Updated: May 19, 2021
Just before breakfast, on March 4th, 1918, Private Albert Gitchell of the U.S. Army reported to the hospital at Fort Riley, Kansas, complaining of a sore throat, fever and headache. Soon after, over 100 of his fellow soldiers had reported similar symptoms, marking what are to be believed as the first cases of the 1918 influenza pandemic. This flu would eventually kill an estimated 675,000 Americans, one of them being Florence Eastman, the only woman from Mattapoisett to enlist in WWI as a Red Cross nurse.
Born in Somerville, October 9, 1894, Florence was the only daughter of Russell B. and Ada (Atwood) Eastman. As a child she moved with her parents to North Truro, where her father tended the Highland Lighthouse and later to West Dennis, where he tended the Bass River Lighthouse. In June, 1915, the family came to Mattapoisett; her father became the last lighthouse keeper at Ned’s Point, where he served for 9 years before it was automated in 1923.
At age 17, Florence entered Morton Hospital in Taunton for nurses training and graduated two years later. She then attended Massachusetts General Hospital for a postgraduate course, and later worked in various New England hospitals. She became a registered nurse in October 1916. All Florence wanted was to become a Red Cross Nurse, and as soon as the age limit was lowered to 23, she seized the opportunity and enlisted. In January 1918, she was appointed to the Red Cross and assigned to Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island.
In April 1918, just one month after the first reported cases of the Spanish Flu, she was transferred to Camp Mills, Long Island, where she became Army Nurse for the Isolation Hospital with 20 other nurses and 100 soldier orderlies under her command.
Her ability to treat her patients with compassion, humility, and mercy quickly gained the respect and esteem of the women and men serving under her command and her superiors. When she was faced with the demands of an unprecedented amount of care during the pandemic, she did not waver. Florence fell victim of the disease she fought so hard to protect her patience from and resumed her duties around the clock before her body was ready. She died on October 4, 1918, at the age of 24, during active duty, just 10 months after she enlisted and 1 month before the Armistice. Florence had made the ultimate sacrifice with her own life.
After a military service at Camp Miles, her body was brought by train to Mattapoisett Depot. She was then brought by military escort to her parent’s home at Ned’s Point, where her funeral was held. Government policy was the lighthouse had to be manned at all times. Huyberti Hamlin, the Eastman’s neighbor, stayed behind to watch over the lighthouse while her parents followed her body to Pine Island Cemetery to be buried.
Once they returned, Huybertie slipped out the back to give Ada and Russell privacy. She later wrote “ I was left there alone while the sad little party passed down the rough little road.”
In February 1925, the former East Mattapoisett School, now Post 280 was dedicated to Florence. The building formerly located on the south side of Route 6, near the Friends Meetinghouse, was sold and moved by Post trustees to Depot Street in 1944 where it still stands. It is one of the few Legions in the Commonwealth bearing a woman’s name. Florence was the only volunteer from Mattapoisett to not return from WWI.
A maple tree, a gift of Mr. George Morse, was planted in May 1920 in her memory. The first shovelful of dirt was dug by Henry Purrington, Civil War Veteran, President of the Army and Navy Memorial Association, and the town’s oldest citizen.
Later, the maple was replaced by a cherry tree on the Mattapoisett Library grounds. Every Memorial Day a wreath is placed in remembrance of the “angel of the wards,” Florence Eastman.