When Private Terence Carroll, feverish and confused from influenza, "jumped overboard" to his death in the Atlantic Ocean, he left behind a ship's deck littered with sick men.

Carroll, originally from the Coromandel Peninsula, was among the first of nearly 8600 Kiwis to die with the disease during the Great Flu that swept the world near the end of the Great War, 99 years ago.

Except it wasn't in New Zealand that he caught influenza and died. A new recruit, he was crammed onto the troopship Tahiti with more than 1000 others on their way to war in Europe in September 1918.

A milder flu pandemic had begun, probably in a Kansas army camp, in March 1918 and circled the globe within months. A far more deadly second wave began in the trenches of the Western Front in July.

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It quickly spread to civilians, and eventually killed more than 50 million people worldwide.

The strange thing about this sickness is that the big strong men seem to get it the worst and are the ones that die

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The fever was in full swing at Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa when the Tahiti stopped there to resupply. Officers, soldiers and crew weren't allowed ashore but coal was carried on board by local workers, and some officials from the Tahiti attended a conference on another ship, the one that had brought the virus to Sierra Leone.

Within days the Tahiti, travelling in convoy to guard against German attack, was overrun with influenza and men began to die.

Short services were held twice a day and the bodies, wrapped in canvas, were slid down a chute into the sea.

In total 77 died, including 21, the highest daily toll, on September 4, 1918, the day Carroll was lost.

Charles Davidson, a survivor, recalls the first delirious victim to go overboard.

"The soldier giving the alarm ran, jumping over the prostrate forms [of sick men] on the deck, yelling, 'Man overboard'," according to Davidson's account, published in historian Geoff Rice's book on the pandemic, Black November.

The ship circled back and stopped to rescue the soldier, by which time the convoy was "on the horizon", but the Tahiti was fast and soon caught up.

The captain got a blast from the convoy commander because of the risk of a solo ship being attacked and he was told, "No more rescues".

"Imagine the feelings of the next delirious soldier when he hit the water and came to all alone in that vast ocean," Davidson said.

He said a roll call revealed that a certain soldier was not accounted for and was presumed to have gone overboard during the night.

Carroll's official war record stated he "drowned", without mentioning influenza. But health researcher Nick Wilson identified the death as influenza-related after finding a reference, to his having "jumped overboard" and been lost at sea, in a 1918 Government medical report on the Tahiti epidemic.

Carroll's niece Rosemary Brosnan, of Auckland, said her family always knew he had been lost off the ship, delirious with influenza. Her father, who was 12 at the time of his 20-year-old brother's death, had talked about it. He had recalled his father telling his mother at their home, and her tears at the news.

It wasn't until October 1918 that the second influenza wave hit New Zealand, first Auckland, the virus then flowing down the main rail and coastal shipping routes to the other cities, towns and rural areas. The country was overwhelmed.

Rice tells of a person waking to find their partner lying dead beside them, the body cold, the skin black; and of children seeking food from neighbours because their parents had been "asleep" for two days.


NZ Herald, October 23, 1918. Source: National Library

New Zealand's worst natural disaster, in terms of deaths, sought out otherwise healthy adults, and often killed swiftly. It is thought the characteristic black skin was linked to flu-related pneumonia depriving the body of oxygen and to a massive over-reaction from the immune system.

Another Tahiti soldier, whose on-board diary is quoted by health researcher Jennifer Summers, noted: "The strange thing about this sickness is that the big strong men seem to get it the worst and are the ones that die."

In New Zealand, schools, pubs and other meeting places were ordered closed, but it was too late.

On Queen St in Auckland, massive crowds gathered on November 8 when most people deserted their work and partied all day and into the night after a international report - it turned out to be false - that the war had ended. When the real armistice was declared on November 11, no holiday was allowed for celebrations in the city.

Large gatherings would be "most undesirable", the Government's acting chief health officer, Dr Joseph Frengley, said in the Herald.

In Auckland, 1128 people died. The highest daily toll was on November 12, by which time the city couldn't cope. Victoria Park became an overflow morgue and two special trains a day took bodies to Waikumete Cemetery where most were buried in a large open area.

Few had a headstone. Seventy years later, a memorial plaque was placed. It pays particular respect to the "doctors, nurses and citizen volunteers whose selfless efforts to aid the sick resulted in their own untimely deaths".

Wilson and colleagues have written an article to be published soon on influenza pandemic memorials.

"We only came up with eight or nine. There were quite a few in private settings, like marae."

He considered this to be a small number of public memorials compared with the many war memorials around the country

One, in Waimate in the South Island, is dedicated to Dr Margaret Cruickshank, the first woman to be registered as a doctor in New Zealand and who and caught influenza while caring for her patients during the pandemic and died.

In a blog about the Cruickshank memorial, Wilson's group express their concerns about the relative lack of 1918 pandemic memorials.

They write: "New Zealand needs memorials to the 1918 influenza pandemic - to its victims, to its heroes, and as reminders to the living of the threat of future pandemics."