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What’s Happening in the Pinelands?

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jul 04, 2018

World War I is repeatedly used to show the horrors of modern warfare, and as June 1918 ended, Ocean County and its citizens found themselves totally involved. Early in the month, coastal sections had witnessed the beginning of submarine warfare while inland, something else was taking place. Before the U.S. entry into the war, Czarist Russia had operated a testing facility for chemical weapons at Lakehurst; the New Jersey Courier of March 15, 1918, reported there was going to be a change.

“Lakehurst reports that the Eddystone range is to be taken over by the government, lengthened out three miles, a number of new buildings put up, and guns of larger caliber used to test shells there.”

U.S. Army Maj. Alexander Powell explained something important taking place there.

“Tract of land near Lakehurst taken over for experimental purposes was 5 miles long and 4 wide and had an area of nearly 14,000 acres. As the nearest habitation was 2½ miles away no difficulty was experienced in conducting the highly important experiments with the necessary secrecy.”

The Courier, located in nearby Toms River, watched carefully on the 29th.

“Present indications are that the government will make extensive changes at the Eddystone range, west of Lakewood, and one rumor is that it may be connected with Camp Dix, and used for artillery practice and shell testing combined.”

By early April, the paper printed some concerns.

“Report says that the Eddystone range is to be used to try out gas shells and gas warfare in various forms, at any rate the gas shells. If that be so, the question of winds will be an important one, as it may be necessary to try them out when the wind is in just the right quarter to do as little damage as possible.”

By the middle of the month, some information was beginning to leak.

“Rumor is busy about Lakehurst, telling of many plans projected by the War Department at the Lakehurst Experiment Station, formerly the Eddystone test range. Back of the many rumors is generally some bit of fact. … Another rumor says that gas experiments will be made, and goats used to test the poison qualities of the gas; fact, two cars of wire fencing, which another rumor says is to be used to fence in the goats.”

Powell later told what was going on at Lakehurst.

“In order to determine the effects of the various gases on living subjects a large stock of animals – goats, dogs, cats, rats, mice, guinea pigs, and monkeys – had to be kept constantly on hand. These animals were not obtainable in the necessary numbers without considerable difficulty, it being necessary, on one occasion, to send an officer to Mexico to purchase 1,599 Angora goats, experiments having shown that the goat possesses powers of resistance to gas which more nearly approximate those of a human being than does any other common animal.”

The U.S. government was conducting experiments.

“Representatives of these various animal types were placed in trenches modelled after those on the Western Front and bombarded with different forms of gas-shell, those which remained alive being subjected to close observation, sometimes for many days, by the experts of the Pathological and Physiological Department. A human note enters this grim business of preparing for war in the fact that those animals, particularly the dogs, which survived such an experiment were not subjected to it again. I imagine, however, that the officials of the S.P.C.A. would have entered a vigorous protest had they been permitted to lift the veil of secrecy which for many months enveloped the operations of the Chemical Warfare Service at Lakehurst.”

As the gas experiments were being carried out on animals, the citizens of Ocean County were about to be literally shaken, as the Army located at Camp Dix tested the new type of warfare. In order to break through the trenches of the Western Front, tunnels would be dug under no man’s land and explosives placed underneath the enemy and detonated. On June 27, the Army tested this idea in the Jersey Pines.

The Central New Jersey Home News explained, “A charge of 20,000 pounds of high-power explosives will tear a great hole in the side of the Marne Hill today. … The mine shafts have been sunk to a depth of sixty feet in ‘No Man’s land.’ The galleries from the bottom of the shafts will carry from 1,000 to 5,000 pounds of ‘T.N.T’ and other explosives in each pocket, all of which will be set off simultaneously by electrical fuses. The blow-up will create a crater with a lip at least 150 feet in diameter.”

A Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent wrote the next day, “Major General Scott, Major General Sturgiss, their staffs and other prominent officers of the camp and 87th Division was (sic) interested observers of the mine tests. On an opposite hill 30,000 troops were massed to witness the demonstration.”

Those present got a rare thrill.

“Correspondents with the advanced party of engineers had an opportunity to view at 200 yards the explosion of the heaviest mines containing two charges of a total of over five tons of explosives fired simultaneously. At a signal from the officer in command, Captain B. M. Gallagher, of the General Engineering Department, pressed the firing rod attached to the electric fuses. It was fully a second before anything happened. Then the ground shook as by an earthquake. Then came the most spectacular feature of the demonstration and that which testifies to the deadliness of these mines when used under enemy works. The gases suddenly released and mingling with the air were ignited to a height of 200 feet. The flames, settling about the crater seared everything within a hundred feet of the great hole. No living creature could have existed for the fraction of a second in that fiery circle.”

This was a test, not just a show.

“Yet scarcely had the flames burned out, when a squad of American mining engineers, with gas masks and oxogenators, dashed from a nearby trench into the pall of smoke to obtain gas samples. … The peril of the task of these engineers is better understood when it is explained that the explosives create a gas known as carbon monoxide, the fumes of which are a deadly poison.”

A New York Times reporter observed the aftermath.

“But what is lacked in noise the new explosive made up in power and ghastly effect. Trenches within a hundred yards of the craters were torn and filled with their own debris by the upheave, while earth tremors shook houses ten miles away.”

There were no reports of the local people being alarmed. It would appear that U-boats, poison gas and mine explosions were becoming normal for the Ocean County citizens as they did their part to participate in a war being fought on the other side of the Atlantic.

Next Week: Over there.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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