Hattori: A common stronghold through 1918 influenza and today's pandemic

Hattori: A common stronghold through 1918 influenza and today's pandemic

Hattori: A common stronghold through 1918 influenza and today's pandemic


7/30/2020
By Dr. Anne Perez Hattori
Professor Anne Perez Hattori
Anne Perez Hattori is a professor of history, Micronesian studies, and CHamoru studies at the University of Guam
 

Just over four months ago, on March 22, Guam suffered its first COVID-19 fatality: Dorothea “Doring” Leon Guerrero Jesus, a woman beaming with a musical, joyful, and righteous energy. Auntie Doring shares a tragic commonality with the generation before her — her biological and reared mothers, Dolores “Granny Lole’” and Rosita “Auntie Chai” Uncangco Leon Guerrero, and their sister, Maria, my grandmother. This commonality was death via pandemic.

The 1918 pandemic struck the world in three waves. The first, in March 1918, was not particularly aggressive. First recorded at a U.S. military camp in Kansas, it rounded the world in four months bringing high rates of infection but fatality rates typical of a seasonal flu.

Roughly three months later, the second wave swept across the globe. It could, within just an hour or two, transform a patient from healthy to prostrate. Fevers ran high, accompanied by severe aches in muscles, joints, backs, and heads. It caused a form of pneumonia with extensive hemorrhaging in the lungs that could kill within a few days.

In its initial spread, the pandemic was largely a Naval affair due to its spread from port to port on military ships. On Aug. 9, 1918, the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Washington, D.C., issued a bulletin alerting its personnel to influenza’s prevalence in Europe, Hawaii, and elsewhere. A week later, the surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service ordered all quarantine stations to keep any flu patients aboard ships until the local health authorities were notified.

Regardless, no extraordinary care was exerted when, more than two months after these alerts, the U.S. Army transport ship Logan made landfall on Guam on Oct. 26, 1918, carrying troops from Manila. Although the ship was officially placed under quarantine, the wife of an American serviceman stationed on Guam, Mrs. Frederic Warren, nonetheless disembarked. Sick with influenza, she was taken directly to the Naval Hospital.

Meanwhile, despite the quarantine, CHamoru stevedores unloaded bags of mail, while native musicians greeted the ship with a show of hospitality. According to Navy reports, band members and stevedores were among the first Guam residents to die.

Five days after the Logan’s arrival, Gov. Roy Smith realized the highly infectious nature of the virus and issued an executive order that banned public gatherings in enclosed spaces and encouraged CHamorus to move to their ranches. Schools were closed and holiday celebrations were cancelled.

Sumay, where the ship docked in Apra Harbor, as well as the neighboring village of Piti and the capital of Hagåtña, were first hit. Between Nov. 7 and Nov. 13, 144 people in these villages died. The pandemic spread, eventually reaching Agat, Merizo, and Inarajan.


From November through December 1918, an estimated 780 people, or 5%, of Guam’s population of 15,000 died. By comparison, in the years before and years after the pandemic, the island averaged just over 200 deaths per year.

Among those who died were 2-year-old Felix Leon Guerrero and his brother, Jose, just 1 year old. They were the only sons of my great grandmother, Luisa “Nana Lisa” Uncangco Leon Guerrero, who soon after also lost her husband, Manuel, in yet another influenza outbreak. This left her alone to raise her three daughters — Lole’, Chai, and Maria, my grandmother. Without her husband and sons, Nana Lisa would emerge from the pandemic in a new role as head of household, taking on employment when less than 10% of CHamoru women worked outside the home.

Through my great grandmother’s losses, influenza became part of my family’s history, just as much as COVID-19 has become part of the history of Auntie Doring’s family and every family living on Guam today.

The 1918 pandemic affected Guam and the whole world in ways not so different from the COVID-19 crisis. It taxed entire health care systems, disrupted lives, and created profound stress and tragedy for many families.

And while these are unfortunate commonalities of the influenza pandemic in 1918 and the coronavirus pandemic today, the events also have something else in common. Surviving the 1918 influenza pandemic brought out the best in Guam. It was seen not only in the strength and fortitude of its survivors, but also in the collaboration between families and island organizations — churches, civic groups, businesses, and government agencies — to help those in greatest need.

These values among Guam’s people — of generosity, community, and inafa’maolek — have an enduring strength of their own. They have spanned generations of Guam’s history, even long before 1918, and will continue to carry us through our island’s most difficult times.