The 1918-1919 Flu Epidemic: Jesse James Bryan from Camp Merritt to USS America

Sepia Saturday provides bloggers with an opportunity to share their history through the medium of photographs. Historical photographs of any age or kind become the launchpad for explorations of family history, local history and social history in fact or fiction, poetry or prose, words or further images. If you want to play along, sign up to the link, try to visit as many of the other participants as possible, and have fun.

The prompt photo points us to the letter P, and for me, to the Port of Embarkation in Hoboken, New Jersey, as I continue a series on how the 1918 influenza epidemic affected my families. I have traced Jesse James Bryan, first cousin to my grandfather, Thomas Hoskins, from his early life in Drakesville, Iowa to Camp Merritt in Bergen County, NJ.

During his time at Camp Merritt, Jesse must have enjoyed some of the many amenities provided to the enlisted men biding their time before sailing to France. Having arrived at Camp Merritt on September 9, Jesse had time to make a trip into NYC, where he had a studio photograph taken and presumably took in some sights of the city.

Jesse Bryan was assigned to the U. S. troop transport ship America, sailing September 20, 1918. Soldiers came from the three embarkation camps in the area to embark on the America: Camp Merritt, Camp Upton, and Camp Mills. Not all of those soldiers had time for relaxation at a camp as Jesse did. Some had arrived at their embarkation camp on the same day, or the day before, they found themselves at the port in Hoboken, NJ.

Before deployment, the enlisted men received equipment and supplies for their time on the ship and the beginning of their service in France.

Issuing equipment to troops in staging barracks at Camp Merritt, NJ
prior to deployment to France July 26, 1918
Source of Photograph: National Archives RG 111

The backpacks the troops carried were heavy and unwieldy. You can view a short video from The History Channel which shows the contents of the packs and some men trying them out. “The bottom section of the backpack, known as the diaper, was detachable and carried the soldiers blanket, shelter half, and shelter half pole and pins. On the belt you find ammo, a first aid kit, a canteen cover, and a canteen and cup. Inside the flaps were a baking tin, a condiment can, and boxes of bread rations. Also inside the flaps were a towel, soap dish, shaving kit, handkerchief, foot powder, and extra socks. Attached to the outside were the bayonet, shovel, trenching tool, and a mess kit. The entire weight of the pack lies entirely on the soldiers shoulders, making it very uncomfortable. If a soldier wanted to get anything out of his pack, he would have to stop, unravel everything, get what he needs, and then pack everything back up. Due to the placement of the bayonet, most soldiers would have to have a buddy put it back for them.”

Most troops from Camp Merritt marched in contingents of two to three thousand men, the capacity for one ferry, for an hour to board ferryboats at Alpine Landing that took them to the piers at Hoboken to board troop transports for Europe. Contingents would leave the camp for the landing at half hour intervals to board the ferries for the two hour trip to the embarkation piers where several transports might be loading simultaneously. There they would be joined by troops from Camp Mills and Camp Upton arriving by train at a terminal on Long Island for final transport by ferry to the embarkation piers.

Jesse’s transport ship, America, boarded passengers on September 18-19. Troops left at all hours of the day and night. A quick look at an old newspaper predicts some rain on the 18th, with temperatures in the 70s and fair weather on the 19th. If it did rain, the feet of thousands must have made for a muddy and slippery march. You can see the men with backpacks and rifles in the photos below. The path was not flat and looks a bit treacherous.

5th Regiment Engineers on the way down to Alpine Landing for ferry boat
to take them to Embarkation Piers at Hoboken, NJ Jul 30, 1918
Source of Photograph: National Archives RG 111

5th Engineers Regiment, 7th Div. waiting at Alpine Landing for Erie Ferry Boat
to take them to Hoboken NJ July 30, 1918
Source of Photograph: National Archives RG 111

Engineers regiment marching to board their ferry at Alpine Landing, NJ July 30, 1918
Source of Photograph: National Archives RG 111

Jesse and 5,175 other passengers embarked on the America. Besides the men enlisted in the September Automatic Draft Replacement, onboard were those assigned to engineering, medical, motorcycle, meat handling, refrigerator plant, chemical warfare, butchery, motor car, radio operator, mess cook, and trench mortar units. There was one civilian onboard – a product expert in the Shoe Section.

Looking through the passenger list, it was interesting to note that Jesse was with a large number of men from Iowa. Most of them had been with him at Camp Gordon in Georgia as part of the September Automatic Draft Replacement troops. Like Jesse, these men were by and large from small towns and rural areas in Iowa, very few from a city.

Following the hour-long march from Camp Merritt to Alpine Landing, the wait to board a ferry, and the two-hour ferry ride to the port at Hoboken, Jesse and the other men began the process of boarding ship.

Soldiers arriving from Alpine Landing at Hoboken, NJ on Erie Ferry Boat ‘Catskill’ July 30, 1918 NARA111-SC-15601-ac
Source of Photograph: National Archives RG 111

The transport ship America, built in 1905, was originally a luxury passenger liner of the Hamburg-Amerika Line. Hours before the American entry into World War I, the Amerika was seized and placed under control of the United States Shipping Board. Later transferred to the U.S. Navy for use as a troop transport, she was initially commissioned as USS Amerika but her name was soon Anglicized to America.

SS Amerika, of the Hamburg-Amerika Line. Before 1918. Copyright expired.

I’m not one for ocean travel, but the Amerika was certainly well-appointed.

Video tour of the Amerika luxury liner…

Unfortunately for the troops, the America was no longer a luxury liner when they embarked.

The ex-German passenger vessel Amerika, at the Boston Navy Yard, 14 August 1917 shortly after seizure by USSB undergoing conversion for Naval service.
U.S. Navy photo from DANFS

With camouflage, as it would have looked when Jesse embarked.

Of course the backdrop to Jesse’s story is the influenza epidemic, with an increasing number of a more lethal flu taking hold in military installations and communities in the northeast mid-September.

Just 10 days after Jesse left Camp Merritt, other contingents left the camp to make the trip to Hoboken. Below are a few excerpts from a newspaper account written by Ernest W. Gibson detailing his experience as an officer of troops who left Camp Merritt on September 29th to embark on the USS Leviathan.

These are just snippets and leave out additional, and tragic, details. The article was found at The Bethel Courier (Bethel, Vermont) 19 Feb 1920.

And so, with this backdrop, we leave a still healthy Jesse Bryan at the pier in Hoboken, about to board the transport ship America.

Please visit other participants in Sepia Saturday, where they have possibly published posts pertaining to postal personnel or perhaps personal pictures portraying the letter P.

1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic: Jesse J. Bryan At Camp Merritt – the finest camp you ever saw

Sepia Saturday provides bloggers with an opportunity to share their history through the medium of photographs. Historical photographs of any age or kind become the launchpad for explorations of family history, local history and social history in fact or fiction, poetry or prose, words or further images. If you want to play along, sign up to the link, try to visit as many of the other participants as possible, and have fun.

I’m in the middle of a series about the impact of the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic on my families. Jesse James Bryan, first cousin to my paternal grandfather Thomas Hoskins, is a series on his own!

Jesse Bryan completed his training at Camp Gordon, GA and checked in to Camp Merritt, NJ on September 9, 1918. His departure from Camp Gordon was just days before the flu took hold there.

“About September 15, 1918, the increase in influenza assumed epidemic proportions and steadily increased to its height during the early part of October. Camp Gordon seems to have been particularly fortunate in the relatively low mortality which attended this epidemic, only 138 fatal cases of pneumonia resulting from the respiratory complications of influenza.” US Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History

Although I have no letters or knowledge of Jesse’s experience, a look at photos and the writings of others may shed some light on his experience. Click on images and clippings to enlarge and zoom in.

Troops arrived in New Jersey from training camps by train. The photos below were taken at the train station near Camp Merritt a couple of weeks before Jesse’s arrival.

Troop train on Erie RR arrives at Cresskill RR Station Jul 25. 1918
Source of Photograph: National Archives RG 111

Soldier’s gear was unloaded

Baggage being off loaded at Cresskill Station on to trucks for delivery at Camp Merritt Jul 24, 1918 NARA111-SC-15577-ac
Source of Photograph: National Archives RG 111

and the men began their march to Camp Merritt.

Troops leaving Erie Station at Cresskill, NJ on the way to Camp Merritt Jul 24, 1918
Source of Photograph: National Archives RG 111

Soldiers arriving at Cresskill NJ march to Camp Merritt Jul 25, 1918
Source of Photograph: National Archives RG 111

Upon arrival, we can assume there were medical rechecks and louse checks and issuing of barracks assignments. And I have no idea what else. Maybe a map, because Camp Merritt was quite large. I think of Jesse coming from a small town in Iowa, much, much smaller than either of the two camps he had been assigned to.

The information below comes from the Bergen County Historical Society website, in an article titled Remembering Camp Merritt, by John Spring.

“A total of 1,302 buildings were built to house and train 50,000 men at a time including 611 two-story wooden barracks, capable of quartering sixty-six each; 189 buildings 39 warehouses; 15 post offices 4 fire stations; 5 garages; 93 hospitals and 94 auxiliary buildings, (which included 7 tailor shops, a 24 –chair barber, a motor repair shop, a refrigerator plant, and a theater capable of seating 2,500 people).”

Mrs. Wesley Merritt, widow of the Major-General, after whom the camp was named, gave $10,000 to do something for the enlisted men. Major-General D.C. Shanks proposed using the money to adapt a building near the center of the camp into a club for the common soldier.

Reading room, Merritt Hall, Camp Merritt

“The entrance lobby was furnished with ferns and poinsettias. The reading rooms were liberally supplied with wicker chairs, reading tables and lamps. The camp librarians and officers encouraged soldiers to read and allowed soldiers being shipped out to take books for reading at sea.

But the central attraction of Merritt Hall was the cafeteria with its own dishwashing machines, ice chests, a fine marble soda fountain and its own machine for carbonating water. The popularity of the food and drink dispensary is told in the almost

Camp Merritt dining hall

unbelievable figures for food and drink consumption, “four hundred and fifty dozen eggs for breakfast on an average day between 7:30 and 10:00 am”. Nine thousand apples, 400 large crullers, 900 pies and 500 gallons of ice cream were an average day’s consumption in Merritt Hall. All this was in addition to the “regular”- and supposedly adequate – food served in the mess halls every day.

Near the cafeteria was a large room with 18 tables for “pocket billiards” and other games. There were also Victrolas and coin-operated pianos for the soldiers to use in providing their own music and entertainment.

Pool Room, Merritt Hall, Camp Merritt

One soldier, who had complained earlier about the muddiness and flat Fort Dix, said in a letter to his wife. “This is a fine Camp with lots of walks and nice roads. His next letter simply says, “This is the finest camp you ever saw.”

A midwesterner who later wrote a book about his experiences here in the states, on board ship and later overseas during the war, recorded this account of his time in Camp Merritt. “About three in the afternoon of May 3, (1918), we arrived at Cresskill station and at once shouldered our packs for the brief march to Camp Merritt near Tenafly, New Jersey where we were to wait for our sailing orders. We were extremely fortunate in being sent there, for Camp Merritt was probably the most comfortable camp in the United States. The barracks were built in two stories, stained on the outside,(which gave them an air of elegance quite unusual for the army), and were remarkably light and airy. The mess was excellent – But the thing which chiefly distinguished this camp was the extraordinary number, of places of recreation and the lavish way in which money had been spent to make things as cheerful and homelike as possible for the men in the last few days they were to spend in their native land. Besides the enormous structures of the Y.M.C.A. and Knights of Columbus which extended to all men in uniform the social privileges familiar to us at Oglethorpe, the general public had provided at Merritt many other agencies of relaxation and amusement quite peculiar to the camp. As Merritt was the nearest encampment to New York City, it had naturally come to be regarded as New York’s own, and a proper object of attention for all the benevolent attentions of the great metropolis. On the skirts of the camp was the Hostess House, a homelike place where men who could not get passes might meet their relatives. Within the camp was Merritt Hall, a vast,low structure, finished attractively inside, and looking something like the lobby, grill, parlors and writing rooms of a great hotel. With a library thrown in for good measure. One whole wing was in charge of the American Library Association. Here there were tables for writing, great easy chairs and settees, plants, vases of flowers, a splendid fireplace and, in low shelves about the walls, thousands of books, provided gratis for the soldier’s use. He was allowed to take them out to read in camp, and might even carry away a reasonable number with him to France”.

Merritt Hall

The newspaper clipping below, from March of 1918, was written by a woman who volunteered at Camp Merritt. Her writing is a bit flowery, but provides some additional glimpses into the life and feelings of those at camp.

The Ridgewood Herald (Ridgewood, NJ) 21 March 1918

The only thing I know for sure about Jesse’s time at Camp Merritt is that he made a trip into NYC and had a photo made in his overseas uniform. I would guess he enjoyed the good food and other amenities and perhaps spent some time reflecting on what was before him.

The next thing I know is that his group from Camp Gordon, and soldiers from other camps, loaded onto the transport ship America September 18-19.

EMBARKED (DATE): September 18 and 19, 1918

So, about nine days after his arrival at Camp Merritt, Jesse was on his way to the ship. But what was the influenza situation at Camp Merritt while Jesse was there? The Ridgewood Herald newspaper, which published the flowery description of Camp Merritt in March, published the following on September 19th, the day of or day after Jesse’s departure.

The Ridgewood Herald (Ridgewood, NJ) 19 Sept 1918

Six deaths had occurred at Camp Dix and some soldiers had been sent from Dix to Merritt. The article offered the opinion that soldiers from Camp Merritt should not be receiving the hospitality they had once enjoyed in Ridgewood due to fears of the spread of influenza.

The following day, the paper printed an article retracting that advice. The editor had received a signed statement from a medical officer at Camp Merritt stating that there had been no cases treated at the base hospital and no knowledge of any cases in the camp. Authorities at the camp called the previous notice not to entertain troops a “joke.”

But the next day … a newspaper in Patterson, NJ printed this:

The Morning Call (Patterson, NJ) 21 Sep 1918

138 cases of the flu at Camp Merritt reported on September 21st.

“Pandemic influenza arrived at Camp Merritt on 16 September 1918, and it took a few days for doctors there to realize that the new flu cases were “of far greater severity” than earlier cases of flu. About a week later, many flu patients developed pneumonia. In three weeks, the base hospital expanded from one influenza ward to fifty-one influenza and pneumonia wards and brought in became sick themselves, especially nurses. Another complication was that several sick service members were transferred to Camp Merritt’s hospital from other locations, including docked ships. Dozens of enlisted soldiers detailed to assist in the wards had no medical experience. Medical officers transferred influenza patients who developed pneumonia to separate wards to isolate them from other patients. Several autopsies conducted on soldiers who died of pneumonia at Camp Merritt indicated hemorrhages in the lungs and signs of emphysema. By 1 November 1918, 265 of Camp Merritt’s 999 pneumonia patients had died, a mortality rate of just over 26 percent. The Deadliest Enemy: The U. S. Army and Influenza

Excerpts from U.S. Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History regarding the base hospital at Camp Merritt.

“Extra beds were placed on all the porches; the cross corridors had to be used to provide bed space, but no extra beds were at any time placed in the wards. Wires were put up not only in all wards but on porches and corridors so that sheets could be hung between all beds. In spite of the sudden influx of patients we were able to provide bed space so that proper ventilation was maintained and patients were not crowded. In these early days of the epidemic the appearance of the wards was very striding (sic). Row after row of sick men lay motionless, quite prostrated by the disease. The wards recently filled seemed like a morgue; those filled a day or two previously looked a little more cheerful with now and then a patient lifting his head or talking, while those filled three and four days before seemed more like the ordinary hospital ward. Needless to say the opportunity for observing not one patient through the various stages of the disease but an entire ward full of patients, all passing through together and always presenting a homogeneous picture, was unusual.”

“Ten officers and 50 enlisted men from Debarkation Hospital No. 2, Fox Hills, Staten Island, 21 officers and 120 men from Base Hospital No. 98, and 5 officers from the camp surgeon’s office were detailed to this hospital during the epidemic. These officers and men rendered very effective aid. With the arrival of the new personnel several cases of influenza and pneumonia developed among them almost immediately, especially among the nurses. it was very noticeable that the incidence of disease was greater in tire (sic) temporary than in the permanent personnel. This is partly explained by the new environment and the long hours under high nervous strain, and that probably the permanent staff acquired a certain immunity gradually by prolonged contact with the malady. The overwork, the care of the critically ill, especially in pneumonia wards, where the death rate was high amid the rather large number of nurses and ward attendants who succumbed to the disease had a depressing effect, and yet at no time was there evident any indication of panic. The constant supervision and care of the sick personnel was in great measure responsible for the fine esprit de corps which was maintained.”

“The number of nurses taken ill with influenza increased so rapidly that it was necessary to devote ward 37 as well as the nurses’ infirmary to them. Later ward 47, a double-decker convalescent ward, was opened for nurses. Pneumonias were treated on the porch. As soon as convalescence was established the nurses were given sick leave, many of them going to their homes.”

The Camp Merritt Memorial Monument is dedicated to the soldiers who passed through Camp Merritt, especially the 578 people – 15 officers, 558 enlisted men, four nurses and one civilian – who died at the camp due to the influenza epidemic of 1918. Their names are inscribed at the base of the monument. The memorial is located at the borders of Cresskill and Dumont in Bergen County, New Jersey at the intersection of Madison Avenue and Knickerbocker Road).

The monument, a replica of the Washington Monument, is a 66-foot tall obelisk. It features a large carved relief sculpted by Robert Ingersoll Aitken, which portrays a World War I doughboy with an eagle above it. Near the monument on a large boulder is a copper plaque designed by Katherine Lamb Tait which has a relief of the Palisades, and in the ground is a dimensional stone carving of a map of Camp Merritt. The memorial monument was dedicated on Memorial Day, May 30, 1924. General John Pershing, Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Force, gave the dedication address to an audience of 20,000 people.

By Beyond My Ken – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

As for Jesse Bryan, he had again escaped influenza infection.

Please visit other participants at Sepia Saturday! It is always fun and often educational.

The 1918-1919 Flu Epidemic – Jesse J. Bryan: from Camp Gordon to Camp Merritt

Sepia Saturday provides bloggers with an opportunity to share their history through the medium of photographs. Historical photographs of any age or kind become the launchpad for explorations of family history, local history and social history in fact or fiction, poetry or prose, words or further images. If you want to play along, sign up to the link, try to visit as many of the other participants as possible, and have fun.

Next in a series on how epidemics, pandemics, and other public health crises have affected my families.

You can catch up on the series here:
Woodye Webber
Lydia Elizabeth Strange
Jesse J. Bryan, part 1
Ice Cream for what ails you
Jesse J. Bryan at Camp Gordon

I’m continuing to piece together, as best I can, the life of Jesse (Joe) Bryan who was a first cousin to my grandfather Thomas Hoskins. As noted previously, Jesse registered for the draft on 5 June 1917 and enlisted on 23 July 1918. His military training was at Camp Gordon, GA, where he was called to the September Automatic Replacement Draft.

I assumed that training at Camp Gordon would last at least six weeks, but this excerpt from Learning the Lessons of Lethality: The Army’s Cycle of Basic Combat Training, 1918-2019 states that his training at Camp Gordon may have only been twelve days.

“The Army began its initial foray into individual replacement training following the overseas deployment of its combat divisions in late spring 1918. Heavy combat losses required an individual replacement system to maintain the integrity of front line units. Depot staffs provided immunizations, medical examinations, job classification interviews, proficiency testing, and initial uniform issue to new recruits. The overworked and understaffed cadre had little time to conduct Soldier training other than rudimentary manual of arms drill and marching. The Army established fourteen Replacement Training Centers (RTCs) at camps vacated by deployed divisions in spring 1918. The hastily formed centers and training cadre required time to incorporate the systems and processes required for individual Soldier training. The centers were operating at full capacity by August 1918. The cadre created a 12-day training program for individual Soldier training and received augmentation from veteran officers and non-commissioned officers returning from France. New troops were assigned to a replacement battalion for additional training upon arrival in France. Replacement battalions emulated the French and British models and conducted training designed to reinforce basic Soldier skills and accustom green men to the operating environment.” 

The next clue is the document below. Jesse is third on this passenger list, #54.

This page doesn’t offer much information – no ship named, no date of sailing, no date, no mention of the embarkation camp. I had made a note of a departure date of September 9th. Where did I get it? I went back to, where I obtained the record. The soldiers in his company are listed in alphabetical order, so I backed up to the beginning of the list for Company 8 and saw that a stamp at the top of the page gave the September 9 date.

Camp Merrit
Overseas Casual
Sep 9 1918

And it looks like the word outside the box is “checked.”

It never fails to astound me how much information can be right in front of my face and I simply don’t see it. All I had seen was the date. Mystery solved. When Jesse left Camp Gordon, he want to Camp Merrit, NJ. He was checked in on September 9th.

I have requested Jesse’s military records, but with shutdowns due to our current pandemic, only emergency requests are being handled at this time. I don’t expect to receive anything anyway. Older records kept at the National Archives in St. Louis were destroyed by a fire sometime in the 1970s. I tried to get military records for Jesse’s brother a few years ago to no avail. So … I’m left to guess.

Here is what I think I know:
* Jesse was checked in at Camp Merritt, on September 9, 1918. If he was in a 12-day training program at Camp Gordon, it seems like he would have been transferred to Camp Merritt or another embarkation camp by mid-August.
* Jesse’s youngest sister told her daughter that she saw Jesse when he came home on furlough before being shipped out. A twelve-day training would have accommodated a furlough from Camp Gordon before going to New Jersey, but I wonder if he just went home before his enlistment in Georgia in July. Knowing if he was in uniform when he went home would answer that question.
* Jesse had a professional photograph made during his time at Camp Merritt.

Jesse’s cap looked unfamiliar to me, with that dip in the middle creating almost flaps on either side, so I went looking for information.

The cap he is wearing is an overseas cap and was not given to soldiers until they were at an embarkation camp. Maybe Jesse is expressing his personal style in the way he is wearing his cap, or maybe this version is meant to be worn this way.

“The various modes in which the overseas caps were worn after they had been issued to the men of the 36th Infantry Division at Camp Mills in August of 1918, was mentioned in a history of that organization:

Rivaling the Sam Browne belt in its importance was the new overseas cap which was to take the place of the campaign hat. Officers and men shared in the task of adjusting this new contrivance to their persons. A remarkable variety of ideas were developed as to just how the cap should be placed on the head, many attempting to wear it after the fashion of a “stocking cap” while others gave an excellent impression of Napoleon. These new articles of apparel however, were not allowed to be worn in New York, where the men and officers went as often as time and money allowed. The privilege of seeing New York was not given to all however. Some of the units arriving at the camp August 14, were equipped and sent aboard the transports at Hoboken the same day, not being allowed to spend a night in the camp, so great was the necessity for loading the ships preparatory to departure … Not all the troops were equipped with the new overseas cap, some of them being compelled to await their arrival at the training area in France before they received this part of their equipment.
The Story of the 36th, Captain Benjamin H. Chastaine, 1920, page 31″

This suggests that Jesse had to keep his hat in his pocket while in NYC when he was out and about in the city. If you are interested in more photos and information about overseas caps, check here.

The back of Jesse’s photo gives the name of the photography studio: Walter Studio, 28 East 14th Street, New York City. I found a recent photo of the building at 28 East 14th St. on a blog urging landmark status. The article names previous occupants, but not the photography studio.

I obtained the photograph of Jesse from the Iowa State Historical Society. The Iowa State Department of History and Archives actively requested photographs of World War I casualties from families of the deceased during, and for a few years after, the war.

So – Jesse had to be at Camp Merritt long enough for at least a day trip to the city.

Backing up even further in the lengthy passenger list, I finally found another piece to the puzzle. The file folder that held the passenger list where Jesse is listed.

A few pages in, and I have the dates that the soldiers were loaded onto the ship.

EMBARKED (DATE): September 18 and 19, 1918

That puts Jesse at Camp Merritt about ten days: Monday, September 9-Wednesday, September 18. Now that I have a possible timeline, I’ll take a closer look at Camp Merritt next time.

… and to tie in to Sepia Saturday, I’ll speculate that Jesse got a glimpse of a lighthouse while in NYC.

See what other Sepians are shining a light on today: Sepia Saturday