How Young Walt Disney Almost Died During a Pandemic

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

As we all hunker down at home, experience cabin fever from a virtual "house arrest" and wonder if the world will ever be normal again, it is important to remember that this has all happened before and many people have forgotten.

Walt Disney almost died at the age of 16 from a H1N1 influenza virus pandemic in 1918 that infected over 500 million people and killed somewhere between 50 million-100 million people.

One of the few regions not to be adversely affected was China, where the inhabitants had acquired an immunity to the disease because of a respiratory illness that struck northern China in November 1917.

Walt Disney almost died in 1918 from the influenza pandemic.

Speculation is that the virus was likely to have come from China, mutated in the United States and then was transmitted overseas by the Allied soldiers and sailors. The first known American case was a soldier complaining about a cold while a mess cook at Ft. Riley, Kansas. After five weeks, 1,127 soldiers at Fort Riley had been stricken with this so-called Spanish flu, and 46 of them had died.

When an infected person sneezed or coughed, a half million virus particles were spread to those who were nearby. Because the troops were kept in close quarters, were often malnourished and were under huge stress, the infection was exponentially increased.

This infamous "Spanish flu" (from March 1918 to summer 1919) resulted in a higher than expected mortality rate for healthy young adults, so Walt was especially vulnerable especially since by the time he was infected it had mutated to a much more deadly form. Nearly half the deaths were in young adults. Hospitals were overwhelmed with patients.

To maintain morale about the war and enlist more young men into the military, early reports influenced by government censorship purposely minimized early reports of the illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. More U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed in battle during the war.

Denials by the government leading to lack of proper preventive precautions left the world's population unprepared to handle the outbreak. Symptoms were initially misdiagnosed because they began with extreme fatigue, fever, and headache.

With no vaccine, the only way to try to curtail the spread was by quarantine, good hygiene practices (like washing hands with soap and water frequently), disinfectants and limiting public gatherings. Those who attended big church services or outdoor parades (even when wearing face masks) often dropped dead during the activity.

Some cities ordered everyone to wear masks. Citizens of San Francisco were fined $5 (a significant amount at the time) if they were caught in public without a face mask. Spitting and coughing in public was prohibited. Schools, saloons and theaters were closed. Cities that did those things minimized their fatalities.

People also tried their own homemade prevention remedies, such as eating raw onions, keeping a potato in their pocket, or wearing a bag of camphor around their neck, but none of those worked.

Stores closed and those that remained open required customers to make their orders outside. So many people died that there were not enough gravediggers and coffins, so mass graves dug by steam shovels were used.

Fortunately today the fatality rate for Covid-19 is estimated at much less based on battles with previous infections like the "Asian flu" of 1957 and the "Hong Kong flu" of 1968, and that the U.S. has a much stronger public health system than in the past.

In addition, it is important to remember that when it comes to this coronavirus, people really still do not know much of anything. It took nearly 90 years for scientists to determine what made the this flu so deadly. Things are being learned every day so it is important not to panic but to be vigilant and cautious.

So how does all this tie in with a young Walt Disney?

During World War I, Walt drew patriotic cartoons for his high school newspaper. Those drawings displayed his passionate support for the troops and included helpful suggestions like buying saving stamps or eating less so more food could be sent overseas for the troops.

A caricature of The Kaiser usually took the brunt of Walt's youthful fervor, as did people who Walt felt were "slackers" since they hadn't joined up to fight the Huns. Walt was filled with a passionate patriotism and admitted to feeling a sense of shame that he was home while others marched "over there".

Walt's older brother, Roy, joined the Navy on June 22, 1917 and was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside of Chicago. He was eventually transferred to Charleston, South Carolina, where he was assigned to transporting material between New York and France.

"He looked so swell in that sailor uniform," remembered Walt. "So I wanted to join him."

When Walt visited his brother, he was mistaken for a new recruit and was almost shipped off with Roy, who had to intervene to stop it from happening.

Walt's other two older brothers, Ray and Herbert, served in the Army in the newly formed American Expeditionary Corps.

Russell Maas (a friend of Walt's who worked at the post office like Walt did at that time) found that the Canadian army would accept young volunteers so Russell and Walt planned to sneak out and cross the border to sign up. They were going to join up as the St. John brothers. Russell's mother found his packed suitcase and called Walt's mother and they stopped their sons from running away.

Walt and his friend Russell learned that American Ambulance Corps, which was part of the Red Cross, would accept volunteers as young as 17—Walt was 16.

Russell was also the one who found out that the American Ambulance Corps, that was part of the Red Cross, would accept volunteers as young as seventeen. Walt would joke that the Red Cross would take those who were too young, too old or too incapacitated for the military because those were the only ones left to take. By the way, Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, was Walt's 6th cousin once removed.

While Walt's parents were not happy about the plan of Walt going overseas, they reluctantly allowed him to sign up when he pleaded, "I don't want my grandchildren asking me 'Why weren't you in the war? Were you a slacker?'"

In one of his first artistic endeavors, Walt took a black pen and altered his birth year on his passport application filled out by his mother after it had been notarized from "1901" to "1900" so that his age now appeared to be 17 rather than 16, his actual age. The Disney Archives has that famous document and once you know to look at the date closely, the forgery is obvious. Walt enlisted on September 16, 1918.

Walt forged his birth year from 1901 to 1900.

The two boys received uniforms and reported to Camp Scott, which was a temporary encampment at a burned out amusement park and roller rink near the University of Chicago. Mechanics of the Yellow Cab Company taught them how to repair motors, assemble and disassemble cars and drive vehicles over rough terrain for two weeks and then the boys got two weeks of rough military drills.

The influenza epidemic struck Chicago, and Walt became so sick he was released to go home so his parents could take care of him since many people going to the hospitals were dying. In fact, two of Walt's friends went to the hospital and they died the next day.

The ambulance drivers carried Walt up to his home on a stretcher to a visibly frightened mother and father. Walt's younger sister, Ruth had seen her favorite school teacher die of the flu. The Disneys had seen several friends and neighbors die, as well.

Walt's mother, Flora, according to author Bob Thomas, "nursed her son through days of high fever and delirium, giving him poultices and heavy doses of quinine. Because his bedroom had no heat, Walt occupied his parent's room. When little Ruth became ill as well, her bed was placed beside the kitchen stove. Flora caught the influenza but continued caring for her two children. Finally, the fevers broke. All three recovered."

By the time Walt recovered and reported back to his unit, the war had ended. However, drivers were still needed overseas to help with evacuating the troops, so Walt was sent off to France roughly seven days after the Armistice (November 11, 1918).

Diane Disney Miller gave me permission in my articles to quote from the interview her dad did with Saturday Evening Post writer Pete Martin in the summer of 1956.

Here is an excerpt from that interview:

"We were too young I suppose but they put us through this training. It was at an amusement park that had burned down. It had a lot of basements and cellars and they put us in the trucks and stuck us in the holes and we had to get out of the holes. If you couldn't, you were washed up.

"So while we were there they had a terrific flu epidemic. And I got it. They were hauling 'em out of there, sending them to the hospital. They were dying like flies.

So they came over to get me. I was in a tent and these fellows with the ambulance came over and one guy said to me, 'Kid, do you live in Chicago?' And I said 'Yes'.

"He said, 'Can we take you home. You've got a better chance at home. If we take you to the hospital, you may never come out.' And I said, 'Yes, you can take me home.' And I told them where I lived.

"So up in front of my house one Sunday, a Sunday morning, drives up this ambulance. They got me out and took me up. My folks put me to bed. My mother got a local doctor and he did it all with quinine. And I was delirious for about a week.

"So the company I was scheduled to go with went off without me. And then I was put in another company when I got well and they sent me to South Beach, Connecticut and we were being indoctrinated to go overseas and then the Armistice was signed.

"But they still needed 50 guys to go to France and when they called out number fifty it was 'Private Walter E. Disney'. An hour later we're on a train and we're on our way. Before night fell we were on a boat at Hoboken, you know? That next morning (November 18, 1918) we were out at sea and on our way to France. It was an old cattle boat I went over on, the Vaubin, loaded with ammunition."

First, Walt was billeted in a chateau in St. Cyr that was so dank and chilly he wrapped himself in newspapers before going to sleep. The food was primarily pork and beans. Later, he was transferred to an Evacuation hospital in Paris. He was assigned to the motor pool. He spent his spare time drawing posters, cartoons for soldiers, and painting cartoons on jackets.

Walt spent much of his time chauffeuring around army officers and special dignitaries including General Pershing's ten year old son. Walt gained quite a reputation as a top tour guide. He also served at a Red Cross canteen at Neufchateau in the French countryside. His duties included driving Alice Howell, a Red Cross canteen worker, to various base hospitals to deliver doughnuts and ice cream to patients. He sent an illustrated letter to his high school magazine and it was filled with drawings of soldiers and prisoners of war. He created a cartoon character of a "doughboy" and drew it on the canvas sides of the ambulances.

Walt earned extra money by teaming up with another young soldier who had created a sideline enterprise of selling souvenirs to homeward bound soldiers. While the other young man obtained German helmets, Walt used his artistic skill to transform them into very rare German sniper helmets by making them look battle scarred with quick drying shellac, some paint, banging them up, shooting a bullet hole into them and attaching hair and dried blood. The two boys made quite a lot of money to send home.

One of the last things Walt did before he left Paris to return home was to get a photograph taken of himself in his khaki uniform. He had spent roughly a year in France and it had made him more confident and gave him a much wider perspective of the world.

Walt spoke only positively of his time in France and told his daughter Diane: "The things I did during those 11 months I was overseas added up to a lifetime of experience. It was such a valuable experience that I feel that if we have to send our boys into the Army we should send them even younger than we do. I know being on my own at an early age has made me more self-reliant…"

However, his experience only increased his affection and respect for the American men and women in uniform and, when World War II started almost two decades later, Walt committed the entire resources of his Studio to helping the war effort.

While we grumble at our current circumstances and scheme to get another roll of toilet paper or a dispenser of hand sanitizer, it is important to remember we are in a war, and that the stay-at-home protocols are meant to protect us and minimize the spread to others. History has shown us that if we are not proactive, a virus can easily get out of hand.

Try to imagine that by ignoring or denying the guidelines that are temporarily necessary might jeopardize a young Walt Disney and his family.

Of course, this is also a wonderful time to dive into the MousePlanet Archives and read articles that you may have missed or forgotten over the years. On the home page at the top, click on the word "Articles" or go to this link and don't forget during my earliest years here at MousePlanet, I wrote under the pseudonym "Wade Sampson".

Stay safe, positive and well! New Disney dreams will be coming soon!