The Deadliest Events in US History

From natural disasters to wars, to pandemics, these events took the highest tolls on American lives.

Music Maker 2020 80s Edition

It’s a grim but necessary calculation, counting those Americans who have died in service to their country, as targets of terrorist attacks, amid natural disasters or as victims of pandemic disease. From the solemn statistics below, it’s clear that loss and suffering are woven into the fabric of American history. 

The Attack on Pearl Harbor: 2,390

Enlisted men of the Naval Air Station at Kaneohe, Hawaii, place leis on the graves of their comrades killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in this 1942 photo.

In the early dawn hours of December 7, 1941, a swarm of nearly 90 Japanese aircraft converged on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii. The hours-long surprise attack destroyed several large American battleships still anchored in the harbor and killed 2,390 U.S. servicemen and civilians.

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Nearly half of the American deaths were aboard the USS Arizona, which exploded into flames and sank after taking direct hits from the Japanese bombers. The “unprovoked and dastardly attack,” in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, drew a reluctant United States into WWII.

READ MORE: Pearl Harbor: Photos and Facts From the Infamous Attack

The September 11th Terrorist Attacks: 2,974

Civilians bolt in the opposite direction as firefighters rush towards the Twin Towers of the New York City’s World Trade Center after a plane hit the building on September 11, 2001. The 9/11 attacks not only became the single deadliest terrorist attack in human history, they were also the deadliest incident ever for firefighters, as well as for law enforcement officers in the United States. 

View the 25 images of this gallery on the original article

Nothing about the clear blue skies on the morning of September 11, 2001 hinted that America was about to be the victim of the deadliest foreign assault ever on U.S. soil. Then at 8:46 am, the first hijacked commercial airliner slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. As news cameras were fixed on the plume of black smoke pouring from the crippled North Tower, a second plane crashed into the South Tower with a terrific explosion. Next came the attack on the Pentagon followed by the heroic downing of the hijacked Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

All told, 2,974 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks, which President George W. Bush called “evil, despicable acts of terror” and “acts of mass murder.” In the decades since, nearly 4,000 firemen and first responders have died from cancers and other 9/11-related medical conditions.

READ MORE: 9/11 Timeline 

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: 3,000

The ruins of San Francisco, still smoldering after the 1906 earthquake and the three-day fire that followed it. 

At the turn of the 20th century, San Francisco was a Western boom town with a population of 400,000, many of them crowded into hastily constructed wood and brick tenements in the city’s poorer South of Market district. At 5:13 am on April 18, 1906, Northern California was jolted awake by a massive earthquake that ruptured 296 miles of the San Andreas fault.

The violent shaking, which lasted an agonizing 45 to 60 seconds, toppled buildings across San Francisco, including City Hall, which was reduced to a skeleton wearing a domed hat. But even deadlier than the earthquake and its aftershocks were the fires that tore through the overcrowded tenements and burned for four days. An estimated 3,000 people died in the disaster, which leveled 500 city blocks and left more than 200,000 San Francisco residents homeless.

 READ MORE: The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

The 1900 Galveston Hurricane: 8,000

Deadliest Hurricanes in U.S. History (TV-PG; 6:24)

WATCH: Deadliest Hurricanes in U.S. History

The hurricane that battered the island city of Galveston, Texas with 150-mph winds and drowned it with 15-foot storm surges remains the deadliest natural disaster in American history. An estimated 8,000 men, women and children were killed during the Category 4 storm, which lifted thousands of houses off their moorings and smashed them to pieces on September 8 and 9, 1900.

The howling winds tore off roof shingles and transformed them into flying knives. Nuns at the St. Mary’s Orphans Asylum lashed themselves to the children in desperation, only to be swept out to sea when the walls collapsed. Galveston, which had been one of Texas’s wealthiest and most modern cities, was reduced to rubble and the bodies of countless victims continued to wash ashore for weeks.

READ MORE: How the Galveston Hurricane Became the Worst US Natural Disaster

The Korean War: 36,914

U.S. Marines launch a rocket barrage against Chinese forces during fighting in the Korean War, 1951. 

Dubbed “The Forgotten War,” the Korean War was a major conflagration between armed nuclear powers that ultimately cost the lives of 36,914 U.S. servicemen. The Korean War was the first test of the United Nations, which sent in troops to defend South Korea after a June 25, 1950 invasion by Communist North Korea backed by China and the Soviet Union. Nearly 2 million American troops were deployed during three years of fighting, which ended in a bloody stalemate, with neither side gaining or losing their pre-war territory divided at the 38th parallel.

While no atomic weapons were used, massive bombing campaigns (including napalm) killed an estimated 2 million civilians in North Korea alone. “[W]e eventually burned down every town in North Korea… and some in South Korea, too,” said retired U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay. “We even burned down [the South Korean city of] Pusan—an accident, but we burned it down anyway.”

READ MORE: The Most Harrowing Battle of the Korean War

The Vietnam War: 58,220

Tet Offensive Reshapes the Vietnam War (TV-PG; 2:41)

WATCH: Tet Offensive Reshapes the Vietnam War

America’s long and unpopular war with Communist North Vietnam began as a targeted military intervention and devolved into a decade-long war of attrition. As antiwar protestors took to the streets of America burning draft cards, millions of young men were shipped out to fight in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia against an unflagging enemy.

A total of 58,220 servicemen gave their lives in the Vietnam War. The worst and bloodiest fighting spanned 1967 to 1969, when more than 40,000 American soldiers were killed in the months and years surrounding the Tet Offensive. The United States ultimately withdrew from Southeast Asia, ceding control of Vietnam to the communists.

“Today, America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned,” said President Gerald Ford in 1975. “We, of course, are saddened indeed by the events in Indochina. But these events, tragic as they are, portend neither the end of the world nor of America’s leadership in the world.”

READ MORE: 6 Events That Laid the Groundwork for the Vietnam War

World War I: 116,516

A service is held in Hoboken, New Jersey, for American soldiers who died on the battlefields of France during World War I, circa 1920.

Europe slid into war in 1914, but the United States, under President Woodrow Wilson, vowed to remain neutral in the foreign conflict. But after German torpedoes sank the passenger ship Lusitania in 1915, killing 120 Americans, public sentiment began to shift. The U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and deployed hundreds of thousands of conscripted young men to the trench-scarred battlefields of Europe to face German bullets and bayonets, tank artillery, poison gas and disease.

A sobering total of 116,516 Americans died in “the war to end all wars,” which concluded with an Armistice declaring Allied victory at exactly 11 am on November 11, 1918. “If the war had kept up a few hours longer, there wouldn’t be many of us left to tell about it,” wrote U.S. serviceman Harry Frieman in his journal entry for that fateful day.

READ MORE: The Last Official Death of WWI Was a Man Who Sought Redemption

World War II: 405,400

After German soldiers swept through Belgium and Northern France in a blitzkrieg in May of 1940, all communication and transport between Allied forces were cut, leaving thousands of troops stranded. Soldiers waded through the water hoping to escape by rescue vessels, military ships, or civilian ships. More than 338,000 soldiers were saved during what would be later called, the “Miracle of Dunkirk.” 

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The bitter terms of Germany’s surrender in World War I crippled the German economy and bred both contempt for the Allied powers and antisemitic conspiracies of a Jewish/communist plot to destroy Germany from within. Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) party rode to power in 1933 and put plans in motion to establish an “Aryan” German empire.

The United States, as it did during World War I, held back as England, France and other nations declared war on Hitler. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. declared war on both Japan and Germany, and joined the Allies in the heroic beach invasion at Normandy, in which more than 4,400 Allied troops were killed in a span of days. At the Battle of Okinawa, the deadliest single battle for the United States, more than 12,500 American troops lost their lives on the rain-soaked rock. In total, 405,400 U.S. servicemen died in World War II, the deadliest American war waged on foreign soil.

WATCH: World War II in HD on HISTORY Vault

The COVID-19 Pandemic: 357,000 (And Counting)

Olivia Grant (R) hugs her grandmother, Mary Grace Sileo through a plastic drop cloth hung up on a homemade clothes line during Memorial Day Weekend in Wantagh, New York, May 24, 2020. It was the first time they have had contact of any kind since the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic lockdown started in late February. 

In early 2020, the first reports circulated of a deadly and contagious new respiratory disease centered in Wuhan, China. The novel strain of coronavirus claimed its first American victims in February and COVID-19, as the disease became known, erupted into a full-blown public health crisis by March, triggering widespread shutdowns of U.S. schools and businesses, and stay-at-home orders in panicked states nationwide.

New York was the first to suffer an explosion of infections and deaths, registering more than 200,000 positive cases and at least 14,000 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the first three months of the pandemic. As public health restrictions were relaxed over the summer, the virus spread to new hotspots and steadily claimed more and more lives, reaching daily death totals in excess of the 9/11 attacks by late fall.

As of January 2021, with the first rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the confirmed COVID-19 death toll was 357,000, but disease models project America will surpass 560,000 deaths by April 1, 2021.

READ MORE: Pandemics

The 1918 Flu Pandemic: 675,000

The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI (TV-PG; 5:42)

WATCH: The 1918 Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI

The 1918 flu claimed an unfathomable 50 to 100 million victims worldwide, including an estimated 675,000 Americans. Wrongfully labeled the “Spanish flu,” the first confirmed case of this virulent strain of influenza was actually a U.S. Army cook stationed in Kansas in March of 1918. Spring fatalities from the 1918 flu were similar to the seasonal flu, but after the virus followed troop deployments overseas during WWI, it resurged in the fall with deadly vengeance. October of 1918 was the worst single month of the pandemic, claiming almost 200,000 American lives.

Unlike the seasonal flu, which is most dangerous to the very old and very young, the 1918 strain cut down otherwise healthy men and women in the prime of life. Movie theaters and social gatherings were shut down to stem the spread of the virus, and face masks were mandatory in places like San Francisco, but without a vaccine the virus was left to run its deadly course by mid-1919.

READ MORE: Why the Second Wave of the 1918 Flu Was So Deadly

The US Civil War: 750,000 (Estimated)

Burying the Dead on the Battlefield of Antietam, September 1862.

The awful death toll of the Civil War may never fully be known. For more than a century, the number was enshrined at 618,222 fatalities: 360,222 from the Union North and 258,000 from the Confederate South. But in recent decades, historians raised the number to an estimated 750,000 deaths, mostly blamed on the under-counting of Confederate casualties.

That higher figure, if it stands, represents 2.5 percent of the total U.S. population in the 1860s. If a similar war were fought today, it would claim more than 7 million American lives. The death and suffering inflicted by the Civil War is unequaled in U.S. military history.

READ MORE: 10 Facts About the Civil War

Journal of Human Hypertension

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