This account is from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series from The Times that documents lesser-known stories from the war. After graduating from Stuyvesant High School in New York, Monroe Scherer, 18, was drafted into the Army. After the Japanese surrendered, his unit was sent to Korea, where the men were made to participate in an early influenza vaccination that caused unintended side effects.
I was in the 1341st Engineer Combat Battalion, Company A, and we were stationed on Okinawa preparing for the invasion. But then, of course, the war suddenly ended and, after surviving a fierce hurricane on Okinawa, my outfit was sent to Korea, where we were stationed in a village about 10 to 15 miles south of what is now the DMZ.
As a private first class, I often said that I won the war by digging ditches, literally, because my outfit was involved in road-building and providing supplies to other outfits. In Korea, we were doing much of the same, building or repairing roads. It was the middle of November, and we had been sent out on a work detail. The truck I was arriving in went into a ditch and toppled over, injuring my back, so I was in bad shape. I went to the medics, and they said, in effect, “Get over it.” Then that evening, the entire battalion was called out for this particularly unexpected activity.
They said, “We have an assignment,” and we were lined up. The first thing they did was ask each one of us if we were allergic to eggs. I’d never been allergic to eggs, and everybody else said no, too. We were told we were being given a vaccine against influenza, so we went through this procedure where we walked by, got swabbed down and got a shot in our arms. Then we were told to go back to the barracks, which was actually a converted factory that we were staying in. Nobody thought more of it. It was a little uncomfortable, a little painful, on top of the back pain I was having. But OK, it’s just a shot, doesn’t mean anything. I was on light duty because of my injury, but I went about doing whatever they were telling me, probably shoveling stuff off the road we were building.
By the next afternoon, I was itchy all over. I didn’t see anything, but when I went back to the barracks and took off my shirt, I ran to the medics as fast as my sore back could stand, because I was covered with a bright red rash. The doctor looked me over and prescribed me some kind of calamine lotion, which didn’t help very much. He said it was just an allergy. Later, I started to get chills and fever. That night I couldn’t fall asleep until after one in the morning. I was still itchy, my back hurt, I was in terrible shape. The next morning, I was put on sick call again, and the sergeant yelled at me, thinking I was shirking work detail. By then, the inoculation had developed into what felt like the flu: I had a head cold, a headache, the rash, and I was coughing and sneezing.
Other members of my battalion also developed flulike symptoms. They never told us this might have been a reaction to the vaccine. They said, “You have an allergy or something,” and that was all, but it’s my belief that we were likely unwitting guinea pigs — test subjects — for what had been an untried vaccine.
It was the worst week I had in the Army the whole time I was there. I was never in danger of direct combat, and I didn’t see any combat in the Pacific, but this experience was one of extreme discomfort that lasted about a week.
As far as I know, neither I nor anyone else raised any objections to what happened. I was out sick that week, so I suffered in silence. Because you’re in the Army, you just grin and bear it. The symptoms of the flu subsided in about four or five days, but the itching persisted for over a week. The sergeant eventually insisted that I go back on the construction line. There wasn’t any case where we challenged authority, so there was no sense in discussing it either. “Oh, you have a cold too?” he said. “So do I.” And back to work. It was something you accepted and then forgot about. The Army didn’t take into account whether you were sick: You had an assignment, you had to do it.
This account has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Monroe Scherer told his story to Jake Nevins, The New York Times Magazine’s editorial fellow.
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