Hunkering down at home during COVID-19 with extra time, I decided to find out how many people in Hawaii were affected by the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed more than 50 million people worldwide.

I thought it would be interesting to consider what happened in Hawaii from 1918 to 1920 compared to what’s going on in the islands now as we struggle to get through the new pandemic.

It turns out Hawaii, like the rest of the world, was hit hard by the Spanish flu, also known then as “La Grippe,” with more than 2,300 dying and many thousands of others infected.

What surprised me was that Hawaii’s world famous Olympic swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku was among those stricken by the Spanish flu. And for a while, it was touch and go for The Duke, whose influenza turned into life-threatening pneumonia.

After he returned home in November 1918, the normally reserved waterman wrote a chatty, dramatic article in the Honolulu Advertiser about his deathly bout.

He wrote: “The Spanish influenza with which I became acquainted in Washington, is one which will remain green in my memory as long as I live.

“The way the sickness was sweeping through the mainland I thought it was goodbye Hawaii for me.”

Duke Kahanamoku came down with the Spanish flu while on a swimming exhibition tour on the mainland. Wikimedia Commons

Kahanamoku became infected in October while he was in Washington, D.C., one of the final stops on a six-month U.S and Canada swimming exhibition tour with two other Native Hawaiian swimming standouts, Clarence Lane and Harold Kruger.

Hawaii’s Original Rock Star

The three world champion watermen sometimes drew crowds of thousands on their tour sponsored by the American Red Cross to raise money for the World War I effort.

The Duke also had boosted the fundraising by knitting sweaters and scarves that were raffled off at the swimming exhibition. At the time, there was a knitting craze in America, with men, women and children making sweaters and socks as a patriotic act to keep infantry soldiers warm as they fought in freezing, muddy trenches in Belgium and France.

Kahanamoku was the equivalent of a rock star, considered “the worldʻs greatest swimmer.” Any item knitted by him was raffled off by the Red Cross as a treasure.

A reporter for the New York Herald Tribune wrote: “He is the only celebrated athletic champion to make a specialty of knitting. He has already made a sweater to present to President Woodrow Wilson and other products of his handicraft will be turned over to the Red Cross.”

Kahanamoku was staying at a YMCA when he became violently ill. Officials later found out that many others in the Y also had contracted the deadly disease.

He wrote: “Well I got it all right and here I am. I was weighing 200 pounds when the flu knocked me out and took me to the emergency hospital in Washington where I got out 10 days later, my weight was reduced to 175 pounds.”

Spanish flu patients were treated at facilities such as this Army ward in Kansas. Screenshot:

His doctors insisted that he return to Hawaii, which was extremely frustrating to the swimming champion.

He had said in newspaper interviews that his life’s ambition was to learn to fly and serve in World War I in the U.S. Army Air Service.

He said one of the main reasons he had gone on the mainland tour was to make contact with Army officials in Washington he hoped would accept his application to get into the aviation section.

His friend, the famed U.S. Army aviator Major Harold M. Clark, for whom Clark Air Base in the Philippines was later named, had set up interviews for him in the capital to help ease his way.

Clark had made the first ever interisland airplane flight in Hawaii, flying from Fort Kamehameha on Oahu to Molokai and back again. Kahanamoku had taught Clark how to surf.

On his way home to Hawaii by ship, Kahanamoku and the other passengers found out by a telegram that the war was over. He mourned his missed opportunity.

“If I lived to be a centenarian, I will always be sorry illness should have come my way just at the time I was on the threshold of the real ambition of my life to become a Yank aviator.”

In The Grip Of La Grippe

The Honolulu to which Kahanamoku returned was in the throes of fighting the Spanish flu.

Oahu’s first cases had shown up several months earlier, at the end of June 1918, at Army and Navy bases.

According to an article in the Hawaiian Journal of History by Robert C. Schmitt and Eleanor C. Nordyke, “A headline in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on July 1 announced ʻ600 Soldiers at Schofield Down With La Grippe.’”

The article added: “More than 1,200 soldiers, sailors and civilians . . . are victims of an epidemic of influenza which broke out last week.” Enough pineapple workers called in sick to make it “necessary to muster in the children to help with the work.”

Schmitt and Nordyke said they decided to write about the Spanish influenza in Hawaii because the major health event seemed largely forgotten in history books about the islands.

When Duke Kahanamoku arrived home on November 15, 1918, the first thing he did was head for the beach.

As cases multiplied on different islands, the authors said it was particularly difficult to care for the sick because many doctors were away volunteering to serve in World War I, leaving large districts in Hawaii without any medical care.

There was also a shortage of hospital beds. The Queen’s Hospital became the center for treatment of the flu. Large tents set up in the parking lot were exclusively dedicated to the care of the dying.

As more perished, indoor gatherings including church services were prohibited, but public schools were kept open, officials said, to more quickly detect and treat the illness in children.

The pandemic continued into the time of the great sugar strike of 1920, when plantation owners evicted 12,000 striking sugar workers from their plantation homes.

Schmitt and Nordyke said about half of the evicted workers came to Oahu, where they lived in crowded tenements. An estimated 1,200 strikers’ family members died in the epidemic.

Native Hawaiians suffered the highest death rates. Filipinos experienced fewer deaths, and Caucasians had the lowest rates.

The authors wrote that the Spanish flu was the fourth most deadly epidemic in Hawaii’s history.

It was surpassed only by Mai Okuu, the so called “great sickness of 1804,” that killed 15,000 Native Hawaiians. Okuu, which means to squat, suggests one of the symptoms was a severe form of dysentery. A series of diseases followed in 1848-49 (measles, whooping cough, and influenza, killing about 10,000 in total), and smallpox (5,000 to 6,000 deaths) in 1853.

No sweeping prohibitions were imposed during the time of the Spanish flu as have been during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep people off the green lawns of parks and the sands of popular beaches.

When Duke Kahanamoku arrived home on Nov. 15, 1918, the first thing he did was head for the beach.

He wrote: “Honolulu looks like Heaven to me and early in the morning I expect to take the first dip in the sea at dear old Waikiki.”

And then to look for a job. “Being a world champion doesn’t bring me poi and fish and bread and meat. I have those who are dependent on me.”

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