12. Camp Devens and Boston
On September 5, 1917, the US Army established Camp Devens, near Boston, to process and train American troops prior to their deployment to the Western Front in Europe. The site was selected due to its proximity to the Port of Boston. One year later the crowded camp was hit by the Spanish Flu, which arrived in Boston by ship. In September, 1918, about 15,000 soldiers at the camp contracted the virus. A doctor testified to the tragic end of many flu patients as “simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible”. In Boston, Chelsea Naval Hospital found itself overwhelmed by sailors, who likely contracted the disease in receiving barracks and ships.
The flu which first appeared in the military facilities in August spread to the city itself in September, overwhelming the unprepared health care system. More than 1,000 Bostonians died of the flu in September alone. From the city it spread to other eastern ports, carried by ships and trains to Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia. The city worked with the military to erect a tent hospital on Corey Hill. By the end of September public schools were ordered closed, and the city recruited teachers to serve as temporary nurses. Boston shut down businesses and places of entertainment on September 26. On October 2, 1918, the Massachusetts Department of Health made influenza a reportable disease, making the Commonwealth one of the first in the nation to do so.