The 1948 desegregation of US armed forces can be partially attributed to a bellwether protest at Indiana’s Freeman Field in the spring of 1945. Here, officers of the African American 477th Bombardment Group challenged the unlawful exclusion of blacks from officers’ club, resulting in their arrest. The uprising immediately gained the attention of the War Department, NAACP, and lawmakers such as Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg. The refusal of more than 100 black officer’s to comply with “Jim Crow” policies underlined the broader push for civil rights in the World War II era.
America’s involvement in WWII exposed the great disparity between the fight for freedom abroad and the treatment of African Americans at home. In 1945, The Pittsburgh Courier alleged that it was difficult to understand how President Harry S. Truman’s administration “can claim to be prosecuting a war to bring democracy to all of the world when it will not enforce its own orders supposedly establishing democracy in its own country.” Similarly, Hoosier businessman and Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie expressed concern with the treatment of African Americans in the Armed Forces. In his 1944 article “Citizens of Negro Blood” for Collier’s Magazine, Willkie stated that World War II “has made us conscious of the contradictions between our treatment of our Negro minority and the ideals for which we are fighting. The equitable treatment of racial minorities in America is basic to our chance for a just and lasting peace.” Roberta West Nicholson, Indiana state legislator and daughter-in-law of Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson, worked with the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center during WWII and observed the same type of discrimination at Camp Atterbury. She successfully fought for black servicemen’s rights to utilize the exact same amenities and recreational facilities as their white counterparts, lamenting “It’s difficult to believe, but this is true; because the Army itself was segregated.”
Discrimination forced African Americans to fight to even be admitted to the Army Air Corps, which was an exclusively white organization until the late 1930s. According to James Allison’s “Mutiny at Freeman Field,” with the outbreak of global war, the Army revised its policy and recruited black units, but kept them segregated from white counterparts. The Air Corps sponsored flight schools for African Americans due to pressure from Congress and NAACP leaders, but accepted none of their graduates, despite exemplary records. Allison noted that “Countervailing pressures from politicians seeking the black vote and enterprising blacks who threatened to sue resulted in an Air Corps decision to form an African American fighter squadron” in 1941. The squadron, designated the “Tuskegee Airmen,” was trained at Alabama’s Tuskegee Field and produced a formidable combat record.
Unlike the Tuskegee squadron, the 477th Bombardment Group was trained at a base in Seymour, Indiana that included white servicemen. The group was first established at Selfridge Field near Detroit, under the command of white officer Colonel Robert W. Selway. The group was transferred to Kentucky’s Godman Field as the result of racial tension and protest similar to that which later occurred at Freeman Field. The 477th was then moved to the Freeman Field air base in March 1945 to train with better facilities. The Indianapolis Recorder noted in April that:
Arrival of the group here stimulated open hostility on the part of tradesmen in the nearby town of Seymour . . . Most of the trades people announced they would furnish no service or sell commodities to the new arrivals at Freeman Field. Negro residents of Seymour, less than 100 in number, are striving valiantly to meet the needs of the soldiers.
These men, many of whom were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart, encountered racial discrimination from white servicemen at Freeman Field. Little had changed regarding their treatment since WWI, during which African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker and her sales agents wrote a letter to President Woodrow Wilson officially condemning the mistreatment of black troops. According to the Recorder, African American officers at Freeman were denied entry into the air base’s tennis courts, swimming pool, and “swanky” officer’s club after 5 p.m. by Officer Selway, who created a “superficial classification that prevented their enjoyment of facilities established for commissioned personnel.” This classification violated Army Regulation 210-10, which prohibited the racial segregation of officers at army camps. According to Allison, black officers mobilized to challenge the discriminatory action, meeting in hangars to plan a peaceful protest.
On April 5, 1945, Selway learned of the plan and ordered a provost marshal to guard the club and turn away black servicemen. At the end of the night, 61 officers were arrested for attempting to enter the club, three of whom faced a jury in July for “jostling a provost marshall [sic].” On the 7th and 8th, more officers were arrested for attempted entry of the club. In a move that could further institutionalize segregation, Selway pressured black officers to “sign a statement that attested to their understanding of the order that had established one club for trainees and the other for supervisory personnel” (Allison). Officers were read an Article of War threatening death for failure to obey command and then issued a direct order to sign. Undeterred, 101 officers refused to sign and were subsequently arrested and sent back to Godman Field. According to Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough, a commander of a local black American Legion Post asserted “Blacks must wage two wars-one against the Axis powers, the other for full citizenship at home.” The Freeman Field officers did just that.
First Lieutenant Quentin P. Smith was among those who refused to sign and recalled “‘I thought, ‘Oh my God this can’t be happening . . . He had given me a direct order to sign. I had finished college and all I had to do was just stay alive and I’ll be a general. I had no voice then'” (1992, Merrillville Times). After refusing to sign, he was escorted to his barracks at gunpoint and held under arrest for twelve days. In a document endorsed by Smith on April 25, he contended “The cited regulation appeared and still appears to be a ‘Jim Crow’ regulation” and that he:
could not, and cannot understand how Medical Officers, qualified as Flight Surgeons and having completed all required Army medical training and having completed years of private medical practice could have been classified as ‘trainee’ personnel unless the distinction were solely one of color.
He added he wished to indicate “his unshakeable belief that racial bias is Fascistic, un-American, and directly contrary to the ideas for which he is willing to fight and die.”
The Recorder reported that “The mass arrest which is believed unprecedented in the history of the Army has this post in an uproar and has disrupted the entire training program of the 477th Bombardment group.” By the 26th, it appeared that the uprising was beginning to influence Army policy, as the newspaper noted that “Officials of the Public Regulations Bureau of the department in Washington admitted momentous changes are being considered as result of an investigation of conditions surrounding” the incident. On April 28, The Pittsburgh Courier called for the immediate release and “return to duty” of the arrested men and that “Anything less will be a travesty on justice.”
Following public outcry and the efforts of the NAACP, all were released and served with an administrative reprimand, with the exception of three men. The Recorder noted on June 30, that Selway had been replaced with African American Colonel B.O. Davis Jr. However, the three men arrested for “jostling” an officer continued to be confined and were prohibited from obtaining counsel. In July, a jury acquitted Lt. Marsden A. Thompson and Lt. Shirley R. Clinton of “disobedience of a direct order,” along with Lt. Roger C. Terry, although he was found guilty of “jostling” an officer and forced to pay $150. In 1995, the Air Force set aside Terry’s conviction. In an Indianapolis Star article, Terry declared that this removed the weight he had been carrying since the ordeal and that “What came off my back was that all my hatred went away. All of it.”
Although their military records remained tarnished until the 1990s, the black airmen’s protest significantly influenced President Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces on July 26, 1948. In negating Terry’s conviction, former assistant secretary of the Air Force concluded that the Freeman mutiny was crucial to military integration and a “‘giant step for equality.'”
Jonathan Jennings was born in 1784 in New Jersey, the sixth child of Jacob and Mary Jennings. His father was a physician and minister. The future first governor of the State of Indiana grew up in western Pennsylvania. He moved to the Indiana Territory at age 22, settling first in Jeffersonville, where he began a law practice. In 1807, Jennings moved to Vincennes, capital of the territory. There, he clerked for the land office, the General Assembly of the Indiana Territory, and for Vincennes University. An incident at the the university between Jennings and Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison and his supporters, prompted Jennings to leave Vincennes. In search of a more hospitable residence and career, he returned to Clark County and settled in Charlestown by 1809.
Jennings’ move would prove to be very timely for his political ambitions. Congress separated the Illinois Territory from the Indiana Territory, which lessened Governor Harrison’s political influence. Furthermore, Congress mandated that the Indiana Territory’s delegate to Congress be popularly elected, as opposed to elected by the territorial legislature.
While Jennings was an outsider to Harrison’s clique, he was extremely personable and a great campaigner. His outsider status was also relatable to the population in the eastern counties, who resented the patriarchal political power structures in Vincennes. Indiana historian William Wesley Woollen described Jennings’ appeal, noting he was “a man of polished manners . . . he was always gentle and kind to those about him. He was not an orator, but he could tell what he knew in a pleasing way.”
An oft-repeated story about Jennings illustrates his political populism in contrast to his patrician political opponents. Author John Bartlow Martin described the scene this way:
Jennings’s opponent, a Harrison man, arrived during a logrolling [at a Dearborn County farm], chatted at the farmhouse a short time, then rode away. But Jennings, arriving next day, pitched into the logrolling and when it was done, tossed quoits and threw the maul with the men, taking care to let them beat him. He was a natural politician, the kind the Hoosiers lived, almost the original model of the defender of the people against the interests.
In 1809, only white, property-holding men could vote in the Indiana Territory. At age 25, Jennings ran for Congress and defeated an older and better politically connected candidate. Jennings won re-election in 1811, 1812, and 1814. As a territorial delegate, and not a fully vested member of Congress, Jennings could not vote on legislation. However, his role was very important to Indiana’s road to statehood as he advocated for legislation from Indiana Territory constituents, including petitions for statehood. The first statehood petition was sent to Jennings in 1811, which Congress denied on account of the territory’s population not yet reaching 35,000. The United States had more pressing problems in subsequent years, most notably the War of 1812, which raged until 1814. The war disrupted the business of Congress when the British Army burned the U.S. Capitol and the White House.
A year after the Treaty of Ghent ended the war, Congress was back to lawmaking. On December 28, 1815, Jennings introduced another territorial petition for statehood. This time the U.S. House leadership referred the petition to a committee and named Jennings as chairman. A week later the committee reported a bill, which eventually passed. On April 19, 1816, President James Madison signed it into law. Known as the Enabling Act, the legislation authorized residents of the Indiana Territory to hold a Constitutional Convention. On June 10, 1816, convention delegates convened in Corydon to draft a constitution. Jennings was one of the delegates. He was so esteemed by his peers that he became president of the convention. The resulting document borrowed from previous state constitutions, but reinforced a lot of democratic ideals. Although there was a system of checks and balances, most of the power lay with the elected representatives, which many people viewed as being closer to the people than the governor. The constitution also allowed for universal white, adult male suffrage, gave voters the right to call for a new constitution, recommended a state-supported education system, prohibited establishment of private banks, and prohibited slavery.
Indiana held its first state elections in August 1816, and Jennings won the gubernatorial election over Territorial Governor Thomas Posey. Jennings was then only thirty-two years old. For the next six years he would serve as Indiana’s first executive. Keep in mind, under the 1816 Constitution, a governor’s powers were limited, and he could not set legislative agendas. He could make appointments, including judges, and could also sign or veto legislation.
According to Carl E. Kramer’s profile of Jennings in The Governors of Indiana, the state’s first governor faced the daunting challenge of “placing Indiana on a sound financial footing, implementing a court system, and developing rudimentary educational and internal improvements systems, while also attempting to prevent government from becoming so burdensome that it obstructed personal advancement and enterprise.” Kramer noted that as governor, Jennings concentrated on “organizing an educational system that reached from the common schools to a state university; creating a state banking system; preventing illegal efforts to capture and enslave blacks entitled to their freedom; organizing a state library; and developing a plan of internal improvements.” His limited success in accomplishing these, was “as much a reflection of the governor’s limited powers and the state’s impoverished financial condition as it is upon his political skills and knowledge of the issues.”
His most far-reaching action during the time he served as governor actually occurred when he was not acting in that capacity. In 1818, Jennings served as a treaty negotiator on the Treaty of St. Mary’s which obtained title to a large part of land from the Miami Indians. As an aside, while Jennings was absent from Corydon during these negotiations, Lieutenant Governor Christopher Harrison tried unsuccessfully to take power and remove Jennings from office.
The low-light of Jennings time as governor came in 1820 as the State Bank teetered and eventually collapsed. As historian Dorothy Riker noted, “Jennings was severely criticized for his failure to supervise the Bank and his refusal to instigate and investigation earlier.”
In 1822, with only months left to serve in his second term, Jennings resigned as governor so that he could return to Congress, where he served from 1822-1831. Internal improvements like roads and canals were hallmark pieces of legislation at this time in American history, especially under President John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and his proto-Whig Party (Adams/Anti-Jackson) adherents like Jennings. For Jennings, internal improvements were a way for Indiana to advance, economically by allowing for Indiana’s agricultural goods to make it more easily to markets, and for finished goods to make their way into the state. Good roads and canals would also encourage immigration into the state, especially along the National Road, and would facilitate communication with other parts of the nation. Because of Jennings advocacy of better transportation networks, it is fitting that the Indiana Department of Transportation designated this section of I-65 as the “Governor Jonathan Jennings Memorial Highway.”
According to Woollen, Jennings lost his congressional seat in 1830 due, in part, to his drinking problem. He retired to his Charlestown farm, where he died on July 26, 1834. Historians have conflicting views on Jennings legacy. He was not an activist executive, which present-day observers have come to expect when rating their leaders. However, he was an incredibly popular politician. He played important leadership roles in Indiana reaching statehood, including at the Constitutional Convention. As for his role as governor, it is important to think about his service in the context of the time. Hoosiers at the time did not want an aristocratic leader like William Henry Harrison. Rather, Jennings set a precedence as the first governor which sought to honor the autonomy and democratic values of pioneer Hoosiers.
On July 18, 1862, a brash young Kentuckian with aspirations to military advancement, Adam R. “Stovepipe” Johnson, used a rowboat and a small flatboat ferry to lead a group of approximately thirty men across the Ohio River from Kentucky to Newburgh, Indiana. Landing on the waterfront, unoccupied at lunch time, Johnson and his men seized a small store of weapons from a riverside warehouse and bluffed a group of some eighty Union soldiers convalescing in a nearby hotel into surrendering their unloaded muskets. Johnson’s men then looted a few homes and stores, paroled their prisoners, and returned safely across the river with their booty. The entire action lasted only a few hours.
Johnson recounted the events many times, and eventually published the account in his memoir, Partisan Rangers of the Confederacy. Filled with enthusiasm, southern chivalry, and name-dropping—although often sparse on corroboration—his memoir has assured that many commentators place the Newburgh raid in the context of Confederate movements in Kentucky in the summer of 1862. If it had no other effect, the Newburgh affair enabled Johnson to raise and arm a number of youthful recruits for what became his 10th Kentucky cavalry (CSA). He returned to Indiana a year later as a brigade commander in Morgan’s 1863 raid.
Johnson’s actions provide an opportunity for a consideration of the role of southern fighters in the Ohio Valley. Using the language of the 1862 Confederate Partisan Ranger Act, he pictured himself in his later book as part of a military force operating in an irregular manner under the authority of such superiors as General Nathan Bedford Forrest and General John C. Breckenridge. Yet at the time of the raid, his own account suggests he had no formal appointment as an officer, wore no uniform, and commanded a hastily assembled body of civilians—more guerrillas than soldiers. Union authorities certainly viewed him as little or nothing more than a brigand, and rejected the authority of the paroles he had issued to his eighty prisoners.
The Newburgh raid may have had greater influence upon Union war activities in Indiana and the Ohio Valley than any results that Johnson claimed for his cause. The total surprise and the bloodless success was, without doubt, a shock to many Hoosier leaders. In Newburgh, it embarrassed the local Indiana Legion commander, a merchant with an unusual first name, Union Bethell. He had been among those lunching while the raiders struck, and had previously enjoyed limited success in raising and training a local company of that state militia. Accordingly, he had stored the weapons provided for them in his own unguarded riverfront warehouse. When Bethell did arrive on the scene in civilian attire, he refrained from more than verbal protests after Johnson pointed out two cannon emplaced across the river—cannon that were actually dummies made from a blackened log and the piece of stovepipe that gave Johnson his subsequent nickname.
Through chance rather than Confederate action, the telegraph line from Newburgh to Evansville was not in operation. Word of Johnson’s incursion thus took extra hours to reach state and federal military authorities. When it did become known, the raid set in motion several frantic days of Union responses. Lieutenant Colonel John Watson Foster, on leave from the 25th Indiana Regiment, took command in Evansville. He called for volunteers, including local convalescent Union soldiers, assembled a small riverboat flotilla, sailed up the Ohio River to the mouth of the Green River—where Johnson’s raiders had taken their loot—and engaged in skirmishing with a small number of Confederate guerrillas.
Finding few defenders, Foster then proceeded to Newburgh. Half a dozen local residents who were perceived as friendly to the rebels were arrested. One, Andrew Huston, was later tried and acquitted by a federal court jury in Indianapolis on changes of treason and assisting the rebels. Two other Newburgh residents who had assisted the raiders were slain by members of an angry local crowd before order was restored.
As often happened in military emergencies, Governor Oliver P. Morton soon took a visible hand. First in Indianapolis and then in Evansville, he issued repeated calls for volunteers, and urged vigorous military responses. Within three days, state and federal military officers had sent approximately a thousand regulars and volunteers to the scene, occupied Henderson, Kentucky, and sent probes into that city’s countryside. One of the probes, led by Captain Bethell, recovered a portion of the stolen arms—as well as his local reputation—at a nearby farm.
The occupation of Henderson proved to be a long term consequence of the raid; Newburgh would not again be threatened. Occurring during a call for large numbers of new volunteers, the raid also proved to be a significant boost for Union recruiting in Indiana. The July volunteers were formed into a short-lived thirty day unit, the 76th Indiana. Volunteers of longer service would become parts of the 65th and 78th Indiana regiments. Several thousand more Indiana volunteers joined the army in the following days and weeks. Disappointed with the performance of his militia, Morton returned to Indianapolis and devoted much time to improving militia equipment and training, and extending the telegraph network along the exposed Ohio River.
Mulesky, Raymond, Jr., Thunder from a Clear Sky: Stovepipe Johnson’s Confederate Raid on Newburgh, Indiana. Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse Star, 2006.
Davis, William J., ed., The Partisan Rangers of the Confederate States Army: Memoirs of General Adam R. Johnson. Austin, Tex.: State House Press, 1995. Reprint of the original edition published by Geo. G. Fetter Company, Louisville, 1904.
Terrell, W. H. H., Indiana in the War of the Rebellion: Report of the Adjutant General. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1960. Reprint of volume one of the eight-volume original report, 1869. See especially pages 181 to 189.
Guzzler’s Gin, Dunking Donuts, “I dood it!:” Red Skelton’s iconic characters and quips would not exist without the influence of his first wife Edna Stillwell. In fact, a Rochester, NY newspaper reported that Skelton insisted “he’d be a bum” without her Through Stillwell’s comedic and management muscle, Skelton went from an unknown circus performer to one of the most lauded comedians in television and film history.
Stillwell was born in Missouri on May 25, 1915. As a teenager she was attracted to show business and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported that she was head usherette at Pantages Theatre in Kansas City, where seventeen-year-old Skelton performed. Skelton recalled that she took an immediate disliking to him. At his next job, he served as master of ceremonies at a walkathon, where Stillwell happened to be working as cashier. He eventually convinced her to go on a date with him. Skelton cemented her affections when he chose her to kiss in a photoshoot. He recalled “‘I grabbed her and kissed her and it made me dizzy. This was it. This was love. I guess we both were dizzy. We got married.'”
The entertainer, at the time, was so poor that Stillwell had to pay for their marriage license. After the wedding she assumed the role of business manager, a duty she would continue to fill even after their 1944 divorce. According to the Democrat and Chronicle, the manager of a walkathon in St. Louis wanted to cut Skelton’s salary, prompting Stillwell to approach him and successfully demand more money. Skelton noted, “‘I told her I’d handle my own affairs. Only she shut me up with the news that I’d get $100 a week. She also tossed the boss into doing my dry cleaning.'” She eventually negotiated his walkathon pay up to $500 per week and invested his money in real estate. She also forced Skelton, a high school drop-out, to study and earn his high school degree. He admitted “‘pretty soon I didn’t feel like such a fool when I was in a room full of people talking about something besides burlesque.'”
Stillwell was just as formidable when it came to comedy writing. According to the Indianapolis Star, Skelton’s vaudeville run in Montreal was nearly cancelled after his first performance, so:
Red went back to his own individual style, which had put him over in vaudeville. And his wife in a moment of contempt for the old routines they were doing, said, ‘I could write better stuff than that,’ Red’s answer was “Why don’t you?’ also in sarcasm. But she did, and she has written his material ever since.
In a 1941 article, The Tennessean observed that “from several years of watching what tripe came down the pike on the old Pan circuit, Edna got some pretty definite ideas about what to avoid in a vaudeville skit.”
A newspaper piece by Ted Gill noted that soon after marrying, Stillwell dreamed up Skelton’s famous “Junior” character. When the couple strolled past stores Red could never “resist the urge to buy things” and if “Edna attempted to talk him out of it, he’d lie down on the sidewalk, kick his heels and make such a scene that he soon had scores of passersby in near-convulsions.” From then on Stillwell considered herself “Mommie” to his “Junior.” According to a 1942 Indianapolis Star article, Stillwell’s “Junior” sketch catapulted Skelton’s career forward and as she “schemed out that screamingly funny little boy burlesque-topped off by those three precious words, ‘I dood it!’-the name of Skelton fairly leaped from the bottom to the top of various radio comedian polls.” The article also mentioned that she helped mastermind Skelton’s “$50,000 doughnut dunking act,” after the couple dined at a Montreal cafe. The article stated that Stillwell and Skelton,
then playing together in small-time vaudeville, watched a diner as he slyly held his hat over his hand while he dunked, furtively looked around and then popped the soaked sinker into his mouth. The Skeltons doped out the outline of the act before they left the restaurant, polished it up in their hotel room that afternoon and presented it the same evening at the theater. It was an instantaneous hit and established Skelton as a top-line variety performer.
Writing material and coaching her husband from theater wings proved to be the steady hand Skelton needed to succeed in his career. Skelton’s biographer Wes Gehring contended that “Stillwell’s mid-1930s donut routine and other reality-based writing helped Skelton segue his skills into vaudeville, the next rung on the entertainment ladder.” He noted that “Working, performing, and traveling together as nomadic vaudevillians in the 1930s, the Skeltons were a team to reckon with.” By the late 1930s, the couple moved to Hollywood, where Skelton earned a notable $2,000 for appearing in the film Having Wonderful Time, alongside Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
In order to make money between films Skelton returned to the stage. Stillwell demanded he refuse any offer under $1,000, causing them to go without food for days. But staying the course paid off, as the Democrat and Chronicle reported, because Skelton “got a coast-to-coast radio program and soon he was clicking in vaudeville-and at Edna’s price.” Stillwell wrote for and appeared on Skelton’s popular radio show and had performed with him on Rudy Vallee‘s program. His national NBC show (featuring renowned radio and television pair Ozzie and Harriet Nelson), in tandem with his film Whistling in the Dark, catapulted Skelton to national fame in 1941. Gehring concluded that Stillwell also had a hand in his film success, stating that “True to Stillwell’s good instincts for her husband, she was the first to recognize just how effective he would be” in Whistling. The Indianapolis Star informed readers that year that “At his disposal at present are some 500 comedy routines all written by himself or his wife, with which he has been throwing Hollywood audiences, both on and off the screen, into hysterics.”
At the end of 1942, newspapers across the country announced that Stillwell had filed for divorce from her partner in comedy. The Dixon [Illinois] Evening Telegraph noted that she filed suit, “charging cruelty, but plans to continue to write the wit that has made his radio act famous,” which she did after the court finalized the divorce. The former couple even performed their original vaudeville routines at army camp shows in WWII to popular reception. Their professional relationship continued until 1952, one year after Skelton was given his own, groundbreaking television show. Gehring contended that their post-divorce work was “a mixed bag-a rousing success professionally, but a stressful distraction for each of their subsequent marriages.” Skelton married actress Georgia Maureen Davis and Stillwell married Hollywood film director Frank Borzage, who had directed Skelton in films like Flight Command.
Stillwell died in Los Angeles on November 15, 1982. Without “Mommie’s” aptitude and intuition, Skelton likely would never have “dood it!” Learn more about the funny man with our newest historical marker, located in Vincennes.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.