Over Here

Over Here

A century ago, George M. Cohan’s song “Over There” rallied the American public behind the doughboys in France during the Great War. Today, World War I centennial events are helping Americans rediscover their nation’s role in that titanic conflict. Memorials, museums and historic sites are a popular way to connect with the past, and thousands travel across the Atlantic to visit the battlefields of Europe. However, there are plenty of places “over here” in America where one can also walk in the footsteps of the doughboys. 

The best place to begin exploring stateside World War I sites might be the Army’s 32 training camps where civilians became soldiers. They spanned the country, from Camp Devens, Mass., to Camp Kearny, Calif. Hastily constructed in the summer of 1917, the camps received the first troops that September, and by the time the war ended 14 months later roughly 4 million people had passed through their gates. 

Seventeen camps are still military property, and many have history museums that chronicle the doughboy experience. Fort Jackson, S.C., for example, is home to the U.S. Army Basic Combat Training Museum. Fort Lee, Va., has two: the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum and the Army Women’s Museum. The Lewis Army Museum at Fort Lewis, Wash., is in the old camp recreation center the Salvation Army built for trainees during the war. Though located on active military installations, these museums are open to the public. A civilian must obtain a visitor’s pass to see them, and photo ID and vehicle registration (if entering by car) are normally required. 

The fate of other camps varied considerably. Camp Logan in Houston is now Memorial Park – a welcome green space in that sprawling city. Camp Upton on Long Island, N.Y., is home to Brookhaven National Laboratory, a scientific research center. Like many training sites, Camp Taylor in Louisville, Ky., is now a residential area. Single-family homes stand where barracks, mess halls and warehouses once did. In recent years, the last World War I structures have been demolished, though the Camp Taylor Historical Society is working to preserve memorials and erect a museum dedicated to the Great War heritage of the neighborhood. 

Other training sites have also given way to suburbia. Strolling through certain neighborhoods in places like Montgomery, Ala. (Camp Sheridan), Fort Worth, Texas (Camp Bowie) or Menlo Park, Calif. (Camp Fremont), the careful observer spots camp-related monuments, plaques and historical markers in local parks or along the streets.  

Soldiers received specialized training at stateside posts, too. For example, the Great War saw the advent of the tank, and many doughboys learned to operate these fearsome new machines. One tank training facility, Camp Colt, was located right on the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa. Amid the lavish memorials to the Blue and the Gray are a few subtle reminders of World War I. Just off the Emmitsburg Pike, on ground Pickett’s men charged across in 1863, stands a lone pine tree marking the headquarters of Camp Colt’s commander, Capt. Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was Ike’s first command.

World War I also saw the dawn of air power. The Army Air Service, forerunner of today’s Air Force, had more than 100 facilities across the country, including 32 airfields to train pilots. Texas, with its warm climate and open spaces, proved ideal for creating airmen. Kelly Field outside San Antonio became the nation’s largest air base, and several others sprang up around the city. The Air Force still retains a strong presence in San Antonio. Kelly Field has since been absorbed into neighboring Lackland Air Force Base, and nearby Brooks Air Force Base also dates to World War I. Camp John Wise, where balloon observation crews trained, closed after the war. A commemorative stone stands at McCullough and East Hildebrand avenues in Olmos Park.

Three airfields surrounding Fort Worth, known collectively as Camp Taliaferro, had a special role. British Commonwealth flyers – mostly Canadians – trained there during the winter months. Several perished in accidental crashes, including a British pilot named Vernon Castle. An internationally noted dancer before the war, Castle flew more than 300 missions in Europe, then crossed the pond to train American aviators. Swerving to avoid another plane on Feb. 15, 1918, Castle’s plane crashed into the Texas prairies. A memorial stands at the crash site along Vernon Castle Avenue in suburban Benbrook. Castle is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, N.Y., but Britain’s Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the final resting places of other British and Canadian flyers in a corner of Fort Worth’s Greenwood Cemetery.

The Navy and Marines did more than their fair share during the Great War. Most sailors trained at Great Lakes Naval Station outside Chicago. Parris Island, S.C., produced Marines. Both facilities remain important training centers, and host museums that (like those of the Army) are open to the public.

HEAVEN, HELL OR HOBOKEN Of the 4.5 million Americans in uniform during the war, 2 million went overseas as part of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Three out of four departed from Hoboken, N.J., across the Hudson River from Manhattan. The German shipping lines Hamburg America and North German Lloyd operated out of Hoboken, and with the U.S. declaration of war against Germany in 1917, the Army promptly seized their properties and converted them into its main embarkation center. Troops often returned from Europe through these same facilities. “Heaven, hell or Hoboken” became a rallying cry throughout the AEF.

Camp Merritt, 10 miles north of Hoboken, prepared the troops for their overseas journey. The camp grew as deployments increased, absorbing 770 acres by war’s end. In a busy traffic circle at Knickerbocker Road and Madison Avenue, on the border of Cresskill and Dumont, stands the Camp Merritt Memorial Monument, a 65-foot granite obelisk that marks the center of the camp. It features relief sculptures by noted artist Robert Aitken, and contains the names of more than 500 soldiers who died there, mostly of influenza. 

As for Hoboken, the docks have long since been demolished, replaced with a pleasant waterfront park offering some great views of the Manhattan skyline. This once rough-and-tumble port now hosts armies of office workers, and so many young families that it has earned the nickname “Stroller City.” Little remains of the Great War days, though a modest waterfront memorial – always colorfully festooned with wreaths, ribbons, and the Stars and Stripes – reminds passersby that Hoboken was the last place many young Americans ever set foot on the shores of their country.

A majority of doughboys never left the United States. Many simply hadn’t finished their training, but others were assigned to stateside duties. For example, 50,000 African-American soldiers worked as stevedores on docks at the Newport News embarkation center in Virginia. While some black troops saw combat, the Army assigned nearly 90 percent of them to labor units. Camp Alexander, just north of the Newport News docks, housed most of the port’s black stevedore-soldiers. Nothing remains of the camp, but there is a historical marker telling its story at the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Hilton Boulevard.

Defense of the nation’s shores and borders was critical. Several Army camps kept watch on the U.S.-Mexico border, while naval air stations dotted the Atlantic coastline. From the Florida Keys to New England, Navy pilots scanned the coastal waters for German subs. Rockaway Naval Air Station, for example, occupied what is now Jacob Riis Park in Queens, N.Y. As troopships departed New York Harbor, seaplanes and dirigibles from Rockaway watched over them.  

More than 30,000 soldiers spent the war in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Lumber was vital to the war effort, particularly the Sitka spruce, prized for aircraft. When labor unrest threatened the wood supply, the Army’s Spruce Production Division took over logging operations. As fighting raged in France, soldiers and civilian workers built railroads deep into the forests, and by November 1918 they had extracted 143,008,508 board feet of lumber. The Spruce Railroad Trail in Washington state’s Olympic National Park follows the course of the most ambitious rail project. Tall, craggy peaks rise up almost vertically from the trail, which hugs the wooded shores of Lake Crescent, noted for its unusually clear waters. It is undoubtedly one of the most scenic World War I historic sites on earth. Interestingly, the line was completed just weeks after the armistice and never produced any lumber for the war.

There was even a little fighting in the United States. With Mexico in the midst of revolution, and fear that Germany might exploit the situation, the war years saw great tension on the southern border. In the early hours of March 9, 1916, a band of Mexican rebels under Pancho Villa, an opponent of U.S. policy in Mexico, crossed the border and raided Columbus, N.M. The soldiers based there sprang into action – one in his bare feet – and caught the raiders in a murderous crossfire. Villa’s men rode back into Mexico, but not before eight soldiers and 10 civilians were dead, and much of Columbus was in flames. Columbus then became the launching pad for an incursion into Mexico to capture Villa, led by Gen. John J. Pershing. The expedition never found Villa, but it made Pershing a household name and led to his appointment as AEF commander. Today, Columbus is strewn with markers and memorials to that day. Pancho Villa State Park, on the south edge of town, preserves the remnants of the Army camp. It also maintains a museum of the raid and the wartime borderlands.  

There were other incidents in the Southwest, but it was a Massachusetts town that experienced the only German attack on U.S. soil. During the summer of 1918, the German submarine U-156 patrolled the East Coast, harassing Allied shipping. On July 21, it attacked a convoy of barges off Nauset Beach on Cape Cod, near the village of Orleans, Mass. German shells hit the barges, but some also came screaming down onto the beach, sending bathers running for cover. Navy planes attacked the sub, but its bombs failed to detonate and U-156 slipped away. Nowadays, summer afternoons find Nauset Beach more packed with sunbathers than ever. Few notice the modest sign on a wooden staircase in the dunes above the beach telling of the “Battle of Orleans.” 

MEMORIALS BIG AND SMALL With the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, the doughboys began streaming home. Americans ardently wanted to recognize the sacrifices of their local veterans, and bronze doughboys soon took their places next to Billy Yank or Johnny Reb in parks and town squares all across the United States.

Demand for doughboy statues was so great that sculptor E.M. Viquesney marketed a mass-produced statue called “Spirit of the American Doughboy,” as well as a maritime equivalent, “Spirit of the American Navy.” An affordable way to honor local veterans, communities and commemorative groups across the nation snapped them up. More than 150 Viquesney doughboys remain standing, from Aberdeen, Wash., to Sarasota, Fla. Some are well preserved, while too many others are in need of restoration.  

There are memorials to honor the many ways Americans served in the Great War. In a quiet leafy plaza behind the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C., stands the Jane Delano Memorial. Founder of the Red Cross Nursing Service, Delano and 295 other American nurses died overseas. Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., remembers the 1st Provisional Regiment, a home guard unit that protected the aqueducts carrying water to New York City. Such units, made up of teen boys and middle-aged men, sprang up across the country as the National Guard was federalized. Home guard units are largely forgotten today, but on the first Sunday of May locals gather at the 1st Provisional Regiment memorial in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to recognize the 40 men who died of accidents and disease.  

A few memorials are a bit offbeat. The War Dog Memorial – a bronze German shepherd perched atop a piece of Vermont granite – stands in the center of the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York. Dedicated in 1923, it honors the estimated 7,000 canines that served as messengers and sentries during the war.

Often World War I memorials seem hidden in plain sight. New York City is filled with them. A statue of Father Francis Duffy, legendary chaplain of the 165th Infantry Regiment, keeps watch over Times Square. George M. Cohan stands nearby. There are several memorials in Central Park, like the tree along Literary Walk dedicated to Joyce Kilmer, the poet-turned-soldier who was killed in France. Not far is the 307th Infantry Regiment Memorial Grove, commemorating the city’s draftee unit. On Fifth Avenue at East 67th Street is a bronze sculpture to the 107th Infantry Regiment, a New York National Guard “silk stocking” outfit made up of men from some of Gotham’s most prominent families. One mile north, at East 90th Street and Fifth, is a memorial to John P. Mitchel, the former New York City mayor and Army pilot who died in a training accident in 1918. 

The United States is home to some of the most impressive World War I memorials anywhere. In Kansas City, Mo., citizens selected a hilltop site overlooking the downtown area for a memorial and raised $2.5 million in 10 days. The American Legion brought in the Allied commanders – including Pershing, Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France and Admiral of the Fleet Lord David Beatty of Great Britain – for the 1921 groundbreaking, which coincided with the Legion’s 3rd National Convention and drew a crowd of 200,000. Five years later, President Calvin Coolidge spoke at the dedication. The Liberty Memorial is home to the National World War I Museum and Memorial – America’s official Great War museum and Kansas City’s top attraction.   

Not to be outdone, Indianapolis laid plans for its own grand commemoration. The Indiana World War Memorial, completed in 1933, is modeled on the ancient Greek Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, and decorated with exquisite Art Deco details. Known simply as the Indiana War Memorial, it honors all Hoosier veterans. The memorial dominates a five-block-long grassy mall in the heart of the city, and at the north end is the national headquarters of The American Legion, founded by members of the AEF in 1919. The national headquarters building houses the Emil A. Blackmore Museum, exhibiting Legion and war memorabilia.

The American Legion, which expanded its ranks to include veterans of subsequent war eras, is a living legacy of the first world war and the millions who served the United States during the “war to end all wars.” 


Mark D. Van Ells is the author of “America and WWI: A Traveler’s Guide” (Interlink). His great-uncle, Andrew V. Van Ells, was a wagoner with the 127th Infantry, 32nd Division and died from wounds near Fismes, France. Van Ells-Schanen American Legion Post 82 in Port Washington, Wis., is named for him. markdvanells.com