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First U.S. Troops From Dix Head Abroad

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 02, 2018

The United States entered World War I in April 1917, and the rest of that year was spent in preparations to send an Army overseas “to make the world safe for democracy.” But the parades, speeches and patriotic zeal of that year didn’t prepare the nation or the Jersey Shore for the horrors of 1918. The Feb. 10, 1918, New York Times broke a story that showed there could be danger even at nearby Camp Dix.

“Candy offered for sale to the officers and men of the national army cantonment here were found today to be filled with ground glass in quantities thought to have been sufficient to have caused the death of any one who partook of it. So far as is known, however, none ate the candy.

“(A) New Jersey artillery man discovered that ground glass by accident. He purchased a cake of chocolate coated candy at the Post Exchange and broke it in half before eating it. By chance his attention was attracted to a faint glitter on the candy and he took it to a superior officer. … (O)ther candies from the same shipment, were obtained at once and submitted to the same examination. They also showed, it was declared, approximately the same proportion of glass particles.”

As Americans began looking at each other and wondering, the Courier News of Bridgewater sounded the all clear two weeks later, saying, “Reports of a plot to injure soldiers here through the sale of candy with which ground glass had been mixed were announced Saturday to be without foundation. Specimens of the candy were chemically examined at the army medical school, which decided it did not contain glass, and members of the staff of the school who ate some of ‘exhibits’ selected from the stock in the camp were declared to have suffered no unusual results. … The ban placed upon the sale of the candy was then lifted.”         

Wartime stress was beginning to surface among the population. Arrests were made locally, and the New Jersey Courier of Feb. 22 told of one incident.

“Affidavits were made by Ernest Burdge, Captain C. Stanley Grove, of Company A. New Jersey State Militia. … Burdge asserted that Constantinou had said he ‘hoped that either the Germans or Japs would come over here and wipe the whole Government, both National and State, off the face of the earth.’ Constable Richard C. Riley, of Lakewood, stated in a seventh affidavit that he arrested Constantinou on a bench warrant and that the man had been in frequent trouble with the police.

“Constantinou, who conducts the Olympic restaurant on Main Street, Lakewood, said he was a naturalized citizen and had an honorable discharge as a seaman, having served as cook on the U.S.S. Bancroft. He denied ever having threatened the President or made any treasonable remark.”

As wartime paranoia grew, a silent killer that would ravage the world was about to make an appearance. In 1997, the Associated Press explained, “Many say the epidemic started at Fort Riley (in Kansas), which had the first recorded cases … in 1918 with the nation at war.

“On March 9 of that year a blinding dust storm struck the base, mixing the ashes of burned manure with flying dust. Less than 48 hours later, a company cook named Albert Gitchell came down with a bad cough, fever, severe sore throat, headache, and muscle pain. That was around the breakfast hour. … By noon, 107 patients with the same symptoms checked into the base hospital. … (B)y the end of the week, 500 cases were recorded, 46 resulting in death. Before it was over, the flu would claim 20 million to 40 million lives.”

As troops moved around the country, reports from local Army camps such as Dix didn’t attract much attention. On April 5, “Dix reports four deaths, all due to pneumonia, as against two for the previous week.

“The Seventy-Eighth Division, now in training at Camp Dix, will be known in the future as the ‘Lightning .’ This name was decided upon by staff officers, following a vote by the men of the division, and the result was announced at the closing  of the Camp Dix circus.”

But when the national numbers were added together, it was clear something was happening.  A government release appeared in U.S. papers.

“Washington, April 11. – Health conditions thruout the army at home continue satisfactory, says the weekly report issued today by the war department, altho the hospital admission rate increased over the preceding week. Influenza and mumps are the chief diseases noted, the latter frequently complicated with pneumonia accounting for the rising admission rate. Ailments among drafted men contracted before they entered the camp have swelled the sick rates. The total number of deaths for the week ending April 5, was 290, as against 237 the preceding week.”

The June 1 United Press article would give the mysterious killer its name.

“The plague described as influenza is still spreading and it is estimated there are hundreds of thousands of cases in Spain now.

“All telegraph offices except the Central Bureau, have been closed through lack of help. All theatres have decided to close. Two hundred doctors are ill.”

The world would soon be calling the disease the “Spanish flu.”

At Camp Dix, most of New Jersey’s draftees, including those from Ocean County, were part of the 78th “Lightning Division,” and their training was almost complete. The Central New Jersey Home News of May 15 announced, “Fully equipped and apparently eager and fit for the fray whenever Uncle Sam says the word, the Seventy-eighth division at full war strength was reviewed by Governor Edge, of New Jersey, yesterday afternoon. Thousands of visitors watched the majestic spectacle as the great body of men moved across the parade ground with machine-like precision, but among the spectators none were more enthusiastic than a big delegation of grizzled veterans of the Civil War from Trenton and, flanking them on either side, boys from Bordentown Military Institute, the first stirred by memories, the latter by anticipation.”

The 311th Regiment of the 78th Division contained over 100 men from Ocean County. Its captain, Bernhard Eberlin, would later tell their story.

“On Friday, May 17th, 1918 a great change had come over the vast Cantonment Camp Dix, N.J. The news had been made known that the 78th the Lightning Division, composed of New York State and New Jersey troops, was finally to sail overseas and actively participate in the Great War Conflict ‘Over There.’

“The officers and men were overjoyed at this news and with added enthusiasm plunged into the work of making the final preparations for the great event.

“On Saturday, May 18th, the major part of the 311th Infantry Regiment began its movements to France. In the very dark hours of the evening, Headquarters Co., the 1st and 2nd Battalions left their respective barracks and quietly marched to the railroad station.

 “At 4:00 o’clock in the morning of Sunday, May 19th, these trains left the station at Camp Dix and arrived at the Pennsylvania, Jersey City, N.J., at 7:00 o’clock. The troops immediately detrained and embarked on the ferry boats which awaited their arrival, and carried them across the New York Harbor to Pier 8, Bush Terminal, Brooklyn, New York, where they boarded the army transport 599, otherwise known as the S.S. Nestor. This ship was originally a passenger ship plying between England and Australia, but lately became a troop ship transporting Australian troops to France. It was only a short time prior to the voyage made by part of our Regiment that she had been placed in the service of the U.S. Army Transport Service – As a matter of fact, ours were the first American troops on this ship.”

As the majority of the 311th boarded the Nestor, other troops were also on the move leaving Dix.

“Another detachment … arrived at Boston at 2:00 A.M. May 20th. One hour and a half later this Detachment embarked on the S.S. Winifredian, and at 9:00 o’clock the same morning sailed from Boston, arriving at Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“The Machine Gun Co. entrained at Camp Dix at 2:30 A.M., May 2th, and arrived at Jersey City at 6:00 A.M. From there the troops were carried to Hoboken, N.J. and embarked at 8:00 on H.M.S. Kildonan Castle.

“The fourth detachment of our Regiment … left by rail from Camp Dix at 3:45 o’clock in the morning of May 20th, and detrained at Jersey City at 6:15 A.M. From there they ferried to Pier 8, Brooklyn, where they embarked on the troop ship Vestris.

“Thus within thirty-six hours the entire regiment of nearly 3000 men, and a great deal of our baggage and equipment had cleared our initial training home at Camp Dix, and had gone to different Ports of Embarkation.”

As the Lightning Division was preparing to go over there, in Kiel, Germany the U-151 was preparing to bring the war over here, by attacking shipping along the Jersey Shore, and on May 16 the East Coast was put on alert.

“Most Secret – From information gained by contact with enemy submarine, one may be encountered anywhere west of 40 degrees west. No lights should be carried, except as may be necessary to avoid collision and paravanes should be used when practicable and feasible.”

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels remembered, “The first definite information of the activity of the German raider off the American coast was received by radio on May 19 at 13.14 p.m. The Atlantic City radio intercepted an S O S from the American steamship  Nyanza, 6,213 tons, advising that she was being gunned.”

Over there or over here, 1918 was the year America realized it was at war.

Next Week: Transports and U-boats.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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