While 15,000 Wisconsin National Guard troops and 8,000 more from Michigan trained for World War I at Camp MacArthur, Texas, as the 32nd Division, Army planners had to figure how to transport the 32nd and the rest of the American Expeditionary Force to France.
The War Department selected Norfolk, Virginia, and New York as the primary for U.S. soldiers. Norfolk was one of the nation’s largest naval bases and New York Harbor, with dozens of passenger liners sailing from its docks, was America’s connection to Europe.
To house tens of thousands of troops converging on New York from distant training bases, the Army built several nearby embarkation camps, one of which was Camp Merritt on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Construction commenced in September 1917 and 10,000 workmen over the course of two months built 1,300 buildings on the 770-acre site.
“In this new post men will be housed while they are waiting to embark for the front in France. By Nov. 1 the camp will consist of 1,000 wooden buildings and thousands of men of the new army will live in it at one time or another,” said a front-page article in the Sep. 7, 1917 edition of the New York Times.Camp Merritt was a far different place than the austere and dusty Camp MacArthur. Rather than tents, troops lived in heated two-story wooden barracks and walked on paved streets.
“Here we have what you call barracks built somewhat like a two-story frame house for two families, 33 men sleep down stairs, 33 up. We all have iron spring cots with a mattress which sure makes a fine soft bed,” said Pvt. Ellsworth Anderson of Headquarters Company, 120th Field Artillery Regiment.
Once settled into their comfortable barracks after a long trip from Texas, troops were allowed to visit New York City – something that most 32nd Division soldiers from distant Michigan and Wisconsin had never thought they would ever do.
“Every one of us is given a 24-hour leave of absence to go to New York City if we wished to,” wrote Cpl. William Nevell of Company D, 127th Infantry Regiment in a letter home. “It is needless to say that most of the boys took advantage of this.”
“Camp Merritt has no drill ground and, believe me, I miss the drilling,” Pvt. Peter Schipper of Company C, 127th Infantry wrote in a letter home. “We get only short marches for exercise in the forenoon. There is no drilling here because it is a temporary camp for troops going over.”
Most 32nd Division troops were the first to enjoy the diversions of Merritt Hall, which was a YMCA recreation center dedicated on Jan. 30 by Theodore Roosevelt. Considered “the finest soldiers’ club in America,” Merritt Hall featured a well-stocked cafeteria, billiard parlor, music room, writing rooms and a massive library.Despite Merritt Hall and a 2,500-seat theater, 32nd Division troops during a particularly harsh stretch of winter grew restless at Camp Merritt.
“This has been a rather dull day in camp as it is too nasty for us to get out and go anywhere, so we are confined to our quarters all day,” wrote Nevell.
Such close quarters filled with thousands of troops from across the country brought constant concern about disease. A sick soldier could infect an entire shipload of troops during the two-week voyage to Europe. Men who exhibited signs of illness were quarantined in the camp hospital, which consisted of 93 buildings and had a capacity of 1,800 patients.
Capt. Gustav Stearns, the 127th Infantry chaplain, spent considerable time at the hospital comforting the sick.
“In my first call at the base hospital I went to see a couple of boys who had scarlet fever. In the ward I visited here, there were 36 scarlet fever cases in the first room and 40 in the second.”
Quarantined troops were held two or three weeks and left on separate vessels to catch up with their unit.
“We prepared to leave camp; but on the following day, two barracks were again placed under quarantine, confining several members of Company C, reducing our company until only four officers and 161 men (out of 238) were permitted to leave,” Capt. Paul Schmidt, commander of Company C, 127th Infantry, wrote.
Troops deemed healthy spent around ten days at Camp Merritt before boarding an early-morning ferry that would take them to troopships docked at Hoboken, New Jersey, which was in sight of the New York City skyline and the Statue of Liberty.
“Up at 4:30 A.M. we journeyed from Camp Merritt to Hoboken. A ferry took us to the Cunard Line dock where our names were checked as we boarded the S.S. Tuscania,” said Pfc. Edward Lauer, a medic with one of the division’s sanitation squads.
Lauer was one of 586,000 troops who embarked for Europe through Camp Merritt, another 511,000 passed through the post after the war. The U.S. Government dismantled the base in 1920 and Gen. John Pershing dedicated in 1924 a granite monument that commemorated Camp Merritt and the service of the 573 soldiers, nurses, and civilians who died there.