Frank P. Glass, Chairman, The Birmingham News, et al., to President Woodrow Wilson
To: President Woodrow Wilson,
We are a party of twelve newspaper men from as many States of the Union, who have been elected by the British Government as its guests on a tour of observation in England and France.
From September 24th to October 7th we were on the British steamer “ORONTES” White Star Line, New York to Liverpool, in a convoy of troop transports.1
The ORENTES lay at her dock one full day after we boarded her, and she was delayed by coaling, by taking on 1800 troops and by efforts of her officers to assemble a crew, in the last named effort they failed, and the ship sailed short of officers and of crew.
We consider it our solemn duty to acquaint you with facts that have come under our direct observation, and on transmitting them to you in the belief that you will take steps to prevent the recurrence of the conditions and consequences, we are stating. The ORENTES had over fifty cases of Spanish Influenza among her officers and crew on her Western trip, discharging that number to hospitals in Boston and New York. In consequence she was infected, unsanitary and dirty when she was ordered to sail. The chief officer and surgeon strongly objected to her immediate loading with troops for return to England because of those facts. She was sprayed superficially in her lower decks, but was not fumigated. In consequence other members of her crew
s came down with influenza in the day she remained at the dock. The ranking officer of the troops ordered upon her, Captain J. E. Farmer, 326th Battalion, Tank Corps, strongly objected to the ships use for transport service, but was overruled by superior officers in the Embarkation Office. About 1800 troops were ordered upon her, and were aboard her for nearly a day before departure. In addition 100 passengers were permitted to board her.
This was the ORENTE’S first trip in the American transport service, and her officers stated that she had never carried before in her Australian transport service over 1200 troops and passengers, and that 1,000 wasabout her proper load. The unavoidable result was fearful overcrowding of soldiers in the lower decks, and its unit of 600 negro laborers in uniform were jammed into most uncomfortable quarters, and the white units were also crowded.
In consequence it was necessary to allow hundreds of soldiers to sleep on mattresses with their blankets on the upper decks, and there they were later exposed to dampness and chill.
Forty cases of influenza developed among the soldiers, in the first day at dock though they were carefully inspected before leaving their camps, and all men with any temperature above normal were left behind. This was the direct and immediate result of the infected condition of the lower decks.
The following distressing results developed in the two weeks in which weather conditions were unusually damp, foggy and stormy. Over 400 cases of influenza among soldiers. Over 125 cases of pneumonia.
These cases could not be properly treated because of totally inadequate hospital accommodations and of lack of proper medical supplies. In the last few days the first saloon for passengers was requisitioned for pneumonia cases, while many officers and passengers gave up their cabins to the sick. There was not a single tank of oxygen aboard, either in the medical supplies or in the ships Surgeon’s stock. Oxygen was desired by the surgeon as the prime remedy in pneumonia cases.
Many cases of pneumonia were picked up on the upper decks, where men had developed it before they knew it, or had dropped down in exhaustion. Two men were found dead on deck where they had not been discovered or treated.
There were 29 deaths among troops, including 7 that took place the last day. There were over 50 cases of pneumonia when the ship anchored at Liverpool.
The four military surgeons aboard, and the ship’s doctor worked night and day for the bulk of the trip, though some of them were seriously ill themselves. They were simply inadequate to meet the fearful demands made upon them. Our judgment is that the bulk of these distressing results followed from two blunders on the part of the embarkation officers. Firstly, ordering the ORONTES to sail before she was fumigated and properly provided with medical supplies, and with surgeons experienced in handling influenza and pneumonia.
Secondly, forcing at least 800 more troops upon her than she should normally carry.
We are submitting these observations and conclusions to you only. We are not now trying to print them in our newspapers, realising that the story fully told would startle the American public, and would cause great anxiety. Our purpose is only to bring about prevention of such disasters in the future, through your power as Commander in Chief and your sagacity in adopting the right means to the desired end.
Frank P. Glass, Chairman, THE BRIMINGHAM NEWS.
Herschel V. Jones, MINNEAPOLIS JOURNAL.
Lafayette Young, Junr. THE DESMOINES CAPITAL.
C. A. Rook. PITTSBURG DISPATCH.
E. Lansing Ray. ST.LOUIS GLOBE DEMOCRAT.
Edward H. Bulter. BUFFALO EVENING NEWS.
Edgar B. Piper. PORTLAND OREGONIAN.
Edward H. O’Hara SYRACUSE N.Y. THE HERALD.
Wright A. Patterson. WESTERN NEWSPAPER UNION, CHICAGO.
Frank R. Kent. BALTIMORE SUN.
Edward W. Barrett . BIRMINGHAM AGE HERALD.
A. N. McKay. SALT LAKE TRIBUNAL.
A copy of this message has been supplied Army Headquarters, London and they have sent a copy to General Pershing.
Source Note: Cy, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 24.
Footnote 1: Orontes was converted to a cargo ship because of its refrigerated hold; https://www.flickr.com/photos/41311545@N05/5578914880, consulted 10/3/18.
Footnote 2: VAdm. William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters. Sims sent this message on behalf of the newspapermen.