Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a three-part column about World War I nurse Gena Jonette. She served as a volunteer in the Army Nurse Corps in France during 1918 and 1919. It was there she met her future husband, Iver Iverson. Following their marriage, they moved to Hutchinson.
It was a time, more than a century ago, that was a far cry from today.
It was early autumn and America was engulfed in a global conflict. Though it would soon reach its climax, World War I raged across Europe and was as deadly as ever. American servicemen were being sent to the front by the tens of thousands. Most were raw recruits, young and inexperienced in combat. Many would die in the trenches before the war was over. It wasn’t just the enemy they had to fear, however, as many would succumb to a sickness that was sweeping the globe.
It was the morning of Sept. 29, 1918. On a troop ship in Hoboken, New Jersey, more than 10,000 members of the U.S. Armed Services stood — 200 nurses, 100 doctors and 9,000 khaki-clad, raw recruits who would see action in the trenches.
They were being treated to a hero’s send-off. A large brass marching band blared “Over There,” the fight song of the American doughboy that so fittingly stated they won’t be back “till it’s over, over there.” The service members waved to the crowds gathered on the pier as the boat left the dock. They were accompanied by a convoy of U.S. battleships meant to combat the threat of German submarines lurking in the deep blue Atlantic.
Aboard the troop ship was a young woman named Gena Jonette. She was a volunteer in the Army Nurse Corps and one day dreamed of being a registered nurse. Her baptism by fire came just two days after leaving port.
Tragedy struck and casualties on board were high, not due to an enemy sub, but sickness. The dreaded Spanish flu had stowed away and crept across the decks like a covert killer — no preference in its selection and no limits to its callousness.
Jonette, the other nurses and the doctors aboard did everything in their power to combat the spread of the virus, but it was an uphill battle from the start. Conditions aboard the ship were such that the bug multiplied with breakneck speed. Nine thousand recruits were jammed below deck. Fears of a submarine attack were so great that the portholes had to be closed, so the air quickly became hot and heavy.
To make matters worse, most of the boys had never been aboard a ship and found themselves vomiting from seasickness, exhausting their energy and weakening their immune system. By the end of the second day, so many were sick that they were being turned away from sick bay. Beds were full of sick patients and there were too few doctors and nurses to treat all who were ill.
By the start of the third day, it was estimated that 700 cases of the deadly flu had developed. Many of the severely ill laid down wherever they could find room, dying while waiting to be tended to.
As the days went on, the conditions aboard the ship worsened. The sick were apt to severe nasal hemorrhages, and pools of blood from the afflicted were scattered throughout the ship. Jonette and the other nurses found the blood pools unescapable and were forced to trek through them, tracking blood through the corridors and on the decks.
A plentiful supply of oranges, lemons and water were being distributed, but the skin and pulp of the fruit were discarded on the floor, mixed with the blood, and caused the decks to turn slippery. The filth clung to the nurses and made for a horrific sight.
Too make matters worse, lights were ordered off due to the submarine threat, and the lower decks were dark and dreary. This, along with the cries from the terrified sick, who were far from home, created an atmosphere of horror that Jonette defined as indescribable and unimaginable to those who were not there.
It was a far cry from the world they had just left, and a bleak omen for the one they would soon enter.