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Oakland Remembers World War I: Barney Lee Thomas And The Spanish Flu Epidemic

Oakland Remembers World War I: Barney Lee Thomas and the Spanish Flu Epidemic

Post Series: Oakland Remembers World War I

Beginning in April 2017 and through Nov. 11, 2018 – the centennial of the WWI armistice – HOF will recognize the Oakland residents who served in World War I in a new blog series, “Oakland Remembers World War I.” In the eighth installment we recognize Barney Lee Thomas, a American sailor and victim of the Spanish flu epidemic. 


What event in the early twentieth century killed more people than World War I? If you guessed the Spanish flu, you are correct. The Spanish flu is considered one of the deadliest epidemics in human history. It wiped out three to five percent of the world’s population, estimated at 20 to 40 million people. It ravaged its way across the world from January 1918 to December 1920. The disease gained its name because of the early affliction and heavy casualties in Spain in May 1918. But a wave of influenza appeared earlier in 1918 in Kansas.

The effects of the epidemic were severe. The average lifespan in the United States decreased by ten years.

The effects of the epidemic were severe. The average lifespan in the United States decreased by ten years. Fearful health commissioners closed down businesses and schools across the nation to prevent the spread of illness. One article in the Atlanta Constitution from October 8, 1918, reported that public gathering places such as schools, movies, theaters, churches, and billiard parlors were ordered to close their doors for a minimum of two months. An estimated 650,000 Americans died of the Spanish flu during its run of terror.

Mask-wearing members of the St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps hold stretchers while on duty during the Spanish flu epidemic, 1918. Courtesy of Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images.

Symptoms included nausea, fever, aches, and severe pneumonia. Many victims had dark spots on their cheeks and turned blue due to lack of oxygen. The lungs filled with a bloody substance and prevented airflow. Sadly, many victims would die within hours or days of showing symptoms. About 20 percent of the people that fell ill died as a result of the flu. Though this may not seem a high rate, but consider that today, the flu kills less than one percent of the victims that contract it. Due to the high demand of nurses and doctors needed to serve troops during World War I, many hospitals were severely understaffed and the workers that were left were completely overwhelmed. In some towns, hospitals were overflowing with patients. Makeshift treatment centers were set up in schools and homes, many of which were run by medical students.

The very young and the elderly are typically the most vulnerable groups when it comes to influenza. The young lack strong immune systems and the elderly suffer from a general deterioration of their health systems. Since death rates are highest for infants and the elderly, the mortality pattern of influenza is usually a U-shape. The Spanish flu epidemic specifically affected healthy young adults between the ages of 20-40 years old. With an extreme amount of deaths in that age group, the U-shape mortality curve became a W-shape, completely changing the mortality pattern during those years.

The Spanish Flu at Camp Gordon
World War I exacerbated the epidemic’s reach. The constant movement of troops, sailors, and civilians across the world allowed the illness to thrive. The Spanish flu killed more Americans during World War I than enemy fire.

The Spanish flu killed more Americans during World War I than enemy fire.

The Spanish flu was particularly prevalent in areas that were densely populated, especially in military camps. The disease was spread by an infected person sneezing or coughing. Many soldiers in the camps were weakened by exhaustion and malnourishment, which increased the lethality and spread of the disease.

On September 18, 1918, it was reported that a number of soldiers in the Second Infantry Replacement Regiment at Camp Gordon in Atlanta had been placed in quarantine for showing flu-like symptoms after attending a training session in Norcross. Within the next two days, over half of the camp had been placed under quarantine by Brigadier General W.H. Sage.

Courtesy US Naval Historical Center

The disease remained contained within the military camp until early October. When the disease continued to spiral and spread, overwhelmed medical officers called on more registered nurses to help fight the disease. The Red Cross and the Atlanta Registered Nurses’ Club worked together to help meet the demand of healthcare workers.

Chief surgeon Colonel Frank T. Woodbury was responsible for handling the outbreak at Camp Gordon. He ordered for more sanitary measures to be put in place in the barracks, as well as for every soldier and officer to wear “flu-resistant” masks. He also suggested that soldiers should sleep outside for fresh air to prevent close-quarter-contact.

Over 2,000 men were in the camp’s infirmary for the flu, but only 94 men died as a result of the sickness.

Resident Spotlight – Barney Lee Thomas
Seaman 2nd class Barney Lee Thomas was born on July 25, 1900, in Atlanta to John and Luella Dunn Thomas. Barney was the third child born to the couple, and his parents divorced when he was young. His mother married Lewis Bender, the son of German immigrants, and had two more sons, Fred and James.

Thomas lived on his stepfather’s dairy farm in DeKalb County. Thomas enlisted into the U.S. Navy on June 20, 1918, at a recruiting station in Atlanta. He was sent to Newport, Rhode Island for training on July 27. Thomas transferred to Boston on September 11 and contracted the Spanish flu two days later. He remained at the Navy Hospital in Chelsea, Massachusetts until he passed away at the age of 18 on September 21, 1918.

Barney Lee Thomas’s body was transported back to Atlanta and buried in the family lot at Oakland Cemetery on September 27, 1918.
Like millions of other young men and women at the time, Barney Lee Thomas was in the prime of his life and ready to serve his country when he was struck down by the Spanish flu. The pandemic changed the world as it altered life expectancies, changed mortality rates and affected so many families.

Elizabeth Haber

Education Intern

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