The Camp Upton Story 1917-1921
Norval Dwyer 1970

    The 77th Division was officially organized, ahead of the arrival of the drafted men, by its officers on August 25, 1917. It was their task to forge a battle-ready unit out of a complex and miscellaneous mixture of untrained men in six months' time. The generals did their work well. Just one year later, in the tangled undergrowth, thick mud, and heavy mints of the Argonne forest in France, and in other European battle sectors, "the East-siders and West-siders of New York, the soldiers from Third Avenue and from Central Park West, from Brooklyn, and from Eastern Long Island - black and white - were becoming adept woodsmen and learning the craft of the forest hunter." (77th Division report.)    Their spirit was excellent, and their united bravery a subject of admiration of both ally and enemy. They paid a heavy price-nearly 90 officers dead, more than 2,000 men killed, and thousands more wounded and gassed. But they played a major role in helping to~ swing the war to certain allied victory.    Some of the nation's ablest officers had been sent to Camp Upton to accomplish this training mission. The commanding general, J. Franklin Bell, came directly from command of the Department of the Army of the East. In point of experience, he was one of the nation's oldest officers, and one of the most widely experienced.    Born in Kentucky in 1856, and educated at West Point, General Bell as a_ young man served for ten years on the western plains with the famous 7th U. S. Cavalry, Custer's crack regiment, fighting in Indian wars. He had received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1899 for "most distinguished gallantry in action."    He also fought with distinction in the Philippines, as chief commander. Back in the United States he served as chief of Army staff under presidents Roosevelt and Taft. When he came to Camp Upton, General Bell was 61 years old and had seen forty-four years of military service. At that time he was a kindly man of military bearing, with a rather scholarly face.    He was known as a strict disciplinarian, but even more he was recognized for his liberal and diplomatic approach. He gave many talks to community groups, helping to ease the gap between the soldiers and civilians. In the county center of nearby Riverhead, he was given especially high acclaim.    The local newspaper enthusiastically reported that General Bell "had the brain, the brawn and the vim to mold mean into an army that will sustain America's bent traditions." He was quoted as saying: "I have a strong sense of my obligation to my country, to the boys, and you." It was his expected assignment to command the 77th Division on the battlefields in France when the period of training was finished.    Four brigadier generals assisted General Bell on the Camp Upton staff, each of them highly professional and distinguished officers. There was Brigadier General Evan Johnson, who ultimately took over command of the 77th. General Johnson was born in Brooklyn. He, too, had been an Indian fighter in campaigns against the Apaches; against the great Geronimo himself. He was also a professor of military science and tactics at Union College. During the Spanish-American War he led expeditions in Puerto Rico and the Philippines. He served in Washington in the office of the Chief of Staff; and later saw action in Mexico.    Brigadier General Edmund Wittenmyer was another staff member, a professionally trained soldier who had distinguished himself in Cuba and the Philippines. At one time he was the military governor of the province of Matanzos. Later he also served on the general staff corps in Washington.    Brigadier General George Read, a graduate of military college, had been professor of military science and tactics at the University of Iowa. Later he saw service in Texas, Cuba, and the Philippines. In 1902 he was sent abroad on a confidential mission; and between 1912 and 1914 he saw Mexican border service. In France he was to receive the Croix de Guerre.    The fourth brigadier general was General John Barrette, from Louisiana, who had taught mathematics at a military academy. Later he was commander at Fort McKinley and, like the others, he had served in the Philippines and Hawaii. Later still, he was commander of the coastal defenses at Baltimore and along Long Island Sound.    Scores of junior officers assisted these leaders. The 77th Division itself consisted of one regiment of heavy field artillery, two regiments of light field artillery, and two infantry brigades of two regiments each.    The tremendous shaping wheels of training began slowly the day after the first draft contingent of 2,000 men arrived. The sergeants' whistles blew-- shrilly through the barracks at 5:45 in the morning as the bugle sounded reveille. It was still almost dark outside. At roll call the men lined up sleepily while the sergeants struggled to pronounce the strange combination of letters in the names-Polish, Italian, Jewish, Armenian, Swedish. Laughter sprinkled through the confusion, and then the men marched inside to breakfast.    Now came the awkward business of washing up their own plates, cups, forks and spoons. Then police duty; and the novices found out that this did not mean guarding anything, but it really meant housecleaning: bed making, sweeping up the floors, scrubbing the showers and lavatories, disposing of the garbage, peeling potatoes and onions for lunch-women's work!    Next in order came the first drilling out on the still pathetically small drill ground, surrounded by bristling stumps, with the noise of the bulldozers and hammers cutting across the voices of the drill sergeants.    During their free time that first afternoon, the men wandered curiously around the incompleted roads and buildings. Some had never been in the country before. The scruboak wilderness crept up to the very edges of the barracks, and birds fluttered in the underbrush. To s o m e, the vast spread of sky overhead was a new experience. A small group of draftees watched while a guard unit sent wig wag signal messages with their small flags. Intrigued, the men asked passing officers if they, too, could learn that code and signal system. An air of informality still prevailed.    But three days later, after the men had gotten used to the routine and were measured for their uniforms, the wheels began functioning m o r e smoothly. The next groups of recruits arrived the following week, and their mood was much quieter and more serious. No flag waving this time, no jostling into the unknown. They came into established camp life, with men already there to set the pace for them.    Later in the month the first shipment of rifles arrived, and training began in earnest out on the rifle ranges and on the drill grounds. By December over a thousand soldier's qualified as expert marksmen. In October the War Department outline of a national 16 weeks' course, uniform for all camps in the nation had arrived, been studied by the commander and his generals, and put into action.    Training in trench warfare started. The men were divided up into "ally" and "enemy" groups for this course, and they had to dig their own trenches in the stiffening autumn ground. European officers who had seen action at the front taught them the technique of going over the top, throwing hand grenades, protecting themselves from exposure to machine gun fire, crawling through barbed wire entanglements.    By the middle of November bayonet practice was started under the direction of Major G. C. Covington of the British army. Some of the expert boxers among the drafted men at camp were marshalled to teach the soldiers "shiftiness and confidence" in handling themselves in hand to hand combat. In December the first demonstration of a tank was given. The men were being trained in every aspect possible under theoretical conditions. The test would come under actual enemy fire.    There was a shortage of officers at Upton. The division staff badly needed 500 more to meet their training requirements. Finally General Bell announced that a new officers' training program would be set up at Upton itself from January to April.    In addition to training in the use of weapons, and in acting together as a controlled unit under command, training in military discipline and morale was also important. Company commanders gave a series of talks on the causes of war. Slackers and objectors were severely and publicly punished. Many notable military men and national leaders visited the camp and gave spirited talks.    Teddy Roosevelt, still a great national hero, came and inspired the men by his enthusiasm and contagious fervor. Mayor Mitchell came out from New York to add his praise and encouragement. William Howard Taft came, as did John D. Rockefeller; and later, the Bishop of York. Officers from abroad came and told of their experiences in combat.
    77th morale was high. The men raised money for building theaters at camp. Regiments paraded in New York. They marched smartly and with pride. Now the crowds cheered as the soldiers stepped in unison to regulated rhythm. Medical officers from Washington declared the 77th to be the healthiest of all the cantonments.    In January General Bell, still fully expecting to command the 77th in France, left Upton to visit the European war front. He was gone for three months, making a thorough inspection of the battlefields. When he returned, he was given a medical check up; and the doctors discovered that he was not strong enough to stand the rigors of command in the field.    The blow must have been a sharp one to the 77th's commander, for his anticipation had been keen. He could not know, then, that he was to have only one more year of life, living just long enough to see the war come to, an end, and then dying the same day that his old friend, Teddy Roosevelt, was buried at Oyster Bay.    Upon General Bell's return to camp in March, events began to move toward the day of departure for France. On March 14 the sleeve insignia of the Division was chosen: a reproduction of the Statue of Liberty in gold on a blue background, with the numeral 7. The 77th called itself the "Liberty Division".    For security reasons the date of departure was kept secret, but on March 23 there were 12,000 visits of families and friends at camp on that day alone. Efforts were made to give 500 relatives free auto trips to the camp. The soldiers could not tell their visitors that they were really saying goodbye, but something must have been in the air-some suppressed tension, some prophetic sadness.    On the night of March 26 there was a huge celebration at camp. After supper, soldiers gathered around blazing campfires in the cold blustery air, parading back and forth, singing and banging on their tin plates with their tin cups like small children-or like rioters in a prison. No outsiders could hear the commotion, for the men were securely isolated in the wilderness.    Early next morning the camp awoke to the blare of spirited band music and saw the first contingent of the 77th march smartly toward the railroad. The boys were at last going "over there". General Bell resigned as commanding general of the 77th Division, turning the leadership over to Brigadier General Evan Johnson, who left with the departing regiments.    The great army cantonment was soon left almost empty, a deserted town. In May 15,000 newly drafted men came in and filled up the empty barracks, but it was never the same; for the camp was no longer a training ground for an entire division.    The following August, at the same time that Sergeant Irving Berlin's military musical, "Yip, Yip, Yaphank", was being produced in New York, showing what a rookie's life at Upton was like, the original Yaphank rookies were deep in bitter fighting in the Argonne. General Johnson was gassed and removed to the rear lines.    The 77th was the hinge of a great swinging movement to flush the tightly entrenched enemy out of its superior pasition. The trails were narrow and full of deep ravines. The nights were cold. Food was scarce, and fires could not be lit because of the nearness to the enemy. Lice infested clothing, feet swelled painfully in constantly wet boots, it rained almost daily. The fog was dense over the meadows. The din of battle was terrific and without let-up. Day after remorseless day it went on.    Telegrams from the War Department began pouring into homes on the East Side, the West Side, Central Park West, in Brooklyn and along the length of the Island. The 77th was in the forefront of real warfare, meeting the supreme test it had trained for on the pine barrens of Long Island.    The 77th's combat record left no doubt that Commander Bell and his supporting generals had fulfilled their responsibilities. They had created a war making machine far beyond the blueprint specifications called for by the War Department in Washington.

This article first appeared in the March 1970 Issue of The Long Island Forum - no copyright data was posted