Friday, March 24, 2017

History of Fort Dix - IV Construction

History of Fort Dix

Chapter IV 


Although the area southeast of Wrightstown, New Jersey, seemed ideally suited for a mobilization camp, the task of completing sufficient facilities at the site to receive the first draftees by 1 September 1917 seemed impossible. The few Army personnel who began to arrive at Wrightstown in early June expected to see construction underway or at least in an advanced stage of preparation. When these soldiers saw only vast expanses of carefully cultivated fields devoid of any activity, it is easy to understand their disappointment. The weeks of June and early July 1917 passed as they had for more than two centuries with only the crops in the fields showing any signs of growth.

Major Harry C. Williams, who reported as the first camp commander on 12 June 1917, later described the early weeks as ones of inactivity in which “make-work” projects had to be created to prevent boredom among the troops. Williams summed up the frustration of all in an article which later appeared in the Camp Dix News when he stated, “the visions of mushroom growth were painfully dissipated.”

The discouragement of Major Williams and his men was understandable, but the slow start in construction was not without good reasons. The War Department faced the almost unbelievable task of constructing within a period of three months not only Camp Dix and 31 similar camps but more than 500 other military posts of varying sizes. The problems of procurement of building materials, labor, transportation, and other equipment were of a magnitude beyond any previous experience of the American people. Yet, even though it was not apparent in Wrightstown, progress had been made in laying the groundwork for the building of Camp Dix.

The quartermaster general of the State of New Jersey was negotiating with owners of farms and forests to use their land for the military reservation, and on 17 June 1917, a one-year lease on 6,500 acres was arranged and signed by the parties concerned. Additional land was procured later by other leases and outright purchase. Of the $700,000 allocated for land acquisition, only $550,000 was ever spent. Some landowners, especially those whose families had occupied their land for generations, were understandably hesitant to leave their homes. Most, however, displayed a high degree of cooperation with the war effort. One prosperous farmer, when asked by a newspaper reporter what his reaction was to vacating his premises gave a reply that revealed the feeling of patriotism which most Americans had during those days of World War I. He answered simply, “If I had a boy in the new Army, I’d want him to live in a decent place; wouldn’t you?” 1. (Camp Dix News, vol. i, no. I 1917 7.)

Concurrent with negotiations for land were those for construction of buildings and camp facilities. A contract was signed with the firm of Irwin and Leighton of Philadelphia on 4 June 1917. It was the same type of contract made with all construction firms for the 16 National Army camps. It called for construction of buildings and facilities required to provide for an infantry division of three regiments, known as a triangular division, on a “cost-plus basis with a graded scale of percentages decreasing from 10% to 6% on the cost of the work as the total cost increased.” 2. (Erna Risch, Quartermaster Support of the Army. A History of the Corps 1775-1939, p. 607)

These terms were favorable to the contractors and were undoubtedly an important factor in the rapid deterioration of the National Army camps once the contracts were completed.

Irwin and Leighton had only two and one-half months in which to complete sufficient buildings and facilities to provide for the first draftees. The size of the task in this short time was gigantic in proportion. More than 7,000 carpenters, electricians, plumbers and laborers had to be assembled, housed, fed and cared for at the campsite. Millions of board feet of lumber, miles of piping and wire, plumbing fixtures in the thousands, plus a myriad of other supplies, tools and equipment had to be purchased, transported and assembled at Wrightstown. This was accomplished at a time when skilled workers were in demand throughout the country, building materials were in short supply, and transportation already was overtaxed.

To further complicate the construction problem, the War Department on the recommendation of General Pershing and his staff revised the organization of the infantry division in late July 1917. The new division, commonly referred to as the “square” division, called for an addition of a fourth regiment and half again as many troops. As one writer commented, “The effect upon the cantonment arrangements was much the same as building a tall building, then adding ten stories, putting the elevators in a new place, and lowering the ceilings on each floor by a foot.” 3 (Frederick Palmer, Newton D. Baker-America at War, vol. i., p. 255)

The changes in the number of buildings to be constructed resulted in the contract continuing long after Camp Dix was to have been completed.

By mid-July 1917, the campsite began to see “visions of mushroom growth,” of which Major Williams dreamed. Workers began to arrive by the hundreds each day. More than 30 million board feet of lumber and 28 miles of various sized piping for the water system arrived in the railway siding in a few days time. Buildings began to appear in the cornfields at a fantastic rate of speed. On 5 September, sufficient buildings had been erected to receive the first draftees to Camp Dix. During the month of September, 17,000 draftees arrived and were processed at the camp. However, even after their arrival, construction went on throughout the fall and into the winter of 1917. Oftentimes, the new soldiers moving into their bleak barracks had to clean up debris from the carpentering before they could set up cots.

Construction of the largest single facility at the camp was not begun until late in August. The Camp Dix Base Hospital during the early days was housed in buildings intended for use as troop barracks. By giving top priority to construction of the medial installation, a 61-building, 1,000 bed hospital was completed in record time and received its first patients on 29 October 1917. During construction of the hospital, a system of teams of workers was best demonstrated.

Contractors were constantly plagued by a shortage of skilled workers. To overcome this problem, unskilled workers were organized into teams similar to those working on manufacturing assembly lines. On 24 September 1917, 200 men operating in teams of carpenters established an unofficial record when they erected seven barracks buildings, 24’ x 157’, in a seven-hour period. The buildings were complete in every detail – floors laid, stairs placed, doors hung, windows fitted, and even screens emplaced. In addition, all scaffolding was removed, and the workmen had gone to new sites.

The influx of thousands of construction workers with plenty of money in their pockets quickly created pressures in the villages and towns of the area surrounding Camp Dix. The horde of hard-working builders looking forward each evening to the gaiety of night life in the few populated areas that prior to the war had been nonexistent. It was only natural that Wrightstown, the nearest village, developed quickly into a boomtown. The village, which claimed a population of less than 200 before the war, within a few weeks in July 1917 grew into the thousands. Gamblers quickly arrived on the scene to help workers spend their “excess” money with such devices as poker, dice, faro and three-card monte games. As all boom times, the philosophy of “wine, women and song” quickly became the standard of Wrightstown.

This situation developed in the vicinity of nearly all developing National Army camps, and the federal government recognized that something had to be done before the young men of the new Army entered the service. The result was a federal order prohibiting the sale of liquor either in camps or within a radius of five miles of the campsites. In the Camp Dix area, aid for enforcing the newly passed bans came from the Philadelphia office of what is now the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Two special agents were sent to Camp Dix to work with the military police in determining the source of apparently illegal whiskey which somehow seemed to find its way to soldiers’ hands. The agent in charge of the operation at Camp Dix was Richard Hughes, father of the present governor of New Jersey, Richard J. Hughes.

Vice and corruption were not the only problems that faced the area municipalities. Housing workers and the many families accompanying them became a matter of deep concern. Within a few days, there was no available lodging within miles of the encampment, and the few stores in the formerly quiet country village were literally swamped with customers.

Camp Dix itself rapidly became a fair sized, self-sufficient city capable of handling its own problems and many relating to neighboring communities. Adjoining townships delegated by ordinance to the Army the right to police, regulate and restrict traffic within reasonable regulations on the Wrightstown-New Lisbon and Pointville-Pemberton Roads.

The Camp Dix Fire Department was organized in October 1917 and operated six stations and a fire truck and hose company. 

A huge bakery with a daily capacity of 36,000 pounds of bread per day was built. A complete water system was installed, including a pumping station on the Rancocas Creek which supplied the cantonment area with 3,000 gallons of water per minute. A series of water storage tanks also were constructed to facilitate the system. One, a 200,000-gallon steel tank, built on the Wrightstown-Pemberton Road, is still in service today, 50 years later.

A sewage disposal plant and a sewage system also were constructed. Stables and horse shops were built to house and care for the 7,000 horses and mules assigned to the camp. Approximately eight and one-half miles of standard gauge track were laid into the camp by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

By 15 December 1917, the contractors reported that in the period since 14 June, the company had employed a maximum of 11,000 workers operating in 400 teams and utilizing 40 trucks. They had constructed a total of 1,660 buildings of 143 types and sizes. At the time, Camp Dix consisted of 7,474 acres, of which 3,500 acres were used for artillery and rifle ranges. In the winter of 1917-18, the strength of Camp Dix averaged about 25,000 men per month.

New construction at Camp Dix continued well into the year 1918. Events in Europe such as the loss of Russia as an ally, the defeat of the Italian army at Caporetto, and the terrific losses of French and British forces in the spring of 1918 forced the War Department to revise its estimates of US forces to be committed in Europe from one-half million to a million and then a million and a half.

Camp Dix was destined to do its share in providing for this increase. The strength of the camp gradually rose until it reached a peak of almost 55,000 men in August 1918.

Insofar as the cost of construction is concerned, War Department records indicate that $13 million had been expended on construction of Camp Dix by 30 June 1919.

Almost 50 years later some of it still would be in use….for escalation of the War in Vietnam. In 1967 Congress appropriated more for a single brigade complex than the entire original construction cost of Camp Dix. 

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