Roy Martin's November 1918 Spanish Flu Letter

Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

April 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the tragic and devastating Spanish influenza pandemic that killed more than 500,000 Americans in the space of a year from April 1918 through February 1919. Today’s blog post is the last in a set of DNCR WWI blog posts intended to commemorate the role of all North Carolinians in this pandemic. Every North Carolinian was touched by the illness, which killed more Americans than died in the U.S. military during WWI. 

The Spanish flu was especially taxing on American service personnel serving overseas in the war. Not only would the soldiers, aviators, marines, and sailors all be susceptible to the illness, but they worried about their sick loved ones and friends back home. Soldiers looked forward to letters from home to help break the boredom, stress, homesickness, and loneliness. To receive letters that their mothers, siblings, best friends, girlfriends, and wives were ill or died from the Spanish flu—often weeks after the fact—became a mental torture for men and women in the service of their country.


Roy V. Martin of Gaston County, N.C., was one of the such soldiers. As of November 1918, he was serving in the U.S. Army in Company A, 115th Machine Gun Battalion, 30th Division—the famed “Old Hickory” Division to which the North Carolina National Guard had been assigned to in 1917. Martin had been serving in France since he first arrived with his unit on May 29, 1918. When he sat down on November 11, 1918, to write his girlfriend Lillian Augusta Cloniger (or “Gussie,” as she went by), Martin likely was going to share his reaction to the Armistice announced that day that stopped the fighting in WWI. Instead, he was reacting the news that Lillian shared with him in her letters from October 1918 about the extent of the Spanish flu in her hometown of Gastonia, N.C., at the height of its activity across the U.S. 

Roy Martin begins his 5-page letter to Lillian, “I wrote Mother last night and in my letter asked her if the flu had took hold there and today I got your letters telling me about it being so bad.” By the time Lillian’s letters had reached Martin, the Spanish flu had ravaged North Carolina, and had peaked in its extent by mid-November 1918.


Of particular concern for Martin was Lillian’s safety, as she was volunteering as a nurse for those in Gastonia who were sick with the flu. He writes of his pride in her and his fears: “So my girlie is helping the nurses attend to the victims, gee but I am proud of you. Why that’s a brave thing to do I think risking taking the flu for some one else’s sake. Its almost as risky as being in the front line, but dear do be careful or some one may have to nurse you. for after all you may not be exempt. and I am worried about it for all I know you may already be seriously ill with it.”


The Spanish flu took its toll on the communities and all institutions, as communities closed schools, theaters, restaurants, grocery stores, businesses, and public gatherings, in an attempt to stop the flu’s spread. In fact, the 1918 high school football championship game remains the only one in the history of North Carolina high school football to have ever been canceled due to the flu. Martin documents by asking as to the condition of two friends, and mentioning Lillian’s schooling: “hows school these days, but I forgot they are closed on account of the flu aren’t they. What about Mit spelling?] and Irine have they got over the flu yet best regards to them.”


Although the Spanish flu killed a number of their friends, family, and fellow soldiers, both Roy Martin and Lillian Cloniger survived the illness—even surviving its final round in January-February 1919. The two married after WWI on June 20, 1920, in Gastonia, N.C. Nothing would separate the couple until Roy V. Martin died on April 13, 1956, in Humboldt County, California.


To read the complete letter from Roy Martin to Lillian Cloniger on November 11, 1918, you can view and download the digitized version in the online WWI collection of the North Carolina Digital Collections, a joint effort of the State Archives of North Carolina and the State Library of North Carolina.

To learn more about Roy Martin’s WWI service, check out the Roy V. Martin Papers (WWI 80) in the WWI Papers of the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh, N.C. You can also learn more about Roy V. Martin from a past DNCR WWI blog post here.

This blog post is part of the State Archives of North Carolina’s World War I Social Media Project, an effort to bring original WWI archival materials to the public through the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ (NCDNCR) various social media platforms, in order to increase access to the items during the WWI centennial celebration by the state of North Carolina.

Between February 2017 and June 2019, the State Archives of North Carolina will be posting blog articles, Facebook posts, and Twitter posts, featuring WWI archival materials which are posted on the exact 100th anniversary of their creation during the war. Blog posts will feature interpretations of the content of WWI documents, photographs, diary entries, posters, and other records, including scans of the original archival materials, held by the State Archives of North Carolina, and will be featured in NCDNCR’s WWI centennial blog.