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Camp Dix Rises in Wrightstown

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Aug 16, 2017

In August 1917, like a giant bear awakening from hibernation, the United States began its transformation from the freedom of peace to the regimentation of wartime. When there had been no rush to join the Army following the declaration of war in April, President Woodrow Wilson was forced to resort to a draft. Millions of men were ordered to register on June 5 when they were assigned numbers; on July 20, the numbers were drawn in Washington telling each man the order in which he would be called to report for a physical to see if he was fit to serve.

The Tuckerton Beacon of Aug. 2 explained their neighbors in the world would be watching.

“A list of names of persons in the order of their liability, for military service in the selective draft is given below.

“The quota that Ocean County must furnish is 169, and the understanding is that the first call will be double that number, in order that there may be enough after exemptions are made, it being figured by the department that one man of each two will be exempted. It is the opinion of those who have gone over the list that if married men are exempted, it will take a much larger number than 338 to produce the quota of 169 in this county.”

Locally, Beach Haven had nine men called out of 434 total population, Stafford Township 14 out of 933, and Tuckerton 17 out of 1,312. On Aug. 10, the editor of the New Jersey Courier criticized the new drafted Army, saying, “Unfortunately it has none of the enthusiasm and the hurrah of a volunteer army. The lads who go think that they are going at the call of duty because fate is too strong for them, and there is no way to resist. It would have been easy to have enlisted an army of several million men with no more effort than is being taken to get this first half million, and every man would have gone willingly, and with the spirit and hurrah of the volunteer. The unfortunate effect of the way in which the draft has been put over, is that every lad feels he is justified in dodging it if he can, or if he wants to. What effect will this lack of enthusiasm have upon the army organization?”

As the local men were reporting to their draft boards to learn their fate, the government was erecting giant bases to house and train them. One of them, called Camp Dix, was located in Wrightstown, N.J. On July 28, the Trenton Times reported on the progress of turning lush farmland in June into a military base by August.

“Over 2,000 men are now at work on the buildings of the Government Reservation here and practically every one of the 180 large barracks buildings to hold from 65 to 200 men each is under construction. Many are already nearing completion, while some have as yet only the foundations completed.

“Especially fast progress has been made during the past few days on the railroad tracks and the rails now touch even the farthermost sections. The building of two additional cafeterias to furnish meals to the workmen has commenced and this is expected to greatly relieve the daily congestion at the cafeteria on Section 7, which daily feeds hundreds of workmen.”

On Aug. 8, the Trenton paper reported that changes were also taking place outside the camp.

“This place is right on the job of making those boom mining towns of the West look foolish.

“A short time ago Wrightstown’s only claim to fame was that it was on the state road thirty miles north of Camden, fifteen miles from Trenton, a hamlet of 300 souls. Now it is housing about 3,000 workmen who are constructing barracks, warehouses and other wooden buildings necessary for the housing and care of 50,000 of Uncle Sam’s boys who have been selected to lick the Kaiser.”

While those being drafted might not be smiling, some civilians had dollar signs in their eyes.

“There are only two – or rather were two – streets in Wrightstown, and maybe from forty to fifty scattered dwellings. … Before the frost is on the pumpkin, the Burlington county hamlet will be doing a business of at least $1,500,000 per month.

“There will be fifty thousand soldiers drawing $1 per day from the United States treasury, which, multiplied by thirty, (means) a million and a half dollars which Wrightstown will stuff in its pockets.

“Wrightstown does not expect to plant corn or grow oats next year. It is going to delegate to the rest of the country the prosaic, uninteresting task of feeding our allies across the seas. The Burlington village is out to become a third class city at the least, and even has its eye on Trenton and Camden.”

The same day, N.J. Gov. Walter Edge spoke at Camp Dix for the opening of the first YMCA.

“If there is anything we can do which will help to entertain the young men, which will help to bring around a moral atmosphere necessary for the future citizenship of this country it will be done by the Y.M.C.A. movement.

“I believe that this war is going to be a wonderful thing, in a way, for our future citizenship. The awakening to the fact that we owe something to our country and our flag for the privileges that we have enjoyed, will be one of the greatest blessings.”

On Aug. 15, the first section of Camp Dix was opened with a flag raising ceremony. According to the Times, “Prominent Trentonians took part in a big flag raising on section four of the great cantonment here yesterday afternoon. … The number of men now employed on building and road construction is rapidly approaching five thousand and every branch of the work is in full swing.”

There was also news from around the worksite.

“Special officers of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have been on the cantonment for the past few days and a number of teamsters who utterly disregarded humane laws in driving run down horses were arrested, brought before a Cookstown justice, and fined.

“Special officers are on the look-out for men making a business of stealing. A number of robberies and several holdups have been reported during the past few days.

“A moving picture company filmed a record construction of a 200 men barrack building yesterday in which every part of the work from the digging of holes for foundation posts to the placing of tar paper on the roof was completed. The flag raising was also filmed.”

The next day the first issue of the Camp Dix News was published. It began with a challenge.

“‘Wrightstown First Under the Wire’ is our slogan. That means practical completion by the first of September, regardless of any personal sacrifices we may have to make in order to accomplish this result.

“There are sixteen entries in this, the greatest and most spectacular race that America contractors have ever been called upon to enter. We have a good start, a fair field, and we need only to supply the stamina and the enthusiastic spirit from now to the finish to put Wrightstown in the vanguard.”

A telegram was received from President Wilson, a former New Jersey governor.

“May I send my cordial greeting on the occasion of the dedication of the flag at Camp Dix. I wish I were there to try and join with you in expressing all that that flag means to out and out Americans.”

The same day the Tuckerton paper carried “‘Make every minute count!’ is the new order flashed to every corner of the great cantonment as army engineers and contractors prepared for the final four weeks drive to complete the barracks of Camp Dix to have them ready for occupancy by the first arrivals of the new National army on September 1.

“The army of workmen, has passed the 4,000 marks with the influx of new hands which subcontractors are rushing to Wrightstown to meet Uncle Sam’s demands for speed.

“As soon as electric lights to facilitate the work can be installed, gangs of men will be put on night shifts. Many of the plumbers, working by lantern light, were kept busy until near midnight.

“As the Engineering Corps figure up the work, the contractors now are erecting five barracks a day. … Seventy-one of the main barracks, each having sleeping and eating accommodations for 200 men, had been finished and seventeen latreens and five of the ten immense Government storehouses along the Lakewood road are erected and 9 percent of the sewage system completed.

“Railroad engineers have made a new American record, in track building during the last week, laying an average of one long spur each day until the steel rails now extend to every section of the camp site.”

For those about to be drafted, the questions were: when do I go and where do I report? For the civilians it was: how much did I make and where can I spend it?

Next Week: Johnny got his gun.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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