Start Your Aircraft Engines!: Aviation Accomplishments in Speedway During World War II

Note: For those interested in learning more about aviation in the Speedway area during World War I, see “Speedway: An Aviation Hub During World War I.”

This weekend, some 300,000 fans are expected to descend upon the Town of Speedway to watch the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500. The Speedway area has been home to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” since 1911. The race attracted drivers and fans from all over the world. It has only been cancelled on two occasions: during World War I (1917-1918) and World War II (1942-1945). While there was no roar of race cars, the area was by no means quiet. Instead, the Speedway area became a hub for wartime production, with aircraft engines taking center stage.

James A. Allison, photo courtesy of Allison Transmission: History and Heritage.

Entrepreneur and Indianapolis Motor Speedway co-founder James Allison quite literally shifted gears when he devoted his precision machine shop’s resources on Main Street, just south of the track, to the war effort in 1917. Allison originally built the shop to redesign and rebuild foreign and domestic racecars. By mid-1918, the War Department awarded government contracts to Allison Experimental Company to build parts for the Liberty aircraft engine. According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the Liberty represented “America’s major technological contribution to World War I.” The United States’ auto industry produced over 20,000 of these engines during the war and Allison’s Speedway company played its part in this endeavor. The Speedway area also saw the development of an aviation repair depot where workers helped repair, modify, and test hundreds of airplanes and aircraft engines.

Allison Engineering Company Main Street Building and Employees, 1921, photo courtesy of Indiana Memory.

Just one month after the war’s end, in December 1918, the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced that the Indianapolis 500 would resume in May 1919. The focus in the Speedway area quickly shifted back to automobiles and racing, but interest in aviation there had just begun. During the 1920s, Allison Experimental Company (Allison Engineering Company by 1921) worked on rebuilding and inverting Liberty engines.

Liberty 12-A Inverted Engine on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Following James Allison’s death in 1928, General Motors Corp. filed an appropriation request to buy the company the following year. According to the request, General Motors planned to continue Allison’s work in the aviation industry. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce promoted the acquisition, stating that with General Motors’ purchase of the company:

Development of this city as a center for the nation’s aviation industry seems assured.

General Motors Corporation Appropriation Request to Purchase Allison Engineering Company. Courtesy of Rolls Royce Heritage Trust – Allison Branch Archival Collection.

The Chamber of Commerce was not far off the mark. During the 1930s, Allison Engineering Co. focused its efforts on developing a 1,000 horsepower liquid-cooled aircraft engine in the Speedway area. Known as the V-1710, it would become the primary engine that powered Allied fighter aircraft during World War II. Norman Gilman, chief engineer and general manager for the company, reasoned that a liquid-cooled engine could be placed inside the fuselage, where a radial type engine could not and therefore developed high wind resistance or drag, particularly at higher speeds. Despite initial hesitation from both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, the Navy placed an order with Allison Engineering Co. for a liquid-cooled airplane engine of 750 horsepower in June 1930. The company designed, built, and delivered this engine to the Navy in March 1932. After completing a 50-hour development test, the Navy accepted the engine in September of that year. The Army Air Corps followed suit and soon after placed an order for the engine with the company.

Throughout the mid-1930s, Allison Engineering Co. worked to improve the engine, with the goal of making it 1,000 horsepower. After several tests and improvements to the design, the company delivered the engine to the Army Air Corps at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio in March 1937. One month later, the V-1710 passed the 150-hour acceptance test.

AllisoNews, March 31, 1942, vol. 1, no. 18, photo courtesy IUPUI Digital Collections, Allison Transmission.

By 1939, as war clouds gathered over Europe, Allison Engineering (renamed Allison Division of General Motors in January 1941) committed itself to mass production of the V-1710 aircraft engine in Speedway. At the time, Allison employed 600 people, but this number grew exponentially as orders for the V-1710 came pouring in. In April 1939, newspapers reported that the company would soon triple its facilities with construction of a new plant that would span 200,000 sq. ft. By the end of the year, employment figures had almost doubled to 1,200. Allison Division constructed additional plants in Speedway and the Indianapolis area throughout the war years and with these plants came thousands of additional employees.

V-1710 engine, photo courtesy Allison Transmission: History and Heritage.

Demand for the V-1710 engine made Allison Division one of the three principal manufacturers of aircraft engines in the country during the war, alongside Pratt & Whitney and Wright Aeronautical. In January 1941, Life magazine ran a feature on the engine, highlighting it as the “plane motor on which the Army puts its biggest bet.” By July 1941, the War Department awarded Allison a new contract for the engines. With this contract, total orders for Allison engines since the beginning of the defense emergency program totaled approximately $242,000,000.

America has bet heavily on the Allison engine in its aircraft defense plans, just as the war industries board in 1917 bet everything on the Liberty engine . . . the Allison engine has been delivering regularly for the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force]. Allison is now producing 400 aviation engines a month, where a year ago it was delivering only 150, and expects to approach 1,000 engines a month by the end of 1941. – “More Air Power,” Mason City [Iowa] Globe Gazette, August 13, 1941, 4.

Curtiss P-40, photo courtesy AllisoNews, July 18, 1941, 4.,

Orders and output for the V-1710 engine continued to grow, particularly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. By this point, employment at Allison Division surpassed 12,000. It swelled to 23,019 in October 1943. The company’s growth impacted the Town of Speedway as well. As early as 1940, Indianapolis newspapers commented on Speedway’s growing pains, reporting that officials from the town were seeking state aid to address problems that had come about from the influx of workers to the plants. These problems included the need to improve streets, sanitary conditions, and the need for a better water system. The Indianapolis Times noted that with more employees at the Allison plants came “more money, more home buying, more eating, etc.” School enrollment in the area doubled, church attendance rose greatly, and many new homes were built.

Bell Airacobra P-39, photo courtesy AllisoNews, August 1, 1941, 6.

Meanwhile, Allison Division continued to impress. By March 1944, it built and delivered its 50,000th liquid-cooled engine. By the war’s end, the total figure reached 70,000. These engines powered many of the United States’ fighter planes during the war, including the P-38 Lightning, the P-39 Airacobra, and the P-40 Warhawk. The engine was also used in several fighter planes flown by the Royal Air Force of the United Kingdom.

Lockheed P-38, photo courtesy AllisoNews, August 15, 1941, 4.
Program for the Presentation of the Army-Navy Production Award to Allison Division, General Motors Corporation, November 5, 1942.

Allison Division received high praise for the fine precision, workmanship, and durability of the V-1710. It won the Army-Navy “E” Award for excellence in production four times during the war: in October 1942, March 1944, October 1944, and June 1945. By the spring of 1945, Allison Division reduced production schedules of the V-1710 to focus more of its time on building jet engines, which could power planes at much higher speeds. The U.S Army Air Forces had awarded Allison a contract for the production of jet propulsion units in the fall of 1944. The Navy followed the Army’s lead and placed their own order with Allison in the summer of 1945, citing Allison’s “well established reputation for delivering the goods on time.” This reputation would continue through the end of the war in August 1945 and through the post-war years.

As had happened following the conclusion of World War I, racing returned to the Speedway area in 1946 to much fanfare. Left abandoned for nearly five years, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had fallen into disrepair during World War II. Tony Hulman purchased the track in November 1945 and worked to restore it in preparation for the May 1946 500-mile race. Fans came in droves to witness the 30th running of the Indianapolis 500 that year, as racing returned to center stage in the Speedway area.

AllisoNews, March 1944, 1, accessed IUPUI Digital Collections, Allison Transmission.

Allison’s work in Speedway and its commitment to technological advancements did not end with World War II, but rather continues through today. In addition to continuing its investment and development in the aviation industry following the war, Allison also organized a new department for the design and development of transmissions. The transmissions were manufactured for commercial and military use, with many powering tanks during the Korean War. Their production ushered in a new chapter in the company’s history. Today, James Allison’s experimental company in Speedway , now known around the globe as Allison Transmission, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of fully automatic transmissions.

Speedway: An Aviation Hub During World War I

Speedway’s aviation repair depot was bordered by Main St. on the west, 14th St. on the north, Polco St. on the east, and roughly contemporary Ford St. and 10th St. on the south. Photo courtesy of William Menkel, “‘New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129, accessed Google Books.

May is finally here and with it racing fans from around the world will soon begin flocking to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to attend practices and qualifying races in preparation for the Indianapolis 500. For the past century, the Speedway ─ both the track and the adjacent areas of the town ─ have become synonymous with motorsports and racing.

Fort Wayne Sentinel, March 23, 1917, sec. 2, p. 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

In addition to racing though, the area holds another important place in Indiana and U.S. history ─ as an innovative aviation hub during both world wars. During World War I, the track was used as a landing and flight test field and hangars built on site helped house aircraft. Just south of the track, the Allison Experimental Company manufactured parts for the Liberty Engine, arguably one of America’s greatest contributions to the war. And at Speedway’s aviation repair depot, workers restored 313 planes, 350 engines, and numerous aircraft parts. Their work helped keep our nation’s pilots in the air and made the Speedway area a center for military aviation during the war.

The United States lagged far behind the British, French, and Germans in military aviation when it entered World War I in April 1917. Those countries had been fighting  for three years and in that time had understood and capitalized on the value of military aircraft for combat and reconnaissance. American entry in the war spurred rapid expansion of the industry in the country. Although time constraints forced the U.S. to purchase much of its military aircraft from the British and French during this period, the country made great strides in preparing pilots for air service abroad and in the production and repair of engines and training aircraft.

Liberty 12 Model A V-12 Engine. Photo courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum.

Indianapolis’ central location made it a prime site for aviation repairs and flight testing. Nearby flying fields included Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois and Scott Field in Belleville, Illinois, McCook Field and Wilbur Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and Selfridge Field in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, among others. Additionally, the proximity of railroad lines in the city and automobile centers in Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois made it easier to access raw materials such as steel, aluminum, and lumber, as well as supplies and spare parts used in repairing wrecked aircraft. Perhaps even more importantly though was the leadership of men like Carl Fisher and James Allison, co-founders of the Speedway, who dedicated their manufacturing resources in the area and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the war effort.

Airplanes waiting to be placed in “roundhouse” at Speedway. “Aviation Repair Depot at Speedway City May Become Permanent When Aerial Mail Service is Extended to Midwestern Country,” Indianapolis News, August 10, 1918, accessed Newspapers.com.

The U.S. Army established the aviation repair depot in Speedway on February 4, 1918 with the arrival of the 810th Aero Squadron from Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. According to William Menkel, former captain in the U.S. Air Service and commanding officer of the depot, it was the first of the repair depots to get under way and begin repairs in the U.S. Other repair depots later opened in Dallas, Texas and in Montgomery, Alabama. In addition to the 810th Aero Squadron, the Speedway depot was also home to the 809th, 811th, and 821st squadrons. 150 men served in each squadron.

821st Aero Squadron. Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection.

In October 1918, the Speedway Dope, the newsletter of the aviation repair depot, reported that “the commissioned and enlisted personnel [at the depot] constitutes a cosmopolitan community. Mechanicians, [sic] clerks, cooks, and chauffeurs have come from all parts of the Union, and at the Speedway there is no East or West or North or South.” The majority of the civilian mechanics at the repair depot had little knowledge of aircraft before American entry in the war, but within a short time they became experts in the industry and in repair work. The U.S. Air Service established training schools for these men across the country and provided classes in engine assembly and wing and fuselage construction, while also teaching skills such as making and fastening metal parts to the aircraft, sewing fabric on wings, and applying dope varnish to the aircraft. The first wrecked aircraft arrived in April 1918.

Small Parts and Welding Department at the aviation repair depot. Photo courtesy of William Menkel, “‘New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129, accessed Google Books.

Damaged planes were unloaded and often sent to the Dismantling Department where the engine, landing gear, tail surfaces, and other parts were removed, cleaned, and worked on separately before reassembly began. While some of the planes that arrived only needed minor repairs before being shipped back out, others were total wrecks that needed to be completely rebuilt and tested.

By July, output reached three completed planes a day. Perhaps even more impressive though were the modifications made to the aircraft to help increase pilot safety. Workers at the repair depot analyzed incoming wrecks in order to find patterns in destruction. They then used this information to make improvements in design of the aircraft. For example, in his 1919 report on repair depots, Captain Menkel noted that many damaged planes that arrived in Speedway had smashed instrument boards. The instrument board was located so close to the pilot that in the case of a crash their head was likely to hit it. Workers at the depot moved the instrument boards farther away from the pilot’s seat during their repairs. This extra space reduced the chance that the pilot would hit it in a crash, thereby improving the pilot’s safety and lowering the chance of damage to the instrument board.

Propeller Room. Photo courtesy of William Menkel, “‘New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129, accessed Google Books.

The information learned from wrecked aircraft that arrived at the depot also resulted in other modifications, including the reinforcement of longerons and other parts of the plane to lower the chances of damage or fatal injury of the pilot and cutting out sections of the cowl frame to provide more distance between it and the pilot.

In a post report to Washington in January 1919, the Speedway Dope reported 313 airplanes repaired at the depot during 1918, representing a total value of $1,195,550.00 and 350 airplane motors valued at $638,699.00. In addition to these figures, the report noted repairs of wings, ailerons, elevators, rudders, and other miscellaneous parts valued at approximately $300,000.00. Added together, repairs at the depot well exceeded $2,000,000.00. Beyond the economic benefits and savings to the government was the fact that those working at the repair depot helped keep pilots in the air, reducing their chance of injury or death and ultimately giving the U.S. a better opportunity to win the war.

Articles in the Speedway Dope reiterated these sentiments, noting that those who trained or repaired airplanes in the Speedway area might be inclined to downplay the role they played in the war because they were not in the trenches abroad or flying in France. The repair and reconstruction of airplanes was a vital part of the war effort though.

Speedway Dope newsletter letterhead.

The third side of aviation has not only been neglected, but the public generally does not know that it even exists. The repair and reconstruction of damaged planes and motors, constitutes a bit part of the game of aviation. It is that part of the game that must be done and done right, or the other parts would fail to accomplish anything. True it does not carry any of the romance or glamour that follows the course of the pilot and his plane, and neither does it require the enormous financial outlay that goes with production . . . Yet this third side of aviation has been well taken care of and thousands of men who enlisted for service in France have remained at home repair depots and made it possible for others to enjoy foreign service and win international fame.

“The Third Side of Aviation-Rebuilding,” Speedway Dope, November 30, 1918, 1, accessed Indiana State Library Collections.

In the days immediately following the armistice on November 11, 1918, the Speedway Dope wrote that even though the war had ended, production at the depot should continue, as there was still plenty of work to do before completion of the final peace terms. Major Guy L. Gearhart, former commanding officer of the depot agreed. Maj. Gearhart recognized the important role the airplane would play in transportation after the war and believed the repair depot would become a permanent fixture in the Speedway.

A group of the Aviation Repair Depot Officers at the Flying Field, Speedway Motor Track. Left to right – Lt. A. D. McIlvaine, Sen. Instructor Frank Mills, Lt. James Wallace, Lt. William Groom, Lt. Col. A. W. Robins, Capt. Edward Laughlin, Lt. A. L. Maurer, Lt. Ralph M. Snyder, Lt. H. A. Knudson, Lt. R. J. Brandi, Lt. R. A. Ballard, Lt. Kincaid. Photo courtesy of the Speedway Dope, November 16, 1918, 1, accessed Indiana State Library.

The depot’s future remained unclear though. With the war over, immediate aviation interests in the area took a backseat to racing and motorsports. The Indianapolis 500, which had been cancelled in 1917 and 1918, recommenced in May 1919. The resumption of the annual race led to questions and concerns about the track and infield being used for aircraft. Despite initial orders calling for the closing of the depot in March 1919 though, the South Bend News-Times reported that recruitment for men for the U.S. Air Service at the Speedway aviation repair depot continued as of July. By the following year, however, the status of the aviation repair depot was again called into question. Some speculated that it would be removed from the Speedway area and relocated to Fairfield, Ohio. The government officially ordered the abandonment of the repair depot in September 1920 and publicized the sale of buildings and utilities in November of that year.

Although work in the Speedway area shifted back to racing and motorsports, aviation interests did not disappear completely. The Allison Experimental Company (Allison Engineering Company by 1921), located just west of the repair depot, continued to work to improve the Liberty aircraft engine into the 1920s. When General Motors purchased the company in 1929, it expressed a commitment to expanding its work in the aviation field. It was this commitment that made the Speedway area an aviation hub once again during World War II.

Be sure to check back in a few weeks when we examine the vital role the Speedway area played in military aviation in World War II!

Sources Used and Research Note:

William Menkel, “‘New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129-1133, 1144, accessed Google Books.

Much of the information about the aviation repair depot came from articles in the Speedway Dope. The publication ran from September 28, 1918 until February 1, 1919. Copies of the paper can be located at the Indiana State Library.

The Indiana Historical Bureau installed a new state historical marker commemorating the aviation repair depot in Speedway on April 24, 2018. Marker sponsors included Rolls-Royce North America, Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust – Allison Branch, and the Town of Speedway. For more information on the aviation repair depot and additional sources, see: https://www.in.gov/history/markers/4406.htm

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Forgotten Hoosier Hero Samuel Woodfill

Portrait of Woodfill by Joseph Cummings Chase, 1919. Image courtesy Lowell Thomas, Woodfill of the Regulars, 1929.

Perhaps one of the most heroic soldiers of World War I, Samuel Woodfill is largely forgotten today. He would have preferred it that way. Modest and a skilled marksman, Woodfill was born in Jefferson County, near Madison, in January 1883.  Growing up, he watched his father and older brothers use guns to hunt, observing how they shot. By the age of ten, he was secretly taking a gun out to hunt squirrels and telling his mother the squirrels were from a neighbor. When he was caught, his veteran father (John Woodfill served in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War), was so impressed with Woodfill’s marksmanship he was allowed to take the gun whenever he pleased.

At 15, Woodfill tried to enlist during the Spanish-American War. He was turned down, but enlisted in 1901 at the age of 18. He served in the Philippines until 1904, and returned home for only a few months before he volunteered to be stationed at Fort Egbert in Alaska. It was in Alaska that Woodfill worked on his marksmanship, hunting caribou, moose, and brown bears in the snowy landscape of the Last Frontier until 1912. Upon his return to Fort Thomas, Kentucky, Woodfill was promoted to sergeant due to his impeccable record. In 1914, he was sent to defend the Mexican border until his return to Fort Thomas in 1917. While Woodfill showed great discipline and marksmanship as a soldier, World War I would prove how exceptional he really was.

Woodfill (left) and his comrades in Alaska. Image courtesy Lowell Thomas, Woodfill of the Regulars, 1929.

In April 1917, Woodfill was promoted to Second Lieutenant and he prepared to go to Europe to fight on the front. Before leaving, he married his longtime sweetheart, Lorena “Blossom” Wiltshire, of Covington, Kentucky. Woodfill was part of the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.), Company M, 60th Infantry, 5th Division and was promoted to First Lieutenant while in Europe.

“Lieut. Woodfill used his rifle as a club.” New Castle Herald (New Castle, Pennsylvania), April 5, 1919, accessed Newspapers.com

Woodfill’s most defining moment, and one that brought him international fame, occurred on October 12, 1918 near Cunel, France during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Leading his men through enemy territory, Woodfill’s company was attacked by German soldiers. Not wanting to put any of his men in danger, Woodfill proceeded ahead alone to face the enemy. Using his marksman skills, he identified the probable locations for German nests, and took out several snipers and their replacements. As he moved forward, his men managed to keep up with him and together they braced themselves for the shelling that would continue throughout the afternoon. When it finally stopped, Woodfill went back to retrieve the pack he had left behind, discovering that the jar of strawberry jam he had been saving was gone. Hearing Woodfill grumble about the “yellow-bellied son of a sea cook” who stole it, the company cook gave Woodfill a fresh apple pie. Remembering the pie years later, Woodfill said “I don’t think any medal I ever got pleased me half as much as that apple pie.” Woodfill spent ten weeks in the hospital, recovering from the mustard gas he breathed in while taking out the German snipers.

Woodfill received the Medal of Honor for his actions in January 1919 before returning home to Kentucky. Several other medals followed, including the Croix de Guerre with palm (France, 1919), and the Croce di Guerra (Italy, 1921).

Samuel Woodfill. Image courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society

He left the Army in November 1919, but quickly realized that after such a long time in the forces, finding a job would be difficult. Three weeks later, he reenlisted as a sergeant, losing his rank of captain he had achieved during the war. But as long as Woodfill was in the Army and living a quiet life, he was happy. Soon, his heroic actions during the war were forgotten by the public. This changed in 1921 when Woodfill was chosen to be a pallbearer to the Unknown Soldier by General Pershing. Upon seeing Woodfill’s name on the list to choose from, he exclaimed,

“Why, I have already picked that man as the greatest single hero in the American forces.”

Interest in Woodfill and his story gained popularity, and the fact that he had lost his rank as captain bothered many. Appeals as to his rank would appear in the Senate, but proved fruitless. Woodfill’s rank did not bother him, but the pay did. He wanted to provide for anything his wife wanted, and could not do that on a sergeant’s pay. In 1922, he took a three months’ leave from the Army and worked as a carpenter on a dam in Silver Grove to make enough money to pay the mortgage. By 1923, Woodfill was able to retire from the Army with a pension. Author Lowell Thomas took an interest in Woodfill and published a biography titled Woodfill of the Regulars in 1929 in an attempt to help Woodfill pay his mortgage. Framed as Woodfill telling the story of his life, Thomas had to add an epilogue to include the prestigious honors he received because Woodfill only included the Medal of Honor.

Woodfill on the rifle range at Fort Benning, Georgia, 1942. Image courtesy The Cincinnati Enquirer, via newspapers.com

In 1942, the War Department reenlisted Woodfill and Sergeant Alvin York, another WWI hero. Having lost his wife a few months earlier, Woodfill sold everything he owned and went off to serve in WWII. Woodfill passed most of the entrance exams, but had to be given special clearance because he did not have the minimum number of teeth required to serve. (Check back to learn about Hoosier dentist Dr. Otto U. King, who, through the National Council of Defense, mobilized dentists to treat military recruits rejected due to dental issues during World War I). At 59 years old, Woodfill was still an excellent marksman, hitting “bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye” on a rifle range in Fort Benning, Georgia. He did not serve long, as he hit the mandatory retirement age of 60 in 1943.

Rather than returning to Kentucky, Woodfill settled in an apartment in Vevay, Indiana. He spent his remaining years in solitude, enjoying the anonymity that he had craved throughout his career. He died on August 10, 1951 and was buried in a cemetery between Madison and Vevay. In 1955, Woodfill’s story resurfaced and a push to honor the WWI hero resulted in Woodfill’s body moving to Arlington National Cemetery. He was buried near General Pershing with full military honors in October 1955.

Woodfill did not enjoy the spotlight, but after taking on the enemy singlehandedly in the midst of a battle, he deserved it. He worked hard throughout his life with little expectation of recognition for his great accomplishments.

War, Plague, and Courage: Spanish Influenza at Fort Benjamin Harrison & Indianapolis

Spanish Influenza hit Indiana in September of 1918. While the virus killed otherwise healthy soldiers and civilians affected by WWI in other parts of the world since the spring, most Hoosiers assumed they were safe that fall. Still, newspaper headlines made people nervous and health officials suspected that the mysterious flu was on their doorstep.

Howard Chandler Christy, “Fight of Buy Bonds,” poster, 1917, Indianapolis Marion County Public Library, Special Collections, accessed digitalindy.org

In April of 1917, the United States joined the Allied effort. Residents of Indianapolis, like most Hoosiers, largely united around the war effort and organized in its support. In addition to registering for military service, the National Guard, and the Red Cross, they organized Liberty Loan drives to raise funds and knitting circles to make clothing for their soldiers. Farmers, grain dealers, and bankers met to assure adequate production and conservation of food.  They improved the roads in order to mobilize goods for the war effort, including a road from Indianapolis to nearby Fort Benjamin Harrison located just nine miles northeast of downtown Indianapolis. This penchant for organization would be extremely valuable throughout the bleak coming months.

Indianapolis News, August 17, 1916, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The U.S. Army constructed Fort Benjamin Harrison over a decade earlier with the intention of stationing one infantry regiment there. However, with America’s entry into the war, Fort Ben (as it was colloquially known) became an important training site for soldiers and officers. It also served as a mobilization center for both Army and National Guard units. In August 1918, just prior to the flu outbreak, the War Department announced that the majority of the fort would be converted into General Hospital 25. The Army planned for the hospital to receive soldiers native to Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois who would be returning from the front as wounded, disabled, or suffering from “shell shock.” By September, the newly established hospital was ready to receive a few hundred “wounded soldiers returning from France.” But the soldiers stationed there began to fall ill.

“Fort Benjamin Harrison Post Hospital,” n.d., in Stephen Bower, A History of Fort Benjamin Harrison, 1903-1982, accessed archive.org
Indianapolis News, September 26, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

On September 26, 1918, the front page of the Indianapolis News announced unidentified cases of illness in training detachments stationed at the Indiana School for the Deaf, the Hotel Metropole, and Fort Benjamin Harrison. The detachment at the deaf school denied that men were infected with the deadly Spanish Influenza that was on the rise as soldiers returned to the U.S. from the front. The medical officers instead claimed “the ailment here is not as serious as that prevailing in the east.”

Despite this reassurance, the high number of cases was alarming. The major in command of the detachment issued a quarantine. The lieutenant from the hotel detachment also claimed that none of the illnesses there were caused by Spanish influenza.  He referred to the cases as “stage fright,” as opposed to a full outbreak of the disease.  At Fort Benjamin Harrison, sixty men suffered from influenza, but the Indianapolis News reported “none has been diagnosed as Spanish influenza and no case is regarded as serious.”  The medical officers there reported “An epidemic is not feared.”

Indianapolis News, September 26, 1918, 22, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

While the front page reassured the city’s residents that there was nothing to fear and that the military had everything under control, a small article tucked away on page twenty-two hinted at the magnitude of the coming pandemic. The body of twenty-seven-year-old Walter Hensley arrived in the city from a naval training detachment on the Great Lakes. He had died of Spanish Influenza. Only a few weeks later, Indianapolis would be infected with over 6,000 cases with Fort Benjamin Harrison caring for over 3,000 patients in a 300 bed facility before the end of the epidemic.

The Motor Corps of St. Louis chapter of the American Red Cross, 1918, Influenza Encyclopedia, University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine, accessed influenzaarchive.org.

Indianapolis was not alone in its unpreparedness, as little was known about the strange flu.  Influenza was certainly not uncommon, but most flu viruses killed the very young, sick, and elderly. The 1918 influenza, on the other hand, killed otherwise healthy young adults ages twenty to forty – precisely the ages of those crowded into military camps around the world. Furthermore, the disease could spread before symptoms appeared. Infected soldiers and other military personnel with no symptoms amassed in barracks and tents, on trains and ships, and in hospitals and trenches. As troops moved across the globe, so did the flu. It took on the name “Spanish influenza,” because unlike France and England, Spain did not censor reports of the outbreak.

“An Early Morning Wash, Fort Harrison,” in Benjamin D. Hitz, ed., A History of Base Hospital 32 (Indianapolis: Indiana Red Cross, 1922), accessed IUPUI Center for Digital Scholarship.

While many modern historians and epidemiologists now believe the pandemic likely began in a crowded army camp in Fort Riley Kansas, Americans in 1918 feared its spread from Europe and took some unlikely precautions. On July 3, 1918, the South Bend News-Times assured its readers that a Spanish passenger liner that had arrived in an Atlantic port “was thoroughly fumigated and those on board subjected to thorough examination by federal and state health officers.” Such measures did little to stop the flu, however, and by September 14 the South Bend newspaper reported on several East Coast deaths from Spanish influenza. On the same day, the Indianapolis News printed a notice from the Surgeon-General Rupert Blue, head of the U.S. Public Health Service, offering advice for preventing infection. These public notices became routine over the following months of the pandemic. Among methods listed for preventing the spread of the disease, Blue recommended “rest in bed, fresh air, abundant food, with Dover’s powders for the relief of pain.”  He also warned of the “danger of promiscuous coughing and spitting.”

Hanlon [artist], Halt The Epidemic, 1918, poster, United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation, George F. Tyler Poster Collection, Temple University Libraries.
Over the next few days, newspapers reported that the nation’s training camps were infected. On September 17, the Richmond Palladium and the Indianapolis News reported “approximately four thousand men are in quarantine today as the result of Spanish influenza breaking out in the aviation camp of the naval training station” on the Great Lakes in Illinois. The following day, the South Bend News-Times reported that “Spanish influenza now has become epidemic in three army camps” with 1,500 cases in Massachusetts, 1,000 in Virginia, and 350 in New York. The military scrambled to meet the needs of the infected and anxious citizens awaited a response from the government’s health services.

Indianapolis News, September 19, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

On September 19, 1918, Surgeon-General Blue sent a telegraph to the head health officer of each state requesting they immediately conduct a survey to determine the prevalence of influenza. In response, Dr. John Hurty, Indiana’s Secretary of the Board of Health, telephoned the local health officials in each city requesting a report. Hurty warned that the flu was “highly contagious,” but stated that “quarantine is impractical,” according to the Indianapolis News. Instead, he offered Hoosiers this advice:

Avoid crowds . . . until the danger of this thing is past. The germs lurk in crowded street cars, motion picture houses and everywhere there is a crowd. They float on dust, and therefore avoid dust. The best thing to do is to keep your body in a splendid condition and let it do its own fighting after you exercise the proper caution of exposure.

Dr. John Hurty, photograph, n.d., Purdue University Archive, accessed Historic Indianapolis.

One week later, hundreds of men were sick with influenza in Indiana training camps. Again Hurty offered the best advice that he could while advising citizens to remain calm. However, he had to admit: “It has invaded several of our training camps and will doubtless become an epidemic in civil life.” He advised:

If all spitting would immediately cease, and if all coughers and sneezers would hold a cloth or paper handkerchief over their noses and mouths when coughing or sneezing, then influenza and coughs and colds would almost disappear. We also must not forget to tone up our physical health, for even a few and weak microbes may find lodgment in low toned bodies. To gain high physical tone, get plenty of sleep in a well ventilated bedroom. Don’t worry, don’t feast, don’t hurry, don’t fret. Look carefully after elimination. Eat only plain foods. Avoid riotous eating of flesh. Go slow on coffee and tea. Avoid alcohol in every form. Cut out all drugs and dopes . . . Frown on public spitters and those who cough and sneeze in public without taking all precautions.

Indianapolis News, September 27, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Most notably, in this same September 26 front page article in the Indianapolis News, Hurty stated that Indiana had “only mild cases . . . and not deaths.” This would soon change.

Despite these public reassurances, Hurty and other Indianapolis civic leaders knew they needed to do more to prepare. Since little was known about how the flu spread, these men tried to keep the city safe using their intuition.  A clean city seemed like a safer city, so they organized a massive clean up. On September 27, the Indianapolis News reported:

To prevent a Spanish Influenza epidemic in Indianapolis, Mayor Charles W. Jewett today directed Dr. Herman G. Morgan, secretary of the city board of health, to order all public places – hotel lobbies, theaters, railway stations and street cars – placed at once in thorough sanitary condition by fumigation and cleansing.

The article noted that in other cities local officials had been unable to prevent widespread infection and that Indianapolis should learn from their failures and “get busy now with every preventative measures that can be put in operation to make conditions sanitary so that infection will not spread.”

Indianapolis News, September 30, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

By the end of the month, influenza had reached the civilian population. Officials continued to discourage people from gathering in crowds and encouraged anyone with a cough or cold to stay home. The News reported that Indianapolis movie houses had begun showing films on screens in front of the buildings instead of inside the theaters.

“Bird’s-Eye View of a Portion of the Army Post,” in Stephen Bower, A History of Fort Benjamin Harrison, 1903-1982 (Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana: Command History Office, 1984), accessed archive.org.

Meanwhile, the numbers of infected men at Fort Benjamin Harrison rose. By the end of September, officers in charge of the base hospital reported that there were “about 500 cases of respiratory disease” at the camp. Although newspapers still reported that it was unclear whether these illness were indeed Spanish influenza, it was clear that the situation was growing dire. Because so many nurses believed Indiana was safe from the pandemic and volunteered to work out east to fight the virus, the fort’s hospital only had twenty trained nurses to care for the hundreds of sick men. The Indianapolis News reported that enlisted soldiers were “being employed as nurses” and that one battalion of engineers had been completely quarantined. Meanwhile, notices of soldiers dying from influenza and related pneumonia began to fill the papers of Indianapolis newspapers.

Base Hospital 32 [which had trained and mobilized at Fort Benjamin Harrison was sent to France before the outbreak] in Benjamin D. Hitz, ed., A History of Base Hospital 32 (Indianapolis: Indiana Red Cross, 1922), accessed IUPUI Center for Digital Scholarship.
By October 1, the number of sick men at Fort Benjamin Harrison rose to 650 cases. The Indianapolis News reported, “No new troops are arriving at the engineer camp,” and “fifty engineers were lent to the base camp hospital yesterday to act as orderlies and clerks and to release medical corps for service as nurses.” The article concluded, “The hospital needs a number of trained nurses.” While the bodies of Hoosier soldiers stationed at camps around the country arrived in the city, Fort Benjamin Harrison had yet to lose one of its own.  Less than a week later, that changed.

On Sunday night, October 6, 1918, ten soldiers died in the fort’s hospital bringing the total for the week to forty-one deceased soldiers. Four civilians died from influenza and six more from the ensuing pneumonia. At the fort, officials reported 172 new cases of influenza (bringing the total to 1,653 sick soldiers). Of these, the base hospital was attempting to care for 1,300 men.

Indianapolis News, October 7, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

In response, Dr. Morgan announced “a sweeping order prohibiting gatherings of five or more persons.”  The front page of the News read, “PUBLIC MEETINGS ARE FORBIDDEN,” and noted that all churches, schools, and theaters were closed until further notice. Only gatherings related to the war effort were exempt, such as work at manufacturing plants and Liberty loan committee meetings. The prominent doctor even discouraged people from gathering at the growing numbers of funerals, encouraging only close family to attend. In October of 1918, Indianapolis must have looked like a ghost town.

Indianapolis News, October 7, 1918, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The sick desperately needed nurses and nowhere more than at Fort Benjamin Harrison. Two front page Indianapolis News headlines for October 7 read, “Ft. Harrison Soldiers in Dire Need of Nurses,” and “Graduate Nurses Are Needed for Soldiers.” The News reported that at Fort Ben “soldier boys are dying for lack of trained help” and that the “few nurses in service are worn to the point of exhaustion.” Officers of the local Red Cross worked to redirect nurses who were awaiting transport overseas to the local effort against influenza, while the women of the motor corps of the Indianapolis Red Cross were busy transporting needed supplies by automobiles.

Motor Corps Member in Formation at Fort Benjamin Harrison, photograph, 1918, Indiana Red Cross, accessed IUPUI Center for Digital Scholarship.

The rest of the newspaper that day was filled with reports on school closings, cancelled meetings, the numbers of sick in various counties, and funerals. The plague was peaking and Fort Benjamin Harrison suffered the most. While most residents of Indiana stayed far away from the infected camp, the brave women of Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne took their nursing skills into the heart of the epidemic. The Fort Wayne Sentinel reported on October 7, the same day the Red Cross called urgently for nurses, “10 Local Nurses Respond.” The paper continued:

Willing to risk their lives in the nation’s service in helping combat the ravages of Spanish influenza, ten Lutheran hospital nurses left the city . . . for Fort Benjamin Harrison, near Indianapolis, Ind., where they will enter service in the military base hospital, which is very urgently in need of qualified nurses to aid in fighting the epidemic.

Fort Wayne Sentinel, October 8, 1918, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

The following day, the Sentinel published a picture of the brave nurses and the local paper praised their “patriotic devotion to place their training at the disposal of their government even at the risk of their lives.”

Red Cross Workshop, photograph, 1918, Indiana University Archives, accessed blogs.libraries.indiana.edu

The same day, a medical officer from the fort hospital told the Indianapolis Star that several trained nurses had reported for duty “within the last few hours to relieve the situation” and that “everything that can be done for the boys is being done.” The Star reported that the officer was responding to “wild rumors” that the soldiers were not getting adequate care. However, the Indiana Red Cross and Board of Health knew that more nurses were needed. On October 11, the Fort Wayne Sentinel shared Dr. Hurty’s report that “during last night thirty soldiers had succumbed to the ravages of the epidemic at Fort Harrison, some of them expiring before their uniforms could be removed from them.” One of the men was Captain C. C. Turner of the medical reserve who had been sent to the fort from another camp only a few days before to help combat the influenza outbreak. His records had not even arrived yet and his relatives could not be contacted.

American Red Cross Influenza Mask Bundles and Bag, 1918-1919, ID#6119.9.1-4, Minnesota Historical Society Collections.

The situation at the fort prompted Dr. Morgan and several other leading doctors of the city to issue a statement. The doctors praised the efforts of the hospital staff and volunteers.  They stated:

The medical staff of Camp Benjamin Harrison has succeeded in fourteen days in expanding a hospital of about 250 beds to one of 1,700 beds by occupying the well-built brick structures formerly used as barracks. These they were able to equip adequately with the assistance of the American Red Cross which . . . proved itself able to supply every demand made by the army on the same day the request was made.

The doctors reported that the hospital had treated 2,500 patients in the previous two weeks. Despite their heroic efforts, the epidemic persisted.

Indianapolis News, October 11, 1918, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The city also bolstered its efforts as the number of infected rose to 1,536 civilians. On October 11, the Indianapolis News reported 441 new cases of influenza in a twenty-four hour period. In response, Dr. Morgan announced that the city board of health “enlarged the order against public gatherings of every description” and that the Indianapolis police department would enforce the order. “Dry beer saloons,” which were prohibition era gathering places, were closed. Department stores were prohibited from having sales and would be closed completely if found too crowded. Finally, the board of health directed its officers to post cards reading “Quarantine, Influenza,” on houses containing a sick person. The next twenty-four hours brought the city 250 new cases and the fort 47 new cases of Spanish flu. In that same period, twenty four young men died at Fort Benjamin Harrison. The epidemic was peaking.

Indiana State Board of Health, Influenza: How to Avoid It, circa 1918, broadside, Indiana State Library Broadsides Collection, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

A week later there was some evidence that the virus began to relax its grip on the fort, if not the city. The Indianapolis News reported that while the previous twenty-four hours had brought twenty-eight deaths to the city, the fort suffered only four. And while the city reported 252 new civilian cases, the fort reported only twelve new cases. Since the fort was struck by influenza before the city, civilians must have seen this decrease at the fort as a good sign. The plague had almost run its course.

On October 30, Dr. Hurty announced that the closing ban would be lifted in Indianapolis. Newspapers reported the lowest number of new cases since the start of the deadly month and Fort Harrison reported that not one person had died in the previous twenty-four hours. Schools could reopen Monday, November 4 and people with no cold symptoms could ride street cars and attend movie theaters. Through the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919, there were small resurgences of the epidemic. Morgan ordered the wearing of gauze masks in public and discouraged gatherings. However, the worst had passed, and the war had ended.

Indianapolis Star, November 24, 1918, 6, Indiana State Library, microfilm.

As Indianapolis began to return to normal, the damage was assessed. On November 24, 1918, the Indianapolis Star tallied the state’s loss at 3,266 Hoosiers, mostly young men and women. This massive loss of citizens in their prime also left 3,020 children orphaned. The War Department also assessed the losses at Fort Benjamin Harrison. The Surgeon General reported that General Hospital 25 at the fort treated a total of 3,116 cases of influenza and 521 cases of related pneumonia. The hard work of the medical staff and brave volunteers transformed a fort designed to care for a few hundred injured men into a giant hospital caring for thousands.

Panoramic View of Indianapolis, 1918, Influenza Encyclopedia, University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine.

The city also benefited from leadership of the committed men of Indianapolis and the State Board of Health, as well as cooperative citizens.  According to the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine, “In the end, Indianapolis had an epidemic death rate of 290 per 100,000 people, one of the lowest in the nation.” The center attributes the city’s relative success to “how well Indianapolis as well as state officials worked together to implement community mitigation measures against influenza,” whereas in other cities “squabbling among officials and occasionally business interests hampered effective decision-making.” Indianapolis leaders presented a united front, shop and theater owners complied despite personal loss, and brave men and women volunteered their services at risk to their own lives. Somehow only one of the heroic volunteer nurses stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison lost her life.

Indianapolis News, May 7, 1919, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hospital 32 Nurses in Welcome Home Day Parade, photograph, 1919, Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

On May 6, 1919, the Indianapolis News replaced columns of text detailing the influenza-related losses with jubilant articles about the city’s preparations for Welcome Home Day.  Trains unloaded Hoosier soldiers still carrying their regimental colors. Indianapolis decked herself out in red, white, and blue. On May 7, 1919, 20,000 men and women walked in the welcome parade that stretched for 33 blocks. Many, like the men and women of Hospital No. 32, trained and mobilized at Fort Benjamin Harrison. Many had survived the Spanish Influenza, nursed the sick, or lost a friend to the pandemic. Not a single article mentioned it.  The city was ready to move towards peace and healing.

Indianapolis News, May 7, 1919, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

For further reading and linked resources:

“Guns, Germs, and Indiana Athletics, 1917-1920: How Did the Great War and the Great Pandemic Affect Indiana Sports,” Blogging Hoosier History.

Influenza Encyclopedia, University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine