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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Why did 42 student soldiers in Pullman die during 1918 pandemic? Recordings offer new clues

Red cross volunteers joined in Pullman's celebration of Armistice Day in 1918, wearing masks. (WSU Manuscripts;Archives and Special Collections / WSU Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections)
By Maggie Quinlan For The Spokesman-Review

The gym became a makeshift hospital. Then it was any building that could house some of Washington State College’s 600 sick student soldiers – fraternity houses, churches and classroom buildings all converted into sick wards.

Across the globe, the 1918 flu killed more people than World War I. And on Oct. 1, 1918, the Spanish Flu hit Pullman.

In a matter of weeks, Pullman saw more than 40 Student Army Training Corps, or SATC, cadets die at the college that would become Washington State University.

Those who died drowned in their own bodily fluids, said Washington State University professor Nathan Nicol who, in 2007, compiled period documents from the 1918 epidemic at WSC.

“Everybody was in terrible shape because you had a tendency to have your nose bleed a lot. Most of them died from that,” Carl Reisenauer, one of the sick SATC boys, said in an interview 70 years later.

But nightmarish symptoms only scratched the surface of the epidemic’s terrors.

According to one soldier’s father, 42 men did not need to die. Based on Spokane resident Roger Sanborn’s experience visiting his sick son, the college and Army were responsible for needless deaths.

Sanborn’s accusations captured the public’s attention, sparked two investigations into the college and filled pages of The Spokesman-Review with opposing letters about the care men received at WSC.

But as quickly as the 40 young men died, Sanborn’s plea for accountability was buried.

Without students willing to name themselves to corroborate his story, many locals wrote in to The Spokesman-Review that Sanborn wasn’t credible – nothing more than a parent blinded by grief, looking for someone to blame.

The college and War Department shared control of WSC’s campus during World War I. The college investigated itself for wrongdoing and let the governor review the findings. Judged innocent. The War Department investigated itself for wrongdoing later that year – and judged itself innocent.

The only student soldier who wrote to The Spokesman-Review in support of Sanborn’s claims withheld his name.

Other cadets spoke to Sanborn in person but asked to be anonymous. They’d had it drilled into them not to speak against their superiors, he said.

“You see, my boy’s life was of less importance than his getting in bad with his superiors,” Sanborn wrote.

So students stayed quiet. Until 1978.

Enter Margot H. Knight, a redheaded 27-year-old with a tape recorder. As an oral historian for Whitman County, Knight conducted dozens of hours of interviews with Pullman’s elders in 1978 and through the mid ’80s.

Buried in hours of tape, they spoke about the 1918 flu for just a few minutes each. One was a student soldier who defied death in one makeshift hospital. Another became a nurse in a moment’s notice. A third was a WSC administrator.

Flickering moments revealed truths hidden for more than 70 years.

Before the tapes

Toilets overflowed and sewage ran through floorboards and poured onto dishes in the hospital kitchen below, wrote Col. Willis May, commander of the SATC, in an urgent letter to college President Otto Holland.

Wool clothes were reserved for soldiers overseas while WSC students slept in cold rooms, waiting for radiators to be installed, according to inspections. Windows had been removed in the summer and holes remained through November, Holland later wrote.

Those conditions killed his son, Sanborn wrote. He’d begged for help and received none.

According to Sanborn, men died as Army surgeons argued over who outranked whom, twice refusing Sanborn’s family doctor, who traveled hours to treat Sanborn’s dying son.

Officers forced sick men to march in October winds to the mess hall despite raging fevers, and nurses ignored his son when he began vomiting profusely and begged for treatment.

No doctor had talked to the young soldier or even written his name down after days of lying in bed sick.

When Sanborn first arrived, Col. May denied him the pass he’d need to walk on campus, after traveling hours from his home in Spokane to see his son. Sanborn jumped through hoops, finally receiving a pass from a surgeon.

But nurses had no record of Sanborn’s son. He defied anyone who argued with him, searched through rooms and finally found his son lying in a cot below an uninstalled window. The opening was tacked over with a material as thin as cheesecloth.

“He said he had begged and begged for them to send for (a nurse) and let her do something for him,” Sanborn wrote.

Only after Sanborn demanded it, a nurse took his son’s temperature – 104.5 degrees.

“Seems that they doped them just as they dressed them, all alike and by the clock regardless of the needs of individual patients,” Sanborn wrote. “And if my boy could not recover by receiving his medication every three hours, all right, let him die.”

Other students told Sanborn they’d been served spoiled meat. One student had been ignored while begging for a bedpan, then ignored when he fainted each of six times he walked to a latrine outside the building. And many rooms were cold.

A Nov. 20 inspection, skipped over in later investigations, reported rooms measuring 46 degrees Fahrenheit.

Other inspections reported broken windows, disconnected radiators, toilet clogs and leaks, lack of disinfectants in latrines and “constant draft,” but did not make it into investigations or the pages of The Spokesman-Review. But letters from parents did.

Two mothers, Mrs. Tinkel and J.E. Munson, wrote that their sons had reported conditions similar to what Sanborn described. Tinkel’s son lay for six days in the same suit of underwear he had on when he came to the hospital, and received hardly any care, she wrote.

Other parents wrote that they were grateful for the treatment their sons received. William Goodyear – WSC’s former football coach, the owner of the Pullman Herald and a local politician – wrote that Sanborn had no right to add to the anxiety of other students’ parents.

“Of the scores of parents and relatives who came to Pullman … but one, R.S. Sanborn of Spokane, saw fit to rush into print and vent his grief in a bitter and unjust criticism,” Goodyear’s newspaper wrote. “His attitude was at all times critical. He wanted to make trouble and confined his efforts to hunting for evidence on which to base complaints.”

But A.P. Johnson, chairman of the Garfield Red Cross, called Sanborn’s letter “100% true.”

When a Red Cross doctor arrived at churches fashioned as hospitals, he found chaos reigned.

Many of the boys had been very sick for two or three days with no care, she said.

“Citizens of Pullman seemed more than willing to do everything in their power to relieve the situation, but they were hampered by the heads of the institution,” she wrote. “Whether military or collegiate I am not well enough informed to make my decision.”

One soldier named himself and wrote that he’d roomed with Sanborn’s son. Ward Rinehart said his roommate’s stomach pain came from eating a candy bar against orders, not poor conditions.

According to Rinehart, an article like Sanborn’s should not have been “permitted to go forth,” only to worry other parents.

But it was true that men were limited to thin cotton uniforms, Rinehart said, and there were two nights they slept without bedding. Thecollege and Army were not to blame, though.

At the end of his letter he emphasized that he did not write out of a sense of loyalty to his commanders.

Then, on Nov. 11, 1918, World War I ended.

Breaking several weeks of quarantine, Pullman’s citizens filled the town’s dirt main drag shoulder-to-shoulder to burn an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Nurses wore masks and most others didn’t.

“The people of Washington must realize these are war times and we have left the comforts of home to struggle for a cause,” Rinehart said.


Nicol, the WSU professor who compiled archives from the 1918 epidemic, said he and his colleagues’ understood after sifting through documents how the town was able to forget such a nightmare overnight.

“It was all so horrifying that we wanted to put it out of our minds as soon as we could,” Nicol said.

Historically, epidemics can bring out both empathy and disgust, according to Guenter Risse, a medical historian who has written two books about epidemics at the turn of the century.

Blaming others for their suffering was instinctive, Risse said.

“When somebody gets sick, the people around the sick person are certainly repelled,” Risse said. “They consider that person guilty of something. It looks like the disease is a punishment for something.”

No matter the cause, WSC’s treatment of soldiers washed out in the news cycle. Washington Gov. Ernest Lister met with the WSC board of regents and ended his probe into the college a week and a half after Armistice Day.

The university deserved praise rather than criticism, Lister announced, for offering “splendid, sympathetic and helpful services.”

But before the board’s investigation had ended, Sanborn described it as a cover-up led by the people at fault.

“You took no action until 40 SATC boys had died. You have failed utterly in the public trust reposed in you,” he wrote in a letter to the board. “You … were in receipt of numerous complaints concerning the very serious and critical conditions there and not until the epidemic had been supposed to have passed its crisis and conditions were said to have been very much improved did you make a personal inspection of the situation.”

When Sanborn pressed for an investigation by the War Department, a final report in 1919 dismissed his testimony as “a long, rambling essay, nearly ten thousand words, most of which is hearsay.”

President Holland denied many accusations and all responsibility, admitting that students had been housed in cold conditions but glossing over the rest of the allegations in Sanborn’s statement.

Rinehart had written in support of his Army officers and college, and the only other student to write to The Spokesman-Review withheld his name.

“ Your article created quite a sensation in the barracks and every fellow I’ve spoken to said he’d back you up,” the anonymous man wrote, addressing Sanborn. “There are, however, many things you did not see which are just as bad as your personal experience, if not worse, but it does no good to kick. We can only hope your article will do some good.”

The unseen

“I’d seen fellows die and taken right out and somebody put right in their place without ever changing the beds,” Walter Thonney said.

Memories of the epidemic were fleeting, just a few minutes in 112 interviews that contained up to six hours of tape each.

But Knight, the Whitman County historian, persisted, rounding back in her interviews to questions about the epidemic.

She heard stories of babies dying and a father losing his hair in chunks, shaking with cold next to a blazing fireplace. Entire families died, one woman said.

But Thonney was an SATC cadet.

He graduated from Pullman High School in 1917 and immediately joined the SATC training camp at WSC. His second day there, the flu epidemic had broken out and officers asked for volunteers to work at the hospital.

That day he became a nurse, without any training at all.

In rooms packed with beds so close together it was difficult to walk between them, Thonney fixed beds. He waited on sick boys during their bowel movements, gave out the laxative pills he was directed to give out and tried to make the boys comfortable.

Boys like Carl Reisenauer, who graduated from high school and entered the WSC SATC the same time Thonney did.

About 10 p.m. one night in October, Reisenauer was fine. An hour later, every bone in his body ached and he had a splitting headache, he told Knight. The next morning he reported for sick call.

“The air in October, it was cold and windy and the orderly room was so small and there were so many for sick calls, they had us sit outside on the ground or stand,” Reisenauer said. “Most of us were too sick. We sat on the cold ground. And for seven days my temperature was better than 100. And everything was full of sick people.”

He was placed in the gym, where doctoring was limited to a laxative pill morning, noon and night. The only thing cadets got to sustain themselves was a glass of milk, also morning, noon and night.

After seven days, Reisenauer’s temperature lowered and staff moved him to a convalescent ward in the Mechanical Arts Building. The building was only partly completed and drafty.

After one night sleeping there, he became sick again. His hair came out by the handful. His teeth came loose. But he knew most of the boys died during a relapse, and from being in run-down condition.

So he stayed where he was. He slept in his overcoat, only removing his shoes and hat at night. It was all he could do to get to the mess hall for food. But, he said, at least he could eat.

“I was afraid to go back in again, afraid they’d kill me,” Reisenauer said. “I figured if I went back in there they’d starve me to death. The care is the reason so many of them died in those Army camps.”

And more died as they left.

Helen McGreevy, born in 1901, was committed to marry a cadet, George Wieber, who died on a train from Pullman to Kansas, she said.

“He was really a fine young man, and you wonder why things like that happen,” McGreevy said. “It shouldn’t matter, but still that little thought runs through your mind.”

Having listened through dozens of hours of interviews, it’s this small moment that Washington State University’s archivist Mark O’English remembers striking him.

“It’s something in her voice,” he said. “There’s really not much there, but something about it just gets me.”

Half of the 500 cadets WSC sent across the state to Fort Worden that fall died of the flu, according to Clarence Hix, an instructor and administrator at WSC and WSU from 1911 to 1957.

Military presence on campus defined every moment. Hix remembered when a professor who worked in the same building every day refused to show a guard his pass. The guard pulled his gun out.

And he remembered two Army doctors arguing over authority as men died.

“There’s something very emotional and important to the people there, and something kind of forgotten,” O’English said. “World War I overwhelmed most of what was going on there. Everything else became a shadow.”