Friday, March 31, 2017

Dix Chapter VII - Between the Wars

Chapter VII


During the 1920s and early 1930s, World War I continued to have a tremendous impact on the size and structure of the United States Army.

Civilian Americans were determined to economize after the tremendous costs of World War I and try to forget warfare altogether. With almost four million men under arms in November 18, the authorized strength of the US Army slid to less than 150,000 by mid-1920. Even then the number of personnel the Army was able to retain n service fell well below that figure.

Regular Army facilities in the United States provided adequately for existing Army units; consequently there was little need for the original National Army Camps, such as Camp Dix, in the post-war military establishment.

Were it not for a decision by the assistant secretary of war in March 1919, it is doubtful if Camp Dix would had survived as a military reservation. He decided to purchase 14 leased National Army cantonments, one of which was Dix, to try to recoup a higher part of the war’s cost by selling all buildings and other assets in combination with the lands. Selling the combinations, he estimated, would result in 12 times more gain to the government. After the Camp Dix land was purchased, however, no information is available that any real attempt was made to sell the Army post.

When demobilization had ended, the caretaking responsibility for Camp Dix was placed in the hands of a quartermaster detachment, which at times consisted of as few as one officer, 10 enlisted men and five civilians. The quartermaster officer in charge of the detachment also doubled as commanding officer of the camp. For these few soldiers, Camp Dix in those years was a lonely place and well deserving of the name, “Military Ghost Town,” given to the quiet reservation by local residents.

It was the 1st Infantry Division, headquartered at Fort Hamilton, New York, that gave Camp Dix its last big moment of glory during the post-World War I period. In observance of the second anniversary of the armistice, the 1st Division assembled all of its units, which were spread widely along the east coast, at Camp Dix to put on a demonstration for a gathering of 1st Division veterans. Among the guests was General of the Armies John J. Pershing, as the division “went over the top” on the night of 10 November 1920.

Also present were 35 disabled veterans of the 1st Division who lay in ambulances to watch the show. They had been brought by special train from Walter Reed Army Hospital, Washington D.C., where for more than two years, they had been under treatment for war wounds. The demonstration consisted of a night attack from trenches employing all of the implements for such an attack. Soldiers with blackened faces made up wire-cutting parties, and the attackers were supported with star shells to heavy artillery and protected by tanks and machine guns. On the next day 11 November, a reunion of the 1st Division Society, held on the parade grounds, was attended by thousands of veterans from all parts of the United States.

As a result of this visit, the commanding general of the 1st Division, Major General Charles P. Summerall, wrote to the adjutant general. US Army, requesting an allocation of $5,000 to repair and modernize a building suitable for housing visitors to the post. In his request, he stated that the camp was located 18 miles from adequate hotel accommodations. He also noted the quarters provided for officers at the camp were so small, poorly constructed, and ill equipped that it was necessary to provide some place for guests of the officers and other visitors.

There is no evidence to indicate General Summerall ever got the money. Few appropriations were made by Congress for maintenance of buildings on the post. Consequently, the inevitable resulted. Nature, lack of repair, and insufficient guard personnel took their toll. Supplies were open to looting. Even gasoline was stolen from the fire engine, and on one occasion the vehicle had to be towed to a fire. Building after building burned to the ground. During the five-year period from 1917-1922, the camp’s fire loss was approximately $287,000. Much of the camp’s equipment, particularly motor vehicles, had long passed the point of efficient use.

Major General David C. Shanks, who had replaced General Summerall as commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division, visited Camp Dix in August 1921. He later wrote to the adjutant general, US Army, complaining of the camp’s deficiencies. He noted the buildings were “all of the cheap and flimsy type” and apparently suffering from leaky roofs, extensive rotting, and general deterioration attributable to “hasty construction.”

General Shanks observed that the camp’s water supply was poor, no family housing existed, and the general isolation of the location was contributing to a high desertion rate. He endorsed General Summerall’s views that Camp Dix should not be retained as a permanent camp and recommended no further building programs be considered.

Despite the views of the two commanding generals, the 1st Division continued to use Camp Dix for its annual summer field training and range firing. Regiments of the division’s 1st Brigade, the 16th Infantry Regiment from Fort Jay, Governor’s Island, New York City, and the 18th Infantry Regiment from Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, New York, were the most consistent users of the camp’s training areas. Additionally, in the summer months, units of the New Jersey Guard took their two-weeks active duty training at the camp along with reserve officers of the 77th and 78th Infantry Divisions (Reserve) and officers of other Organized Reserve Corps (ORC) units whose home stations were close to Camp Dix. In the 1930s, students in training under the Citizens Military Training Corps (CMTC) in the II Army Corps Area made up a large part of the men assembled at the camp from June through August.

The small arms ranges were the most active facilities on post during these training periods. More than 3,000 men, not including CMTC and ORC groups, spent considerable time on the ranges qualifying and improving their marksmanship. In 1926, the firing range at Fort Hancock, New Jersey, was closed because of accidents, so troops from that post, principally engineers, completed their small arms firing at Camp Dix. During the summer of that year, approximately 400 marines stationed at Lakehurst, New Jersey, as part of the ground crew for the naval airship “Los Angeles,” came to Camp Dix for range practice. The marines continued to use the camp’s ranges for several more years.
Camp Dix as it existed in those days can be best understood through the reflections of soldiers returning to the “old” post after years of absence. One was Sergeant First Class John F. Nolan, who returned to Fort Dix in 1964 for an assignment with the Light Vehicle Driver Course of the 5th Common Specialist Training Regiment. Back in May 1934, then Private Nolan had reported to Camp Dix to staff a summer training camp for the Reserve Officers Training Corps, CMTC, and Civilian Conservation Corps.

Looking at the permanent, brick barracks of a basic combat training regiment, Nolan recalled that his company 30 years previously had been housed in tents during the summer period. “The only barracks on post,” he said, “housed about 18 members of the permanent party. Once we were ordered to move our tents so a road could be built.”

Reminiscing on changes that have occurred in Army life, the sergeant recalled, “Every outfit did its own recruiting. You just signed up and went straight to work. Until you were assigned overseas, you received no formal training. One day you might learn how to carry or fire a rifle, while another time they might teach you ‘right face.’”

As a private, Nolan was paid $17,65 a month. His first stop most paydays was the orderly room, where a book of 10 haircut coupons could be bought for a $1.50. In his unit in those days, a private first class was entrusted with handling payroll and personnel records. Mess halls were different, too. Service was family style, with heaping platters of food on the table. Mess sergeants did their own marketing, and they could be seen at nearby farms, haggling over the price of vegetables.

Frequently during the post-demobilization period, the governments had expressed its intention of abandoning the camp and returning all property to the original owners. However, due largely to the efforts of General Hugh L. Scott, the second commanding general of the 78th Infantry Division and Camp Dix, such a proposal was not carried out. He and many other farsighted military and government officials argued that the camp must be retained in the event of another mobilization. It was further pointed out that the reservation was the largest in the northeastern United States and well fortified by its ideal location. It was near the large eastern cities and had great potential as an aviation center or training site for pilots.

After hearing these and other strong arguments, Calvin Coolidge decided to set aside most of the tract as a national forest preserve and any idea of vacating the camp apparently was dropped – at least so far as the federal government was concerned. By executive order in 1925, most of the land area making up the reservation was renamed Dix National Forest.

Even though the government had no intention of giving up the land, rumors of plans to abandon the property were often heard. Most of the rumors were based on expressed opinions of certain ranking individuals in the federal and local governments that the properties at Dix were needlessly being held by the government. The rumors brought a flood of inquiries to congressmen from local residents. The property and land at Dix became the subject of many such congressional inquiries in 1926. Late in the year, Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis answered these inquiries by announcing plans to reopen Camp Dix as the 11 Corps training area. He also announced the proposal of a million dollar construction project at the post. Thus, Dix’ retention as a military installation by the federal government was assured, and the tide of rumors and queries subsided.

Although the post was not very active after 1922 and no regular forces, other than the small caretaker detachment, were stationed there, the Army still received a number of claims for property damage from irate citizens. For example, an Asbury Park bus struck and killed an Army mule while the bus was traveling across the reservation on the Wrightstown-Pemberton-Camden Highway. After determining the amount of damage to the bus and cost of repair, the company filed a claim against the government in the amount of $54.45. But, to the dismay of the company, the government submitted a counterclaim for $160 – the cost of the mule. It was pointed out that the driver of the bus had exceeded the posted speed limit of 12 miles per hour. A witness had stated the bus was traveling a reckless 25 miles an hour and the driver apparently ignored the waring of a soldier to slow down. The disposition of the case is not known nor is it really important. However, it was typical of many such claims submitted to the government.

There were more serious claims uring the early between-wars period. Field fires started from the narrow-gage railroad were frequent. One fire in the early 1920s resulted in more than $10,000 in claims for damage to cranberry bogs. In 1930, another fire was started from the railroad resulting in claims totaling $2,500. Finally it was discovered that the fires were caused when sparks from the train’s wheels ignited the nearby brush.

The largest fire during the period, however, was not caused by wheels of the railroad train. In 1932, soldiers of one of the reserve divisions were clearing brush from the track for a firebreak and began burning it. At noon, the soldiers took time out for lunch, leaving the burning brush unattended. In a short time, with the assist of a summer breeze, the fire spread to adjoining bogs. The result was one of the worst fires known in the vicinity, according to a letter received by the secretary of war from a civilian. The blaze could not be controlled, and a civilian fire department had to be called in.
After the fire, which caused extensive damage to the woodland area in the section that later became known as the Reception Center. This company did excellent work fighting soil erosion on the farms in the neighboring communities.

By August 1934, general supervision of CCC camps in southern New Jersey was administered by headquarters at Dix. Public opinion was divided as to whether material benefits accomplished by the CCC were worth the cost. However, it was generally accepted that improvement of workers’ personal character and knowledge was of tremendous value.

Character buildup, however, was sometimes questioned by the local populace. One incident took place on the afternoon of Friday the 13th of April 1934. On that day, 75 CCC workers on their way home from Camp Dix created a disturbance at the Bordentown, New Jersey railroad station. They removed a clock from the waiting room wall, damaged a candy vending machine and became involved in other miscellaneous malicious actions. State police were summoned and after quelling the outbreak permitted the men to go on to their homes. No arrests were made. This was not the only incident of bad conduct involving CCC workers. They were frequently involved in fights, brawls, thefts and acts of immorality. Although the majority of the conservation corps men did not display such immature behavior, the reputation of the entire CCC was quite a topic of controversy.

Meanwhile, CCC authorities at Camp Dix continued to point out advantages of the corps. They shattered all charges of pacifists that the recruits were given military training. Dix authorities denied that the young men were undergoing training for the Army in the event of a future emergency. It also was stressed that while a civilian reserve officer directed each of the CCC camps, all other executive positions were held by men promoted from the ranks of the CCC recruits.

All CCC men enlisted had the privilege of quitting any time they were needed by their families. Transportation costs to return home in such cases were furnished, considering that pay of the ordinary CCC workman was only $30 a month, $25 of which was sent to dependents or families back home. This left the CCC worker $5 in pocket money each month, hardly enough to cover both transportation costs and other necessary purchases. In addition to educational, recreational, and religious benefits and activities, the worker received clothing and medical services.

In January 1935, 300,000 young men still were employed in camps scattered throughout the United States. For the most part, they worked in forest conservation. In the spring of 1935, preparations were made by the Department of Conservation and Development for reforesting state forests. This was accomplished by planting a total of 832,700 seedling trees of several different types. The plans were carried out, and the planting done by CCC. The Green Bank State Forest Nursery of Burlington County provided 210,200 seedlings, while the Washington Crossing State Forest Nursery of Mercer County furnished an additional 125,000 for the cause.

The Bass River State Forest of Burlington County, the Lebanon State Forest in Cape May County, the Jenny Jump State Forest in Warren County and Stokes State Forest in Sussex County all received seedling trees. In all cases the planting was done by the CCC. The CCC also was employed in road building and other jobs throughout the country. These jobs aided in the construction of various projects designed to improve living and recreational conditions in assigned areas.

In spring 1935, it was directed that New Jersey’s quota for the CCC be boosted from 9,343 to 19,700. This was the result of a federal government decision to enroll 600,000 youths and war veterans beginning 15 June 1935 to build up the number of personnel, which then stood at 353,000. Factors in determining the state’s quota were population and relief needs, each weighing equally.

Of the 600,000 youths and war veterans, 545,000 were juniors and the remainder veterans. The enrollment increase was completed on 31 August 1935. It was estimated that during the enrollment period, approximately 350,000 men, including replacements for men who had dropped out prior to 1 July, were sent to camps.

From March 1933 to July 1936, 115,000 CCC enrollees arrived and were processed at Camp Dix. During the same period, the camp, which also operated as a discharge center, sent out 43,000 men, who eventually returned to Dix and were mustered out of the corps to civilian life. In all, more than 200,000 men passed through the camp in the CCC program.

Activity at Camp Dix steadily increased, and in 1937 the CCC Discharge and Replacement Center was established. The center handled approximately 10,000 enrolments and discharges every quarter. At the beginning of every period 5,000 men were received from camps on the West Coast, processed for discharge and returned home. At about the same time, approximately the same numbers was received, enrolled, processed and shipped to camps on the West Coast as replacements. In September 1940, the Discharge and Replacement Center was moved temporarily to Sea Girt, New Jersey. It remained there until early in 1941 when it was returned to Fort Dix and inactivated. Because of the military buildup, workers at the post, more of whom were involved in soil conservation, were transferred to the Schenectady, New York, area.

Meanwhile the CMTC and ORC continued to use the camp regularly each summer, and training was more efficient because of the many improvements made by the CCC with government funds.
In 1937, General Hugh L. Scott’s foresightedness of the 1920s became a reality. During that year ground was broken for the Army’s first airfield at Dix. A small landing strip was built for light planes to be used in support of the post’s activities. Although hardly as extensive as today’s McGuire Air Force Base, the tiny single dirt strip was McGuire’s forerunner. Later, the strip expanded to a major air base and for years was known as the Fort Dix Army Air Field. 

The military had its problems in keeping the lid on classified information. A breach of security, which could be used as an example in an intelligence lecture, occurred on the post in 1938. World War II was just taking form in other parts of the world, even though the United States was not involved. Washington, however, was anticipating the country might become entangled; consequently mobilization and contingency plans were being prepared. Military installations were taking stock of their properties and making recommendations for improvement in the event facilities and equipment had to be used for building of our military strength.

In May 1938 a request carefully itemizing some $150,000 in needed repairs and constructions at Camp Dix was sent from Congress to the War Department. Congress felt the repairs were considered necessary for mobilization should the need arise. The list included all areas ranging from improvements of tent floors and a hay shed to renovations of an electronic power station.

Such a request may not seem out of place to most people. There was, however, one extraordinary factor – the request came from Congress and not through channels from Camp Dix. A security leak was suspected. This disturbed the War Department, considering that requests in channels from Dix at the time amounted only to $18,000. The War Department wanted to know why civilians apparently knew more about the mobilization readiness of the post than the Army.

Camp Dix’ commander was hard pressed to explain how this restricted list of needed repairs got to Washington before it was received at II Corps headquarters. After investigation on the part of military authorities at the camp, the answer was learned. At the time there were some 2,500 Works Projects Administration (WPA) workers on the post. They were involved in all types of projects and administrative functions at the camp. It was discovered that these civilians were not fully aware of their knowledge of security information. Because most of them were political appointees, it was not difficult for congressmen to obtain any information they wanted. After this discovery, the security leak was plugged here and at other posts.

In the late 1930s, War Department officials began to recognize that Dix was becoming an important permanent station. Permanent barracks and officers’ quarters were being constructed, and the post had the potential of becoming one of the largest training centers for ground forces in the county.
In view of this, the War Department believed the installation should be given the more appropriate designation of “Fort Dix,” so on 8 March 1939, the post was officially renamed – giving it an air of permanence.

At the time several permanent structures already were in existence and others in construction, using Public Works Administration and Works Projects Administration funs. Included in the million-dollar building project were an electric power substation, a 375-man barracks, eight sets of officers’ quarters, 13 NCO quarters, a fire station, bakery, guard houses, quartermaster warehouse, quartermaster utility shops, garage and motor repair shop, gas and oil storage area, headquarters building and an administration building.

Begun in 1938 the project was not completed until 1940. Most of these facilities are being used today. The post headquarters building are probably the most familiar to those currently stationed at Dix. Among the permanent-type buildings in existence prior to 1939 were the mess halls built for the Civilian Conservation Corps and the two infantry companies in 1934. These buildings on Maryland Avenue are still in use today – but not as mess halls. One is now used by the provost marshal and the other by the Communications and Pictorial Service Division.

Little change occurred in the routine at Dix by its redesignations as a permanent installation. The CMTC and the ORC continued with their regular training activities. War clouds were beginning to form on the horizon, but it was to be some time before their existence would be recognized by any variation in Fort Dix’ schedule.

In the summer of 1939, 21,000 young men were inducted into the CMTG regiment on the parade grounds, which marked the spot where the barrack’s famed “Lighting Division” stood. The regiment’s training was conducted by officers of infantry, quartermaster, signal and medical branches, who arrived regularly during the summer for two-weeks active duty.

March 1939 found Fort Dix the center of a controversy that raised a nationwide hue and cry. It concerned nine old mules, condemned to die after having been found guilty of the charge of “senility.” The over-age age of the animals was 25 years, and one had been in service with General Pershing on the Mexican border and in France. Publication of the sentence was picked up by the national press series and resulted in an avalanche of letters directed to the post quartermaster officer, Major David R. Wolverton, under shoes supervision the sentence was to be carried out.

Suggestions for pensioning the animals streamed in from all sides. Finally, in 1940, General Hugh A. Drum, commander of the II Corps Area, issued a reprieve. One newspaperman wrote that this decision brought “great joy” to the post. The mules were given extra allotments of feed. They were brushed and curried to an extent unknown in a tough mule’s life, and private citizens brought sweets to the favored beasts.

Even a radio news bulletin was issued, and it was thought that the old campaigners would spend the rest of their days on green pastures. But the reprieve came to an end, and the Army’s regulations prevailed. It was considered inadvisable to sell the mules to farmers, and no other recourse was available but to complete the sentence of the court martial. Decrepit mules could not live on an Army post, and the animals were given a ceremonial dismissal from the service.

The portrait of Major General Hugh L. Scott, the second commander of the installation and the man who was in great part instrumental in persuading the government to retain the camp after World War I, was presented to Fort Dix at appropriate ceremonies in July 1939. The portrait, painted as a WPA project by artists from New York, was presented by a group from the 78th Division Veterans Association.

During the same month, a portrait was presented of the birthplace of General Dix. This presentation was made by Mrs. Margaret Dix Lawrence, a granddaughter of the general. In 1956 Mrs. Lawrence presented a near-century-old oil portrait of General Dix, which is presently displayed in post headquarters. The portrait, exceeding four-by-three and encased in a heavy gilt frame of the period, was painted by Peter Hansen Balling of Norway. Balling was noted for his portraits of President Lincoln, Generals Sherman and Grant, Admiral Farragut and other Civil War leaders.

Late in 1940, quite a few Americans realized the United States might become physically involved in a second world conflict. It was at this time the federal government heartily welcomed the existing facilities at Fort Dix. The War Department had a place to train and stage troops in the event of mobilization – again thanks to General Scott and his farsighted colleagues.

The between-wars period was a time when Dix almost had passed out of existence only to snap back with the initiation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” CCC program. Upon entering the 1940s, the post was to be charged with other important roles – again in defense of the country for liberation of suppressed peoples. 

No comments: