Petty Officer Kowalski stood atop one of the dry-docks at Philadelphia’s sprawling shipyard and marveled at the massive display of organized chaos. Fire and sparks were erupting from around the countless pockets of thousands of laborers and sailors hard at work putting America’s machinery into the war effort.
It was September 18th, 1918, and there was promise in the air. Hundreds of thousands of fresh American doughboys had been pushing the German army into retreat for over a month. The war would likely be over before the end of the year. Kowalski was proud to be wearing the uniform.
As he descended the ladder for afternoon muster, a thick puff of welders smoke drifted through his nostrils. He buried his face into the crook of his arm and coughed. It hurt his chest.
When he cleared the smoke, he pulled his face back away and noticed a few red stains on his crisp, white sleeve.
“What the ...”
Throughout the afternoon, Kowalski’s cough grew worse. He began to feel weak and lightheaded. Finally, as soon as liberty was granted, he checked himself into the base hospital.
By the next morning, 600 more sailors lay in agony at the hospital with searing fevers. Coughing blood. Suffocating.
By the end of that same day, all across the city of Brotherly Love, 1,700 people were dead.
A week later, all of the schools, churches, theaters and bars were shut. The streets were empty except for the lonely calls of the men in the motorized carts, “Bring out your dead ...”
When the plague finally killed itself off three weeks later, the city’s death toll was 12,191. Children again began returning to the streets, singing a new song:
I had a little bird,
his name was Enza.
I opened a window,