MENU

Soldier- Making at Camp Upton


HISTORY
of
THE 306th Field Artillery

Soldier Making At Camp Upton


FOR many years, passengers on Long Island Railroad trains were whirled past the sign "Yaphank." They must have wished for the train to stop so that they could see for themselves whether the sign indicated that a village was concealed there, or whether it was just a lone signal for the engineer to speed up.

One day, with other war news, the papers stated that the Government had purchased thirty thousand acres of land at Yaphank, and that the whole outlay had cost one dollar. Six months later, some thirty thousand men pulling stumps on every acre of that bleak terrain, agreed that the Government had been cheated, and that the man who had sold the land should be arrested as a profiteer.

By August, 1917, there had sprung up at Yaphank, clapped together by the clattering hammers of thousands of carpenters, a wonderful mushroom city of wooden barracks heated, electrically lighted, and furnished with modern plumbing through which ran hot and cold water. September 1st found three thousand officers on hand to receive the new army. Two weeks later saw this great army congesting the terminal at New York; pushing to board the train to find out all about the new city.

Officers were sent to meet each train a few stations down the line. These gentlemen of shiny gold and silver bars, mostly newly commissioned at the First Plattsburg Training Camp and eager to assert their new-found authority, received a great shock as they walked through the aisles of the trains to get the men grouped according to the local boards they came from and to collect their credentials. Some regarded the officers as good friends to meet, and shook hands and explained how glad they were to see them. Others must have thought they were a new kind of conductor, and stated their intention of refusing to pay their fares, claiming that the Government would have to see them through after having brought them this far.

Old John Barleycorn, was suspected of being a passenger on many trains, for hilarity of a somewhat bottled brand reigned supreme on not a few of them.

At the bleak camp station the new army detrained, and took a good long look, first at the patches of woods, and then at itself. Most had worn their old clothes to the fray. Some had parts of uniforms, -remnants of National Guard, Home Guard, or Military School days, and the picture was motley. Many must have imagined Yaphank to be near Coney Island, for they carried with them bathing suits, extra straw hats, umbrellas, tennis racquets, bathrobes, pajamas, and all the comforts of home. All lugged souvenirs given them by relatives as they departed from streets, boulevards, and alleys, for the war. "

Who will ever forget the first nights spent in Casual Barracks? Everything seemed so strange and conflicting. The sudden change from beds and rooms at home, to bunks, blankets, and barracks, with a hundred or more vigorous snores outraging the atmosphere after "lights out," and the breeze playing in and out of the knot holes in the clapboard walls,-a mocking echo.

Friends had convinced the rookies before leaving that they were great heroes, yet in spite of their virtues, it was announced that fingerprints would immediately be taken. After two physical inspections and the "needle" they waited for assignments, and one by one left for various parts of the camp to report to their new organizations.

Then came the wild scramble for equipment. There was much haggling, bartering, and exchanging with the newly-made Supply Sergeant, already half-sick of his army job. As the Supply Sergeant was usually a former Bowery Clothing merchant, a cloaks and suits cutter, a tailor's assistant, or a dry-goods clerk with a lengthy experience at Shabelowitz & Kaplan's Grand Street Emporium, the newly-fitted soldier emerged from his neat-setting business suit into his olive-drab costume feeling and looking not unlike a hunk of mispulled taffy! But what could the Supply Sergeant do, poor soul? He had to issue made-by-the-million uniforms " ad lib " and " as is. " Those outfits, with their billowy seams and mismatched material, must have been bewitched by some kind of demon who frequents tailors' shops; for they were all tight where they should have been loose, loose where they should have been tight, and too long or too short. But in ranks, viewed from a distance through a bad pair of binoculars, it wasn't a half badly dressed army. The accommodating cloth in the uniforms learned to conform itself to the notches and crotches of Buck private's contour after the first rain.

After the 306th Field Artillery took form and finally settled down in its permanent home on 16th Street, it took six weeks or so to organize the batteries, learn close-order drill and read the Army Regulations. The art of stump-pulling was so highly developed that hauling guns out of the mud at the front came to be as easy as doing physical drill in the rear rank. The Liberty Loan was no small item in the curriculum, and no one thought of canceling bonds before the end of the month. Some did it then only because it entailed so much red tape to owe more than each month's pay to the Government after Insurance Premiums and Family Allotments had made their inroads. During the day, the rookie artilleryman wore his heels down doing "squads right" and holding the pivot, for it was part of military doctrine that a man who could cut a square corner in camp could not fail to run rings round the Germans in battle.

Then there was an invention for making German mince-meat, called "Bayonet Drill." The new soldier was taught that on the battlefield he might at any moment be confronted with armies of Germans charging at him in Y. M. C. A. canteen-line formation. In that case he would have to stand to his guns and take to slicing up Fritzes into inoffensive particles. Accordingly, while his fingers froze around the barrel of the rifle, he was shown the short and long thrusts, and the uppercut with the butt. But Jerry, like a rag doll, will take a lot of mauling around before he is unpresentable, so these two were followed up quickly with a straight thrust of the butt against his nasal protuberance, and a final overswing on the top of the head. By that time both parties would be exhausted. It was cruel stuff to practice on thin air.

When the fundamentals of military training were completed, the intensive training schedule began. Bunks were used for gun-drill, so that the men would be thoroughly trained upon the arrival of the material. Finally it came, in the form of several rusty caissons. The guns, except for several " three-point -twos," had probably been lost in the Civil War. The "Duties of the Gun Squad" absorbed an hour each day, while semaphore and wigwag took two hours. Work on the buzzer was added, in case the signal-flags might be torn or shot out of the men's hands in the thick of combat. This was a pleasant feature of the training, for it could be performed indoors during cold days. The " Manual of Interior Guard Duty ... .. Military Courtesy," "Care and Handling of the Feet," and "Firing Data" were incorporated into lectures given by officers each of whom had a scheme of teaching all his own. Officers' School and French classes at least served the purpose of occupying part of the time of that portion of the commissioned personnel which was not at the School of Fire at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Gun emplacements were dug among the scrub pines near camp. Not knowing what kind of gun to build them for, and having only the bunks as gauges, the artillerymen made holes big enough to fit anything from a machine gun to a six-inch rifle.

Now, no matter what kind of Artillery the 306th was to be, it was prepared! Lectures on the horse and instruction in handling motor cars lent added versatility. The coming of winter and intense cold did not conquer the regiment's aspirations. During many days, at the end of an instruction hour, the officers hands were so cold he could not pull the schedule out of his pocket, and his mind was so congealed with frost that he could not remember what it said. It was cold enough for the men to wear ear-laps, so they couldn't hear him, anyway. A hike would be proposed to restore circulation. The trip to the rifle-range was a long and a cold one usually, and rifle-practice, with officers and men lying in the prone position in mud and ice, was always conducive to a great longing for mother and hot coffee. The only warm thing around was the language.

Although the schedule took up most of the men's time, other diversions monopolized their thoughts. Camp Upton may have been crowded with obsolete misconceptions regarding war during business hours, but when retreat had blown and shop was closed for the night there was a wild rush for Acker, Merrill & Condit's store, the Hostess House, Y. M. C. A., K. of C., Jewish Welfare Building, the Library, and the Liberty Theatre. Inter-battery basketball games and boxing bouts were closely contested.

But all these things were incidental to the weekly Friday night debates that took place in every orderly room with the First Sergeant as referee. Between all drills of the week, and at every turn of the squad, new excuses for getting passes on Saturday were developed. Business always failed on Thursday, and births were sure to occur on Saturday that demanded the presence of those concerned. From cases such as these, the First Sergeants caught melancholia when they thought of keeping their rosters straight.

Saturday morning inspections were interesting, but they were regarded only as an overture to the great weekly departure. Trains left for New York every half hour, and this thought reflected from every button, cup, and rifle inspected. As the inspection moved slowly, tantalizingly along, one could see the next battery all through, making for the station, or piling into a car that was to make the great journey. And what a trip it was, to the big city! If one went by car, one either was arrested, or broke down. If one went by train, one was assured of a comfortable seat, no stops, the prospect of two good days in New York, and a pleasant trip back on the 11:44 or the 2:59 Sunday night, in an officially well-heated electric-lighted train with no noise, and every reason to be perfectly comfortable. Then there was the cold dark walk from the station to barracks for those who didn't care to trust their lives to the robber barons of the jitney tribe that flourished on the quarters of the opulent, with no regard whatever for the ups and down of Upton's streets.

Each battery had occasion to visit the city in a body and to take in a show. One night regimental review took place at the 69th Regiment Armory. When the regiment marched down the armory floor in Battery Front, it was such a contrast to drilling over stumps that it lost its head, but cheers rang out just the same, for the regiment's admirers thought it was making a figure " 306." The bands-men were unaccustomed to the echo that rumbled under the arched roof, and couldn't hear one another, so each blew his favorite tune. The mixture of melody was equaled only by the forms of cadence and step in the regiment which naturally followed.

Those of the regiment who was unsuccessful in their weekly bouts with the First Sergeant, made merry over the weekend at Camp Upton. On pleasant Sundays, camp was transformed from a drill ground into a picnic park, with basket parties welcome. From ten o'clock on, trains brought in the mothers, wives, and sweethearts of officers and men, and they all had to run the gauntlet of craning olive drab that packed the road from station to barrack. Big boxes of "eats" always accompanied these family parties from home. Tables of organization for a " Family Squad" were (front rank): In charge, One Papa, equipped with package containing pie; One Mamma, equipped with expression " My Goodness! " One Sweetheart, pretty, never dressed warmly enough for the cold weather (her silk skirt battling with contrary winds en route up Fourth Avenue); and One Brother, either above or below draft age, looking gawky and out-of-place in his civilians. The rear rank consisted of assorted Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, and Friends, very poorly drilled. The admiring " Family Squads" were marched from the station to barracks, and thereafter they were shown all the natural, scenic, and artificial wonders of the place.

The more adventurous climbed up the water tower on Headquarters Hill, and obtained from there a magnificent bird's-eye view of the camp. At night, seen from the hill, the barracks dissolved into the darkness, but thousands of lighted windows shone as from a magic city. Some of the battery barracks boasted pianos. Dances were held, and amiable cooks, with the help of the unfortunate Sunday Kitchen Police, made hot coffee to go with what was in the pie-box from home. Then at night, waiting trains took all the folks back again, after smothering kisses and tangled hand shakings at the station with "Gawge." Papa marshaled his squad into seats, and got into the aisle, where other Papas were preparing to make the journey standing on one foot apiece.

With the consolidation and organization of the regiment, came the establishment of a regimental newspaper, The Howitzer, under the supervision of Chaplain Thomas. The paper was so named after the gun the regiment was always hoping to get. A Post Exchange, or canteen, was run on a co6perative basis, and the more wily would steal thither during drill hours to consume oranges, crackers, pie, and ice cream.

All during the winter of 1918, new drafts were placed into the regiment, and large numbers came from Camp Devens, in Massachusetts. At the same time men were taken out and sent to Camp Gordon, Georgia, and other camps, as replacement troops in organizations being recruited to full strength for overseas service. This kept rosters and organization in a state of continual change and disruption. Battery and Company officers made great efforts to keep the best of their men together. It was because of this nucleus which breasted the almost daily transfers that the regiment retained its individuality. Rumors floated in from time to time that the entire regiment would be converted into infantry either as a whole or as individuals, and the growing preponderance of infantry drill in the schedule lent added weight to these rumors. There had grown in the regiment a stubborn pride in the name "Artillery," and no one wanted to be taken away from the "big guns" that were always arriving from somewhere and never came. With all its drawbacks, Camp Upton was the proving ground for all the regimental, company, and battery spirit that was to be such an important factor abroad. If Camp Upton did not turn out finished artillerymen, it at least made fighters.

The date of moving came, late the night of April 21st, and early the morning of the 22d. After seven long months at Camp Upton, and with many changes from the original line-up, the regiment quietly emerged from those second "homes" on Fifth Avenue. With a peculiar silence, officers and men filed out of each bleak barrack for perhaps the last time; the rolls were called by flashlamp, the lights were extinguished, and the regiment tramped the resounding road to the station in a new frame of mind. No one in Speonk or Moriches had any idea that troops were leaving for Europe so well did the dark conceal the exodus. The wonderful clapboard city had served its primary purpose. Its inhabitants were prepared to board the argosy for battle -the first National Army Division to do so.

A short train ride to Long Island City; a ferry trip to Hoboken; a last look at New York's skyline from the river, and the regiment pulled into the looming shadows of the sterns of two steamships. One was a little freighter, the Mercury, and the other, a monster, the Leviathan, formerly the German Vaterland. The men had visions of mal de mer on the old Mercury, for she looked as though she might make Albany, but never France! Finally, amid a flurry of hot coffee and crullers from the Red Cross, the regiment trooped up the gangplank of the Leviathan ready to sail for France.

KENNETH O'BRIEN,
First Lieutenant, 306th F. A.
Website by SchoolMessenger Presence. © 2019 Intrado Corporation. All rights reserved.