Look through the newspaper headlines in Hampton Roads during the early fall of 1918 and its all about the American troops headed to Europe for World War I.
Then the first reports of the Spanish flu begin to crop up on the inside pages in mid-September -- barely noticed before jumping to the front and dominating the local news for more than a month with stories of sickness, quarantine and death.
So quickly did the epidemic erupt from the first reported cases at the navy base in Norfolk and docks in Newport News that the deadly virus seemed less like a disease and more like some sort of diabolical wildfire.
Thousands of Hampton Roads residents contracted the "grip," as it was often called, in just a few weeks -- and hundreds died horrible deaths when the pneumonialike illness overwhelmed their lungs with fluid.
So staggering were the numbers of the sick and dead by early October that public health authorities closed school and government buildings and prohibited Sunday church services across the region. In Newport News, funeral directors literally ran out of coffins, forcing them to commission a special train of box cars loaded with emergency replacements.
By the time the epidemic finally began to subside -- allowing many local governments to reopen and lift their bans on public gatherings on Oct. 31 -- the statistics reflected a public health catastrophe of unprecedented speed and dimension.
Nearly 9,000 cases were reported in Norfolk at the height of the illness. Another 8,000 had cropped in Newport News by Oct. 8, including some 3,500 at the shipyard alone.
So relentless was the disease that numbed officials quickly became used to seeing the number of cases triple and even quadruple in a single day -- and the daily death toll run into the teens and 20s. Hastily converted schools housed the overflowing wards, where overworked doctors and nurses were temporarily permitted to used Prohibition-banned whiskey to treat their suffering patients.
Even seemingly isolated communities such as Fox Hill in Hampton felt the Spanish flu's sting, recording two of the first fatalities in the region. Both victims had fallen ill after visiting Boston, Mass., where the first reports of the flu had been filed in March 1918.
By the end of the year, nearly 1,000 deaths had been recorded in Hampton Roads, including large concentrations of sailors at the navy base in Norfolk and still more soldiers from the many camps in Warwick County and Newport News where they waited for to board transport ships to Europe.
But an unknown number of fatalities went unreported because they never made it to a hospital or doctor.
Indeed, so dreaded was the scourge that many of the dead were hurriedly buried without identification. Some bodies were stacked in coffins at the Newport News train station while waiting for fearful cemetery workers to inter them.
At Providence Methodist Church In York County, the grave of Stanley Wornom was left open because of the certainty that his sick wife would soon follow.
But as local historian Frank Green reports in his York County history blog, Neva Burcher Wornom recovered and ultimately remarried.
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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