Personal account by Rear Admiral William B. Caperton
of the 1918 Influenza on
Armored Cruiser No. 4, USS Pittsburgh,
at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
And then there came upon us the most terrifying of experiences. On the fourth of October we had noted that the so called Spanish influenza, which had passed thru Europe had made its appearance in Brazil. Bahia and Pernambuco were then suffering lightly. On the arrival in Rio of the SS Dannemara from Lisbon and Dakar, Africa, the ship reported four deaths from the disease during the trip, and the existence of several new cases when she came into port. The local health authorities, notwithstanding these, made no effort to quarantine the vessel or her passengers. The result was not unexpected to us. When the HMS New Castle arrived in Rio from Bahia on the 6th, she had sixty cases on board, all of a benign type. By the seventh the Pittsburgh reported a few cases and the disease was incapacitating hundreds daily in Rio de Janeiro, while the Lage Brothers shipyard was almost shut down. The following day 33 cases in the flagship, with the numbers ashore increasing alarmingly. By the 9th, 92 cases had made their appearance on board and hundreds ashore were dying without medical attendance. Hospitals were crowded and coffins almost ceased to exist. In the early hours of the 10th, in accordance with the previous arrangements, and in view of the probability of the Pittsburgh going out upon the high sea patrol for an extended time, she entered the floating dry dock. With my staff that morning I attended memorial services ashore in the Candelaria church for the repose of the souls of over more than a hundred Brazilian sailors who had died of influenza in their squadron abroad.
During the day, while the crew was working feverishly upon the sides of the flagship in the dock, the Department advised me that the Brazilian Ambassador to the United States, Da Gama, was to be returned to his native land by battleship and that I was to have the Pittsburgh proceed to the West Indies and transfer the ambassador to her.
By the next day, the 11th, there were 418 cases of influenza in the flagship, so that her activities for any duty were becoming handicapped. The seriousness of the situation was cabled to the Department with the suggestion that the ship bringing the Ambassador continue on its way and remain for the 15th of November, for which Brazilian National Day ships from Uruguay, Argentina and Chile would be there. That would make it incumbent that our representation be adequate for the occasion. On the 14th of October 644 cases had been admitted to the sick list, with about 350 more light ones not listed. One man died the day before. On the 15th three had died, the Commanding Officer, his heads of department and two members of my staff were sick, while the disease raged unabated in Rio where conditions defied description. The Department, unaware of the seriousness and the rapidity with which the epidemic was spreading, directed me to have the Pittsburgh proceed to Bahia, as previously directed and there report her condition. Then, if unable to carry out the Department's order, the Pueblo [Armored Cruiser No.7 USS Colorado] would be ordered to Rio with Da Gama. But the proscribed cruise for the Pittsburgh was an impossibility. Of that I informed the Department, adding that I was holding her at Rio. Conditions in the ship were rapidly becoming worse. More than half of the hospital corps were ill, and help was commandeered from all ratings and from the junior officers of the line. And the drizzle and the rain which had set in during the early days of the epidemic continued fitfully, rendering it difficult to find room for the cots of the sick who had been kept on deck in the open, during the good weather. Ashore people died like flies, and many lay in the streets for two or three days waiting interment, even a hole in the corner of a trench. By the 18th, twelve of the 48 pneumonia cases had died in the Pittsburgh. Further caskets could not be obtained ashore, at any price, and the burial of our men became an urgent necessity.
Six more men died on the 20th, when the Brazilian Minister of Marine offered us fifty cots in one of their Army hospitals. Accompanied by the Fleet Surgeon and Flag Secretary, my only able bodied aids, we visited the hospital, decided to accept the courteous offer, and rushed down to the house of the Minister of Marine to advise him of our acceptance. He came down to the door of his house, still clad in his pajamas. This good natured and kindhearted Admiral Alexandrino de Alencar, with a flourish of his hands and a few vivid words in French, announced his pleasure at our decision. On the 21st of October 16 bodies were taken from the Pittsburgh and landed for burial in the Sao Francisco Xavier Cemetery. Notwithstanding the previous arrangement with cemetery authorities for the opening of 20 graves, the funeral cortege arrived at the cemetery and found no graves prepared.
Those destined for us had been used by others. Much haggling with the cemetery authorities resulted, until finally the army officer in charge of the prisoners detailed eight to dig the graves required by us. These men were of practically no assistance to us and we were finally compelled to dig the graves for our own dead shipmates. Conditions in the cemetery beggared description. Eight hundred bodies in all states of decomposition, and lying about in the cemetery, were awaiting burial. Thousands of buzzards swarmed overhead. In the city itself there were no longer medicines, or wood for coffins and very little food. Rich and poor alike were stricken. In the big public hospital which had the contract for burying the city's dead, hundreds of naked bodies lay thrown upon each other like cord wood and at least one instance was known of a live man being dragged out from the piles. The following day, thanks to the generosity of Mr. F.A. Huntress, the American manager of Rio Light and Power Company, arrangements were made for the proper transportation of those whom it was necessary to inter ashore.
My old Chinese cook, scenting the approach of death, went to the flag office and made out a will, leaving all his money and possessions to Uncle Sam, for as he said, the government had been good to him, and he had no relatives. Fortunately for us he survived.
Five more sailors were buried on the 23rd. During the afternoon forty patients were transferred to the Army Central Hospital by means of large streetcars, and the Fleet surgeon, Medical Inspector Karl Ohnesorg, tho ill himself, assumed charge there. The ship had been unable to secure milk or fresh eggs and no chickens could be obtained in the market at any price; while the contractors were hard put up to keep their contracts for the deliveries of fresh vegetables. The American women of Rio de Janeiro immediately offered their assistance and soon an adequate supply of fresh milk, eggs and chickens was available for the sick at the hospital, while sweaters and pajamas were sent off to the ship for the hundreds still in the throes of the disease. By the 24th, 654 men were on the list with influenza and 46 of the 102 pneumonia cases had died. Two members of my staff, seriously ill, were transferred to the Stranger's (British) Hospital in the city. The army authorized and then gave us one hundred beds in the hospital and the Pittsburgh transferred cooks and sufficient hospital corpsmen to care for the contingent ashore. The Rio Light and Power Company generously loaned us all manner of kitchen ware, glassware, ranges, mosquito netting, bed screens and other necessities for use in the hospital. The last days of the month found considerable improvement in the flagship. By the 31st of October there had been 58 fatal cases, but great improvement was shown throughout the ship and many men were returned to duty. Ashore, more than one thousand people died daily. Many of those whom we had known well and been fond of were carried off and the streets of Rio de Janeiro, generally gay and vivid with movement and color, were deserted and motionless. Here and there an occasional automobile was the only sign of life, while now and then some poor native with a miniature coffin on his head and followed by a sorrowful family trudged drearily to the nearest cemetery with his loved load. No description of the sorrows and troubles which attended us would be complete without suitable reference to the Brazilian officials, from the President of the Republic, his Secretary, the Ministers of War, Marine and of the Interior down to the lowliest of sailors, who did so much and spent so much of their time that every solace be offered our men and all possible assistance rendered to them. More nearly did they take to heart our sorrow than they did their own. And there was hardly a family ashore where the hand of death had not left its trace.
On the 5th of November the SS Corvello came in with fifty-one enlisted men for the Pittsburgh. These were immediately quartered on the Ilha des Cobras again with the insistence and courtesy of the Brazilians. Thus came and went that most terrible of experiences. The self sacrificing spirit of our doctors and our men and the persistent kindnesses and consideration for our welfare shown to us by Brazilians in Rio have left with me and many an ineradicable memory. Suitable letters of appreciation and profound gratitude I later dispatched to the various civil and unofficial sources from which so much of our help had come, asking the Department at the same time to express to these people the Navy's thanks for their self-sacrificing interest in us.
Source: Caperton, William B. "History of Flag Career of Rear Admiral William B. Caperton, US Navy, Commencing January 5, 1915." (Washington, DC: n.d. 1919?): 377-382. (The original document is located at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC, in Record Group 45. A photocopy is located in the Navy Department Library. Admiral Caperton authored this document at the end of his career. The full document contains a firsthand account of operations in Haiti, 1915-1916; Nicaragua and Mexico, 1916; and in the South Atlantic, 1917-1919).