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WWI, disease, and the Y Girls

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When WWI soldiers landed in France to prepare for war, they were ready to fight for their lives against the Germans. They never expected to be devastated by another enemy – one without bullets or bayonets. To everyone’s surprise, a disease called Spanish influence swept mercilessly through military camps. The cramped quarters in military barracks, along with trench warfare, contributed to the rapid spread of the disease. Lack of sophisticated antibiotics left victims entirely vulnerable to the ravages of the disease, which killed at least 43,000 servicemen, according to military records.

The spread of the disease also created a new role for what were called the “Y Girls,” women who became associated with the YMCA and went to the war zone to help support our troops in various ways.

As servicemen lay dying of influenza, the “Y Girls” took on a new role: helping the dying write letters home to loved ones. The men fully grasped the rapid progression of the incurable disease and felt an urgency to carefully compose their thoughts and final words, which, they hoped, would provide some comfort to those they were leaving behind. Some required help with their letters because of their weakened conditions. Others needed support accepting their fate and simply saying goodbye.

One of the Thousand Y.M.C.A. Girls in France/ United War Work Campaign/ Nov. 11th to 18th Neysa McMein (American, 1888–1949) Printer: Grinnell Lithographic Company, Inc. (American, active 19th–21st centuries) 1918 Poster, color lithograph *Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of John T. Spaulding *Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It happens that my grandmother, Faith Hinckley, was among the first seven women to accept that assignment overseas where she held the hands of the dying.

I was fortunate that she lived long enough to tell me her experiences. She told of one young soldier who asked only that she hold his hand tightly until the end. She told him she’d write a letter for him, if he had the strength to dictate. He replied that he had nobody. His parents were dead and he was an only child. He could not think of a single relative who would remember him well enough or expect a letter regarding his wartime activities.

My grandmother then told him he could write to her mother, who has two children at war, and fears she may not see them again. “Let’s tell her how proud we are to serve our country,” she said. “We’ll tell her your name, where you’re from, and what your life was like before military service. “

The frightened soldier dictated two pages describing his dreams, his accomplishments, his fears, and then finally, his overwhelming gratitude that he would not die alone on foreign soil. He asked his new “borrowed mother” to pray for him and her own two children at war. He gave her his whole name and asked that she remember him kindly and be proud of his own personal sacrifice.

My grandmother posted that letter along with scores of others composed that same day. She said the soldier slipped away peacefully shortly after asking for her mother’s name again and where she lived. My grandmother said she believed he was “envisioning back home” as he took his last breath.

My grandmother had made out her own will before leaving for the war, and after holding the hand of that dying soldier she wonder what she might say in her own letter home when her time came. She hoped she could say “somebody was holding very tightly to her hand till the very end.”

In June we’ll recognize the start of American engagement in WWI. Although my grandmother died years ago, she lives within my heart, and I think of her more when I’m reminded of U.S. engagement in the Great War. As a “Y Girl” she exposed herself to great danger while she sat with dying troops during an epidemic of a savage disease. My family history doesn’t tell me who was with her when she died, but I hope someone was holding tightly to her hand. She deserved it.

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