1918 Letter from Irene Robb, Camp Dodge, Iowa

June 4, 2011

This is a letter written by my grandmother, Irene Robb, when she was in the army at Camp Dodge, Iowa, during the great flu epidemic.  It is undated but was probably written in 1918, since she was discharged from the army in 1919.  It is hand written on American Red Cross Camp Service stationery.

Dear fambly:-

I know I have been neglecting you and every one at home but it can’t be helped, mama sent me three cards stamped & addressed so I could send her a few words once in a while.  Well, this is the first time I have been off just half way between 7 o’clock & midnight.

Day before yesterday I had five patients die on my ward;  three yesterday & one to-day and I still have 10 or 12 who may not get well, I am so tired, and have reached the point where I think some times I could throw up my arms & scream, or just drop down no matter where I am, I am not sick at all nor haven’t even a cold but there is a terrible strain all the time of just being so short of help & patients dying by dozens all the time and having to send for their people & patients die before they get here, then we have to tell them that the patient died several hr’s ago.

One night I fell asleep sitting up against the back of my bed with my night gown on & my knit scarf around my shoulders, the lights had gone out all over camp & I tho’t I’d sit up in bed and wait for them to come on again.  When I woke up it was about five a.m. or after & my light was burning, I had just fallen asleep & slept sitting straight up against my bed all night and never knew the difference till morning.

Last Sunday evening after seven o’clock I had to evacuate my ward of 33 patients all “Flu” cases and get it all ready for 28 Pneumonia cases just as sick as could be & they bro’t them in before all my Flu cases were out and they bro’t them in on the litters so fast I couldn’t get the charts numbered fast enough & beds made up quick enough.  All these Pneumonias had first been Flu cases; I had all those 33 patients who were transferred out, to check off my Ledger and Day Book and all 28 that came in to write down their register numbers; names in full and company & Regiment, I didn’t leave the ward till 2:15 Monday a.m. and then I just let about half of the work go.  Then Monday 23 more patients were bro’t in in less than 10 minutes so you can maybe imagine how fast we had to work — the patients on litters were lined up five & six in a row along the outside corridor; waiting their turn to get in.  Many of those have died now, I have had it fairly easy at that to what some of the nurses have; some have had as high as 150 patients and was on the ward all alone, help was so short, there are about 400 or more nurses here now in Camp – I think every training school in Iowa has sent all the senior nurses they could spare to the Camp.  We have a sort of misallanious bunch out here now, only help is not even yet plentifull, But we think things are going to quiet down some now as yesterday there were only some where near ninety patients bro’t in & to-day only 70 some so if it keeps decreasing it may soon end.  If France is worse off than this you could never begin to see or imagine what it is like, and so many of the doctors and nurses have said that they didn’t see how the Hospitals in France could be in want for help any more than we have been the past few weeks, but of course this will end soon, we are hoping.  To-day has been better than any in my ward but others are just as hard up as ever & mine will probably be just as busy again, there are more than 700 cases of Pneumonia here now, & I heard that yesterday there were 7000 patients altogether in camp and lots of those will have pneumonia.  But we are all so glad that not so many are coming in now.  70 & 90 is quite a drop from 1200 to 1500 patients in 24 hours so you see it looks encouraging.

I just have 50 beds in my ward now, that is all any of the ward in the Base hospital are going to have excepting the double barracks & they always had from 60 to 80.

There are two nurses who may die to-night from Pneumonia, following Influenza, they were very low this noon & all their people were here.  All your eats were fine, and tanks very much.  Tell mama I got her’s too & all their letters.  Well I must go as it is late & I’m very tired as usual now but I hope this & the ware will all end soon and a great peace will come again.  It seems just as if God was walking up & down the ward just calling those he wants & they just all go, and all such seemingly grand men & such fine patients, never complaining & always so appreciative of all we do for them, which has really been very little; but all we could give with the help we had.

Well tell every one at home, I am feeling alright & am not sick so far and haven’t been, feel like when this comes to an end I could just fall down any where & stay there till I got over the effects of all this sadness.  But we haven’t time to even think whether we are tired or not till we get in bed & then we just go to sleep so soundly that we feel like we never wanted to get up again.  Well Hope you had a nice birthday dinner Elm, Minnie, Ha’Nea’s for your birthday & love to Sibbie & …. (copy is cut off at the edge)  Your loving sister, Carosine (a funny little cartoon of herself follows with a scribble about something “to me some day.”  Then upside down at the top of the page:  Sibbie did you make the good cookies you can make some more so can ….  some more Fudge bars.  Yet we like them.

She never got the influenza that killed so many young people because the immune system over reacted and killed them usually within a few days, while children and elderly, with weaker immune systems, died a little less quickly and were slightly more likely to survive. That is according to The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history, by John M. Barry. It is a truly excellent book, as much a history of the early days of modern medicine as it is about the fascinating details of the flu and the wartime reaction by various governments to the facts of the flu.

Nana told a story about a time she was walking down the ward and suddenly woke up, still walking.  She thinks she fell asleep at one end and woke up a few seconds later at the other end, having literally slipped into sleep briefly while walking.

The nickname she signed, “Carosine,” is one I had never heard before. Later she was known as Rena. I have posted a few more pictures of her publicly on facebook.


3 Responses to “1918 Letter from Irene Robb, Camp Dodge, Iowa”

  1. My Grandmother was a nurse at Camp Dodge at the same time as your grandmother. Her name was Sada Rex Scott. She was taken ill and almost died from the flu.

  2. It might be possible that one of the many patients your grandmother took care of was my father’s brother, my uncle, Berton Carl Ogden.
    He died on October 14, 1918 at Camp Dodge. He was 28 Years and 11 days. I was not born until 1943 so only heard the story from relatives. The letter she wrote is such a good account of a terrible epidemic.

  3. My grandfather, Alonzo Leo Hayes, was at Camp Dodge, and managed to survive the flu, though he feared at the time he would not. I am grateful for his stamina, and for the help of all who cared for him. He was such a good man and thanks to his surviving, I was able to enjoy him! Others were not so lucky.