the District, but approximate figures as we collected them a few weeks later showed the number of cases actually reported as 35,000 and the death as 3,500, a fatality of 10 percent."15

15 Brownlow, Louis A Passion for Anonymity: The Autobiography of Louis Brownlow: Second Half. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 73

Occasionally Naval Gun Factory employees’ Official Personnel Folders, such as that of Mechanic William F. Hibbart, contained explicit documentation showing the employee’s incapacity for work, or their death due to the influenza virus; but such examples are rare. Hibbart who was on sick leave for most of the month of October 1918 and the reason stated illness due to "Influenza/Spanish" Hibbart fortunately recovered.16 Thousands of other cases, however went unreported and hundreds of death certificates were issued showing deaths attributed to other causes resulting from complications following influenza.17

16 William F. Hibbart Official Personal Folder, National Personnel Record Center, National Archives and Records Administration, St. Louis Missouri

17 Melder and Stuart, 343

Disease Prevention and Worker Health

Because of its large population of employees so close to a major urban environment, the threat of disease and contagion was always present.  Yard regulations continually reflected lessons of the 1918/1919 outbreak and the importance of hygiene and preventive measures.  By 1930 a disease such as malaria was now a thing of the past in the Navy Yard, but many communicable diseases such as influenza remained a real threat. The 1930 Regulations of the United States Navy Yard and Station reminded employees:

Any civilian employee of this yard having a contagious or communicable disease shall immediately report this fact to his immediate superior. The communicable diseases common around Washington, especially during the winter are chicken pox, diphtheria, influenza, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and occasional cerebrospinal meningitis.

Some unsanitary health matters of the nineteenth century were still the subjects of repeated concern.  Spitting was one loathsome custom that lingered on.  "The practice of spitting on floors, walls of buildings, bases of columns, into cutting oils used on machines and other improper places is an unsanitary and filthy one that reflects discredit on shop management. Employees were reminded to use the cuspidors and spittoons strategically placed throughout the Naval Gun Factory.18

18 Regulations of the United States Navy Yard and Station, 1930, 61

The Great Pandemic and Collective Memory

As the mortality rate in the District steadily declined, the men and women of the Washington Navy Yard and Naval Gun Factory returned to their shops and offices. By the time the pandemic finally ended, it had killed around 25 times more people than any other flu outbreak in history. It killed both rich and poor all over the globe,  possibly it killed more people than the first and second world wars put together. In the United States, wartime secrecy regulations regarding this trauma and the vast number of deaths abetted this process.19 After the war, given the utter  helplessness to control  influenza, leaders and the public began to downplay the epidemic as a significant event, in effect erasing this dramatic story from history and the collective memory.20

19 Kettle, Martin, The Guardia, 25 May 2018,  A Century on, Why are we Forgetting the deaths of 100 million?
Accessed 28 March 28, 2020

20 Byerly, Carol R. Fever of War The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I (NYU Press: New York 2005)

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Linked Images

1. Influenza Directive Division of Santitation Circular No 1 dated 2o September 1918

2. Navy Yard influenza notice 1920 G L Angeny Capt Med corps

3. Philadelphia Navy Yard poster for the influenza empidemic of 1918

4. 14 October 1918 The Washington Times Big War Buiilding Converted into Flu Hospital

5. Influenza Norfolk naval hospital 17 September 1918 (Register)

6. Richmond Times Dispatch, Oct0ber 14, 1918


John G. "Jack" Sharp resides in Concord, California. He worked for the United States Navy for thirty years as a civilian personnel officer. Among his many assignments were positions in Berlin, Germany, where in 1989 he was in East Berlin, the day the infamous wall was opened. He later served as Human Resources Officer, South West Asia (Bahrain). He returned to the United States in 2001 and was on duty at the Naval District of Washington on 9/11. He has a lifelong interest in history and has written extensively on the Washington, Norfolk, and Pensacola Navy Yards, labor history and the history of African Americans. His previous books include African Americans in Slavery and Freedom on the Washington Navy Yard 1799 -1865, Morgan Hannah Press 2011. History of the Washington Navy Yard Civilian Workforce 1799-1962, 2004.
and the first complete transcription of the Diary of Michael Shiner Relating to the History of the Washington Navy Yard 1813-1869, 2007/2015 online:

His most recent work includes Register of Patients at Naval Hospital Washington DC 1814 With The Names of American Wounded From The Battle of Bladensburg 2018,
The last three works were all published by the Naval History and Heritage Command. John served on active duty in the United States Navy, including Viet Nam service. He received his BA and MA in History from San Francisco State University. He can be reached at


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Norfolk Navy Yard Table of Contents

Birth of the Gosport Yard & into the 19th Century

 Battle of the Hampton Roads Ironclads

The Norfolk Navy Yard into the 20th Century

Image Index