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The Camp Upton Story (1917-1921) by Norval Dwyer


The Camp Upton Story, 1917-1921
Long Island Forum
February 1970
by
Norval Dwyer


ON SEPTEMBER 4, 1917,New York celebrated the nationwide movement of the National Army recruits into
camps with a huge parade up Fifth Avenue, from Washington Square to 50th Street. Twenty thousand men marched, and fifteen bands accompanied them. The marchers were not in uniform. They came informally, dressed in business suits, workmen's clothes, jackets, and shirt sleeves. Some wore the typical straw hat of the day, others had on derbies or soft hats; and many were bareheaded.

Not being used to military marches, they ambled along in irregular rows, laughing and talking together. Many carried small flags fastened to canes, which they waved. A few groups carried posters, such as "From Harlem to France", and "Harlem's Hun Hammerers"


Thousands of people lined the sidewalks to watch, but they were curiously silent as they looked over the soldiers to be; and only once in a while did they break into a smattering of applause.

The distinguished members of the reviewing stand were more jubilant. Major General Franklin Bell, who in Aug. had left his post as Commander of the Eastern branch of the army to become the commanding general of Camp Upton, was there. The sixty-one-year- old veteran of the Spanish- American War and of military action in the Philippines expressed his approval, saying, " Splendid! Splendid! " His peppery friend and military companion, a former President and a Long Islander, Colonel Teddy Roosevelt, standing next to him, was even more elated at the sight of this potential army.

The next day, there was considerable let down in enthusiasm because the New York City and Long Island draft contingent had to wait one more week for Camp Upton to get ready with minimum requirements. But the following Monday morning two thousand men gathered with their relatives and friends at the 34th Street ferry, cheering and shouting, waving fists, hats and handkerchiefs as they got ready to move across the river to the special trains which would take them to the camp sixty miles away


In the mean-time, out at Upton, Commander Bell and his officers waited for the contingent to arrive The first group was made up of eastern Long Island conscripts, several hours ahead of the New York crowd. Three men from the town of Southold were the first to cross the threshold of the camp. Others had left from the Riverhead Courthouse steps and were driven to camp by officials of the local draft board.

No one seemed disturbed by the fact that the great camp flag was not flying, or that some of the sewer trenches were still open, or that stumps abounded. They did notice that the buildings were in every phase of construction; that "trench diggers" were trenching for fire mains and sewers; that steam rollers were laying permanent roads; and that motor and horse drawn trucks and countless laborers and carpenters were moving in every direction as far as the eye could reach." They rather took all of this unfinished state for granted; and they were more impressed by the quality of the officers and the courteous treatment of the recruits.

The men were temporarily assigned to a barrack and the captain in charge, in private life a Wall Street broker, took a brief biography of each man. He was pleased to learn that some of them were college educated and others highly skilled craftsmen. One was a chemist, another a banker, another a town clerk, and another an expert machinist and chauffeur.

Next, the captain had other officers issue to each man two heavy Army blankets, two tin plates, a large agate cup and a knife, fork and spoon. Then they were given cot numbers and taken to the sleeping quarters upstairs. They were then taken on a tour of the big barrack. The mess hall was on the main floor, "plain and somewhat rough, but absolutely clean and quite substantial". It included a large kitchen "where spotlessly clean cooks" were preparing for the first camp meal at noon. While the visitors stood there a quarter of beef was brought in and carved.


The Riverhead News observed that "While the new soldiers must of necessity rough it in certain particulars -like each man washing his own dinner dishes and being responsible for his own clothes and blankets and general equipment-there are conveniences not dreamed of in previous great wars; for besides each barracks is a separated building in which there are ten shower baths, for instance, and numerous other toilet arrangements."


The tranquil beginnings of this first day were short lived, ending with the arrival of the trains from the City with the jostling, noisy soldiers, tired from their long cramped ride, many still grasping the flags on canes they had carried in last week's parade. The trains were shunted into the camp, and the recruits still in their civilian clothes, scrambled down and were marched along the dusty roads to the mustering in headquarters, led by their broad hatted, khaki uniformed officers.


A reporter from the Brooklyn Eagle noted that the men from Eastern Long Island "were a fine looking set of fellows, well built and with a freshness of face and quietness of manner that contrasted with the men who arrived from the city." One of the local boys from Bridgehampton was astonished to see how much shorter the city men were and the foreign accents all around him made the place seem like a Tower of Babel.


One of the camp officers, a year and a half later, recalled that the recruits arriving that first day had been a motley crew, with every type represented "the gunman and the gangster, the student and the clerk, the laborer, the loafer, the daily plodder, the lawyer, men of muscle and men of brain."


A week or so later, members of New York's tough gangs came in as draftees. They had declared a truce with each other in order to fight the Kaiser's gang in a joint operation. The gang from "Hells Kitchen" swore to "Cook the Kaiser's Goose", and the Gas House Gang and Gopleen Gang were with them all the Way.


An inventory of occupations among the drafted men showed machinists, cooks, plumbers, bookkeepers, miners, draftsmen, electricians, horseshoers, druggists, actors, musicians, professional athletes, policemen, politicians and veterinarians, in addition to boys just out of high school, Laborers, and the unemployed. Many nationalities were represented and interpreters had to be culled from the crowd immediately. Notices were posted that all commands were to be given in English. Foreigners protested that they did not want to fight in Europe; but the law had gone through that aliens must be drafted. Violent protesters were arrested and placed under close guard.


Before the draft contingency had time to settle down into the stem business of training it was feted by the town of Patchogue, 10 miles from camp. Patchogue was patriotically preparing itself to meet the challenge, aware that thousands of soldiers would soon flood its bars, stores, restaurants, houses of ill fame, and streets in general, during their weekend leisure time. "We must treat them like our sons", said some. "We must be prepared for the tornado cried others. On September 2, about two weeks after their arrival, the Camp Upton soldiers were invited to march in a grand parade up Patchogue's Main Street.

Not only the "Sammies" from the camp, but also the "Jackies" from the battleship Oklahoma, quietly stationed outside Port Jefferson harbor, marched in this parade. Schools were closed for the day, and hundreds of flags flew.
Veterans of other wars paraded with the soldiers, along with 500 school children and Boy Scouts and Campfire girls. The Elks marched, in their straw hats, blue jackets and white trousers. The Women's Suffrage group stepped along with their banner; the Women's Temperance Union, the White Ribboners, had an elaborate float, as did the local Lace Mill. The young farmerettes, dressed in khaki, with hoes over their shoulders, were part of the parade. Local bands and a camp band thumped out patriotic rhythms.

That evening speeches were made. The military but kindly mannered General Bell stated that, like all professional military men, he, too, hated war; but that he felt peace should be maintained by constant military strength even in peace time


The highlight speaker of the evening was a vivacious Red Cross nurse, an Italian Countess, who had seen action at the front lines. She had been wounded twice, and still carried German bullets in her body. Once she had been blown off her bicycle by German mortar fire.

The more staid townspeople were shocked at the frequent "damns and hells" that escaped from her pretty lips as the nurse told her story; but the broadminded admired her cosmopolitan dash and evident bravery in the face of danger.
The concept of the drafted soldier in the National Army encampment was a new and strange one to Americans. General Bell wanted to establish good relations with the community of Long Island and New York City. Good newspaper publicity was important. On October 20 he extended an invitation to members of the Long Island Press Association to visit the camp and see what life was like there.
Fifty editors assembled in the morning, and after a tour they were treated to a lunch in one of the regulation barracks, so that they could eat the same food the soldiers ate, and under the same circumstances. The lunch consisted of beefsteak with thick brown gravy, baked potatoes, baked beans, coffee, and rice pudding with plums in it. The editors were served on metal plates and with metal forks, just like the soldiers'.

The editors had a chance to talk with the recruits. Reports were favorable. The food was praised. The breakfast menu, for example, included three slices of bacon, two fried eggs, two peaches, toast and coffee. They received meat three times a day. The spirit of the men seemed fine. They praised the YMCA entertainments, which brought in movies and notable Broadway stars.

One of the officers earnestly told the editors that democracy was one of the big fundamentals of army life that the millionaire in camp was no better off than the immigrant who could speak no English. One famous rookie, who later was able to vouch for the truth of this statement, was the composer Irving Berlin, who at the time of his conscription at Camp Upton, was the ragtime king of America.

But all was not pure honey and butter for the 40,000 men stationed in the wilderness of Long Island at Yaphank. Male human nature living in isolated mass was far from human nature at its best. Army officials, local town officials, and members of religious and fraternal organizations made advance preparations for the protection of both the soldiers and the community as best as they could.

Before the soldiers came to camp, army officials ordered 39 saloons in the area closed, leaving about 34 open. The most rigid orders were given that no liquor be served within a five mile radius of the camp grounds. And no soldier in uniform was allowed to take a drink. The rule was enforced by military police and by the secret service men.


Intensive efforts were made to keep under control problems involving women. The YWCA and other social agencies sent out professional social workers and set up local offices in the area ahead of time. One of their tasks was to organize patriotic clubs for young girls to help use up some of the fervor aroused by wartime. Towns built special recreation centers for the soldiers, places where they could play billiards, read magazines, and get free refreshments.


Female visitors in camp under proper supervision were welcomed. The War Council of the YWCA had erected three hostess houses where soldiers could entertain their women friends and hold dances. No woman was allowed in camp unescorted, but YWCA workers were on hand to escort women to camp. No woman was allowed after the late afternoon Retreat had sounded. Soldiers were encouraged to invite their families to visit the camp.


The YMCA, the K. of C., and the army chaplains set up shop. The YMCA took leadership, and put out a camp newspaper. It also brought in a wealth of free entertainment. "I saw Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, George M. Cohan," wrote a young private, among a long list of such names he recorded. In October, the famous comedian and singer, Scottish Harry Lauder, came to Upton and sang for the soldiers. He surprised them by singing a serious Scots ballad, and by his subdued manner. On his arm he wore a black band of mourning for his son who had been killed on the battlefield in France.

It seemed hard to believe, in the face of all this patriotic endeavor, that only about six weeks after the camp officially opened, saboteurs wrecked a Long Island troop train carrying soldiers, killing one and injuring fifteen others. And unhappy individual incidents occurred: a corporal shot and killed a soldier and his woman friend on the grounds, Another soldier killed a woman in a rooming house in Patchogue. A sixteen-year-old girl became involved with soldiers and ran away from home. Soldiers were admonished for crowding the train to New York on a weekend leave. Camp followers came out from the city and set up trade on the fringes of the area and had to be forcibly sent away by the county sheriff.

There were other problems within the camp borders; Slackers and objectors. These had to be severely punished. Sometimes a prisoner wore a large bag around his neck and was marched around the camp, filling his bag with large loose stones. He was followed by a guard with fixed bayonet Others were put temporarily behind a camp barbed wire confine. Others received harsh jail sentences


Gambling went on in the barracks; also swearing, and bullying of the weak by the strong. "Men here are like animals", wrote the gentle young country boy from eastern Long Island. "It is just like being it prison here."

But General Bell was an experienced, humane officer, who marshalled the forces at his disposal, both army and civilian, to make the existence of the draft contingent as bear able as possible. Local people hearing him speak, were impressed by his concern for their sons. Like Major 0. K Meyers, General Bell fulfilled his responsibilities, one of which was to keep the human element of the great national war machine in balance, while at the same time preparing for efficient service in its eventual primary task-killing.

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