Given that we all have pandemics on our mind, I have wondered what happened to Hawaii in 1918. Did the flu pandemic hit them hard? Were they left unscathed because they were isolated? Or, were they in double trouble because of the military bases and international travel? I did a little research. This is what I found out.
Schofield Barracks Was Hit First, But Not So Much The Rest Islands
The first signs that influenza had made it to Hawaii was in June of 1918. Not surprisingly, those in the military brought the virus to the islands first.
There was an outbreak at Schofield Barracks that spread among those serving there.
But, interestingly enough, only minor outbreaks happened among the civilian population. The virus was kept mostly to those in the military.
In fact, that same summer, a ship was found to be infected. Yet, those passengers didn’t seem to harm the islanders.
Officials Denied There Was La Grippe In Hawaii
You may know that the epidemic was called the Spanish Flu. Erroneously, I might add. It did not start in Spain. Spain, being neutral during the war had a free flow of press, the rest of Europe did not. Their cases were widely reported, but not those if other countries. Some say that soldiers fighting in WWI who saw the flu break out amongst their ranks used the name to mock Spain’s neutrality. This may be a myth though.
The name that was more generally known for the disease was La Grippe. US health officials in 1918 were ordered by the White House to downplay outbreaks and the territory went along. President Wilson was afraid the idea of a pandemic would harm the morale of the troops. Word of the spread was kept out of the news as much as possible under the Sedition Act.
Officials pretended it didn’t exist or it was no big deal. Hawaii kept in line by taking the approach that it was just the regular ol’ flu, not harmful at all.
And, those who caught in it 1918 seemed to back that up. It came and it left. Life was left relatively untouched.
The Second Wave Hit In The Spring of 1919
By the end of 1918, Hawaii considered itself out of danger. While you find stories in the newspapers of U.S. states and other countries having multiple outbreaks, there isn’t much mention in Hawaii.
They believed they got out of it with only a few infected and life could return to normal. Boy, were they wrong.
Just like the rest of the world, a second wave came to Hawaii in February and March of 1919. The wave slammed them harder than the first one as this outbreak took hold throughout the islands.
Schools closed, business shuttered, hospitals treated patients. People were encouraged to wash their hands, avoid being indoors with people not in their family, to enjoy the outdoors, and practice social distancing.
The second wave passed over Hawaii, but it wasn’t awful. Newspaper articles at the end March of 1919 began declaring the pandemic over. They went back to normal activities, parades, and parties. But, Le Grippe was not done with Hawaii yet.
The Third Wave Was The Worst
The second wave lasted for maybe two months, then it died down. It didn’t seem as harsh as what was happening in the states. Again, Hawaii felt they had escaped the worst of it.
Again, they were wrong. Influenza flared again in spring of 1920. It is said that the sugar plantation strike of 1920 sparked this outbreak. It quickly spread among the strikers to the people of Honolulu.
This third wave was the worst of the waves for Hawaii. There were so many patients that extra beds were being set up un makeshift facilities, women were recruited to take up the slack of a doctor shortage. Doctors, nurses, and volunteers were sent into the towns hit with the worst outbreaks.
In some places like the Hanalei District, Kauai, patients were told to stay home. Instead, the doctor and volunteers came to their homes them to treat them and to make sure they had food.
Things shut down once again, and this time, for longer. It wasn’t until 1921 that the virus had finally burned itself out.
All told over 2,300 people died in Hawaii. This is considered an undercount because members of the military were not included in the official count. Hawaiians struggled with the virus much more than other ethnicities. Children aged 5 and under died at a much higher rate than any other age group.
Was your family affected by the 1918 Flu pandemic? If so, tell us in the comments.
Further Reading on the Flu pandemic in Hawaii:
- Echoes of Spanish flu pandemic in Hawaii a century ago heard in coronavirus outbreak | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
- Spanish Flu pandemic in Hawai’i | KHON2
- COVID-19 pandemic vs. 1918 flu pandemic in Hawaii | University of Hawaiʻi System News
- Influenza Deaths in Hawai’i, 1918-1820, by Robert Schmitt and Eleanor Nordyke. PDF file, will automatically download when clicked.
You can search the Hawaiian newspapers at Chronicling America « Library of Congress (loc.gov) if you are interested in exploring how a specific area was affected by the pandemic. There are lots of updates throughout 1919 and 1920.