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Originally published November 2021

The great war was declared over, but many U.S. troops remained in Europe to become the Army of Occupation or were marking time, waiting to be sent home. Meanwhile, the American homefront struggled with the ongoing Influenza Pandemic.

The excerpts emphasize how, and for what, very special thanks were given, 103 years ago. Even accounts of meals are poignant.

Thanksgiving Wishes
Thanksgiving wishes [postcard], ca. 1918 (UCLA Biomed.0509.021)

Our 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic collection has come to the fore this year in comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic, through profiles in media such as Atlas Obscura(opens in a new tab) and UCLA Magazine(opens in a new tab). The collection is a rich primary resource for research and teaching about the influenza pandemic, news of the war, and life and times of 1918-1919.

Spelling is from the original letters and diaries.

My Darling Dickeybird

A mother at Ingham New Hall, Stalham, Norfolk (UK) writes to her son, “My darling Dickeybird”, on 8 November 1918 in reference to an observance anticipating the end of the war, not the American holiday. After a report about helping a married couple settle differences and stay together, and other news from home, she closes: “We did not go to the Thanksgiving Service. Daddie was so sniffly. We are keeping quiet & avoiding risks of infection. Spell epidemic as I have done. Not eperdemic [sic] ...” (UCLA Biomed.0509.272)

Roast Turkey, Bacon Dressing

Program and menu for Camp Custer, Michigan 1918
Program and menu for “Special dinner and entertainment given by 13th and 14th Companies, 4th Battalion, 160th Depot Brigade, Tuesday, November 19, 1918, Camp Custer, Michigan” (UCLA Biomed.0509.049)

No Thanksgiving Vacation for Any of Us

Glenn Roberts, at the S.A.T.C. (Student Army Training Corps) in Bloomington, Indiana writes to his mother, Rev. Alva L. Roberts in Mooresville, on November 22nd: “This will be just a little ‘hurried up’ note. I think we will get our ‘shot’ today, & I didn’t want you to think I was dying if you didn’t hear again from me for a day or two. It might, it might not, make me sick for a few hours, you know. The flu ban went back on this morning. ‘Spect there’ll be no Thanksgiving vacation for any of us. Hope to get that shot today, I’m feeling fine for it.” A vaccine being tested at the time would have been an antibacterial one. The influenza virus was not isolated until the 1930s, followed by an antiviral vaccine. (UCLA Biomed.0509.261)

Wearing Masks in Indianapolis

A letter dated November 22nd from Mrs. Mary Myers in North, Indiana to her son, Herbert and family in Norwood, Ohio, offers an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, followed by: “Don’t know any more about the school opening -- several light cases influenza around us. Vevay had to close their schools again -- 300 cases in Madison. Wearing masks in Indianapolis -- but we are not going to have it if we can prevent it. I hope none of you will get it.” (UCLA Biomed.0509.089)

Sports Called Off

Private Ray Wishart at Camp Meucon, France, writes to his brother Harry, a bank clerk at Winooski Savings Bank in Winooski, Vermont on November 28, following a large influx of influenza cases at the camp hospital earlier in the month. He recounts news he has heard from home and reports back: “Thanksgiving afternoon and a wet day here, sports had to be called off. We did not have turkey for dinner but the French chicken was very good.” (UCLA Biomed.0509.040)

30 of Us in the Packard

The “Over seas” pocket diary of Sergeant John A. Scott, Detachment Medical Department, 301st Ammunition Train, 76th Infantry Division, is filled with short, pithy entries from France. On 11 November 1918: “Fair. Armistice signed at 11 am. Busy in hospital up all night.” -- November 28: “Thanksgiving Day. Worked hard in the a.m. & at 1 p.m. after turkey Maj. C & 30 of us in the Packard [truck] did the battle front. Returned at 5 p.m. wet, but after an interesting day, tried to forget the day, but O my!” -- December 11: “First mail today in 7 weeks. 3 letters. Some joy.” (UCLA Biomed.0509.179)

A Lot to Be Thankful For

Corporal Edwin W. Seager, an anti-aircraft gunner in Battery E., 309th Heavy Field Artillery Regiment, 78th Division, writes to his brother Wesley in Wolcott, New York, November 28th. With the lifting of censorship on letters, he reports he presently is in battle-scarred “Verdon” [i.e., Verdun], France, after fighting in the St.-Mihiel drive, nearly to Sedan, into November: “It is Thanksgiving day and we have a lot to be thankful for I believe. What do you think about it. one [sic] thing is that this war has at last come to an end and that is the most to be thankful for. the only kick I have is that I haven’t received any mail for over a week and the last letter I received was from Minnie and she wrote about you, Harriett and the baby having the influenza. and no mail since then of course I have been worried some but we will probably get mail soon. and I hope to you are all well and able to enjoy a good dinner on this day as we are all planning on doing.” (UCLA Biomed.0509.072)

Just Think of Me

Lt. William “Billie” Frye, 108th Machine Gun Battalion, 28th Division, writes from Wacken, Belgium to his sister on November 27th. He apologizes for having been too busy to write, and continues: “I am in Belgium and have been here for over a month with my division. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving so when you eat the goodies just think of me. There are no turkeys in Belgium so we will have to eat what we can buy, besides our regular meal, which is not much.” He describes seeing friends and reports, “they all felt fine no flu among us.” He closes with words of advice about her son: “When Donald grows up -- If he ever steps off with his left foot and says sir to anyone I’ll disown him as a nephew.” (Biomed.0509.281)

A Good Deal to be Thankful for This Year

Margaret, presumably in Colorado, writes to “dearest Elmer”, apparently in France on November 29th. She tells him, “To make a more joyous and a happier Thanksgiving I received two very interesting and sweet letters from you.” She continues, “I hope that you had a joyous Thanksgiving too. We sure have a good deal to be thankful for this year. I was invited down to Olsen’s for dinner, and it certainly was fine. After we finished washing the dishes, we (R. Montague & two Olsen boys and their two sisters, and me of course) went outside and had a snow ball battle but out of the deal, they washed my face, and I tried awful hard to pay it back but I did not have enough help.”

She eagerly awaits his return from France, so they can go to a dance the Hose Company will throw for returning soldiers: “It has been ages since I have danced on a real floor by real music and with a real man. Hurry back!” She reports: “I am still home and maybe until Jan. 2nd as the ‘flu’ is quite bad in Littleton and Denver too. You probably remember Vivian Phillips, I heard she died with the ‘flu’ and Sheriff Burden’s little daughter died too, my but it sure is taking quite a few people, so far, we have escaped it and believe me, we are not looking for it.” (UCLA Biomed.0509.011)

He Sure is Some Cook

Sgt. Felix Brown at Headquarters 13th Depot Battalion at Camp Meade, Maryland writes to his sister, Mrs. C. R. Stoer in Shreveport, Louisiana on December 4th. He is “certainly sorry to hear about the new out-break of influenza. Trust that you are yours will stay well and that the Lord will be with us again if this darn epidemic [sic] does return. Looks like there is always something to mar a good fellows disposition, doesn’t it.” But he is very proud of the confidence and training he has gained: “Yes, I have been made a Sergeant, and I am proud of it, and I don’t give a doggone who says I am vain when I say it, because it takes something to be a sergenat [sic] in this man’s Army, especially a Sergeant-Major in Headquarters, and if you could step in here last Monday night when we were paying off 412 men you would have said, well, he is about right.”

Before signing off as “Your Devoted Bud”, Felix surmises, “I guess you had a fine Thanksgiving dinner, but I had a good one too. Nearly 75% of the Boys were away on passes and we had more than we could eat. I did want to send you a menu, but I have nearly forgotten all we did have, but I know we had Turkey, Cranberry Sauce, dressing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, Pineapple, oranges apples and Cider. Our cook on the second shift in our kitchen used to be a cheft [sic] in some New York Hotel and he sure is some cook. All of us non-coms eat before the other men and, of course, get the pick and I sure did some tall picking that day. I like to have eat my fool self to death and dreamed about [it] all night Thursday night.” (UCLA Biomed.0509.297)

I Could Run for President

Lt. F.W. (Fredrick Ward) Nowlin, with Company D, 418th Telegraph Battalion, Signal Corps on overseas service in France, writes to Nettie Page in Kingsville, Texas, on December 28. He begins, “Hello Kiddie: I don’t know why but the smile I have had for some time seems to have left me and I can’t find it any more. I guess it must be because I haven’t received any letters from God’s country lately. It seems that I’m just about as popular as a bad case of the ‘Flue’ back in the land from which I came.” He reports about difficulties procuring holiday food and drink for Christmas: “We could not draw turkeys for the mens dinner so I took a truck and went to Orleans and got two hundred pounds of turkey and all the other things that go with a dinner like that. So you can just bet your little Yankee dinner that my boys fared well that day. I could run for President and would be elected if it were left to them.” He adds that he will play football for the Depot team against the Signal Corps team at Cours Cheverny on New Year’s Day, with a $50.00 team wager on the line. (UCLA Biomed.0509.311)

Steak and Gravy

Elza Gault, a cook in the 4th Battalion with the American Expeditionary Forces writes from Angres, France to “Dear Love Alvira” in Baden, Pennsylvania on December 27th (UCLA Biomed.0509.202). He regrets that she has not been receiving his letters, but he swears has been sending them “regulaire” to her. He reports: “Yes, Thanksgiving is past. We had steak, gravy, bread, coffee, biscist [biscuits] and a few other things and I was on shift that day.” He asks, “I shall be back in the U.S. some time in 1919 then perhaps you will let me call would that be fine or not. Then we could perhaps go to a show would that sute [sic] you or not” and concludes, “I am glad the Flu is not so bad back there.”

Fancy Cookies

Private Clayton S. Adams, Truck Company D, 2nd Corps, Artillery Park, with the American Expeditionary Forces in France, writes to his uncle Samuel D. Sherwood in Springfield, Massachusetts on December 7th. He begins: ”Received your kind letter dated Aug. 14 on Nov. 21.” He reports his company “enjoyed a fine thanksgiving dinner. The menu consisted of roast steak, mashed potato, stewed tomatoes, white bread, hot chocolate, gravy, peach pie, and fancy cookies. While we didn’t have turkey and all the regular fixings we enjoyed the holiday just the same. The members of A.E. [American Expeditionary] Forces have a great deal to be thankful for this year on account of the termination of the war and the defeat of the Central Powers. The health of the majority of the troops is excellent.” (UCLA Biomed.0509.146)

First and Greatest of All Wonders

Corporal Harry S. Kussmaul, L Company, 73rd Infantry, at Camp Devens, Massachusetts writes to his beloved, Mildred C. Bryant in Brockton on Thanksgiving Day, 1918. “Dearest: Had a religious streak to-day. After I had seated myself at the table all ready to eat, that thought came to me that I surely had something to be thankful for. Think of all the luck I’ve had in the last few years. First and greatest of all wonders I meet you and you promise to be my wife. That surely would have been miracle enough but fate is not yet through. I’m already to sail for France when peace is declared, sailing is canceled, and in a short time I will be at home again in civilian life health unimpaired, and preparing to take you away to a two-by-three and love you with all of my heart as long as I live. ... Had a good dinner, that is for the army. Turkey (good but very ancient), sweet potatoes, squash, cranberry sauce, all kinds of fruits, mince pie and coffee. Enough for two helpings and most everybody indulged.” (UCLA Biomed.0509.122)

And Then Came Christmas

Cover of Menu for “Christmas Dinner, U.S. Army Base Hospital, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, December 25, 1918
Cover of Menu for “Christmas Dinner, U.S. Army Base Hospital, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, December 25, 1918" (UCLA Biomed.0509.238)
Menu for “Christmas Dinner, U.S. Army Base Hospital, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, December 25, 1918” (UCLA Biomed.0509.238)
Menu for “Christmas Dinner, U.S. Army Base Hospital, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, December 25, 1918” (UCLA Biomed.0509.238)