The Ocean County Compendium of  History
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Camp Dix



A Short History of the Origins of Camp Dix
by Steven J. Baeli
January 7, 2018
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Company H, 347th Infantry at Camp Dix
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The advent of World War I was a conflagration of such magnitude that it forced the United States government to expand the number of its military bases, one of which was Camp Dix[1].  Today the camp is part of the Joint Base coalition consisting of Ft. Dix, McGuire Air Force Base, and Naval Air Station Lakehurst, all of which are connected geographically, and the latter of which was the scene of the explosion of the German airship, Hindenburg.  After much consideration, it was decided to build the new army base in the Borough of Wrightstown, New Jersey, located in Burlington County just a few miles west of New Egypt in Ocean County.   Camp Dix was to be used for the basic training of recruits before sending them off to battle in the European theater as part of the National Army.[2]  Construction of the "cantonment"[3] began on July 16, 1917, shortly after America's entrance into the war on April 6th, and the work moved very quickly as to accommodate the large influx of draftees and enlistees that would soon be flooding through the gates.[4]

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                                                        Major General John Dix
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The new base was officially christened "Camp Dix" in a formal ceremony held on July 18th, named
in honor of John Adams Dix (1798-1879), a Civil War veteran who served in the New York Militia from 1813 to 1828.  In January of 1861, Dix was appointed Secretary of the Treasury by President James Buchannan.  Under the auspices of that department Secretary Dix sent a telegram to the New Orleans treasury office that stated, "If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot."[5]  The message was somehow intercepted by Confederates agents, who promptly leaked the statement to the press believing that it would hurt the Union cause, but the plan backfired when the Dix's directive became a battle cry in the north that served to motivate instead of impede.  As a result of his tenacity, John Dix was promoted to the rank of Major General upon his enlistment in the Civil War.  Assigned as Commander of the Departments of Pennsylvania and Maryland in the Army of the Shenandoah, one of his first acts was to order the arrest and detainment of the Maryland state legislature, which effectively averted that body's ability to meet and thereby prevented it from seceding from the Union.  The successful and distinguished career[6] of Major General Dix, which began as a fifteen year old ensign in the militia and ended as Governor of New York, made his naming of the new base a worthy choice for a military installation that would serve as a major hub in the Great War.
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                Campbell, E.M. Unknown Rouse, A.D. Irwin & A.O. Lynch of the Irwin & Leighton Construction Company
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Camp Dix was designed to house some 40,000 troops from New Jersey and surrounding states[7] that would be lodged in military-style barracks constructed in a U-shaped footprint spanning two miles in length and nearly one mile wide.  These troops consisted largely of infantry and artillery regiments that would soon be engaged directly against the German forces overseas.  The new base very quickly became a hub of activity even before construction was anywhere near complete as troops living in tents were shipped in to learn the French language ahead of their journey overseas.[8]     Other buildings would accommodate the massive support staff needed to keep the internal engine of the base running efficiently.  They included a mess hall and various cafeterias, multitudes of offices, a hospital, and what was described as "two mammoth warehouses"[9] situated along a railroad system constructed to bring supplies, inductees, and munitions, into and out of the post.  Construction of the base itself included many of the top modern technologies of the day with electricity provided by the Public Service Company and communications from the Bell Company, each taking on the herculean task of installing a host of line poles and miles of wire trunks all designed to provide top-notch service to the installation.[10]  Of course a series of complex water and sewerage systems was also essential to the overall operation in terms of hygiene and public safety.  The water system alone consisted of, "20,000 feet of 16 inch mains, 13,000 of 12 inch, 58,000 of 8 inch, 15,000 of 6 inch, and...14 miles of 2 inch and smaller service pipes"[11] all of which would service four 200,000 gallon holding tanks and 203 fire hydrants as well as providing water for sinks, showers, and steam heaters to 230 barracks units and 366 buildings.  Some twenty miles of six inch to twenty-four inch terracotta pipe were laid for the sewer system as well, all of which, including the water lines, had to be buried at least three feet underground to avoid freezing ruptures.[12] 
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Construction was not without its problems, however, as disgruntled carpenters went on strike at one point because they, "had been dissatisfied with the meals furnished at a cafeteria run by contractors at a cost of fifteen and twenty cents,"[13] which by today's standards would be quite a bargain, but for men who were earning only $60 for a seven day work week, that meant a lot.
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One of the earliest problems once the war began was desertion, men running away once inducted to avoid being sent off to war, but a bigger issue was those who went absent without leave (AWOL), generally caused by the over-consumption of alcohol in nearby towns that led to soldiers becoming so drunk that they passed out somewhere and failed to return to the base to report on time for duty.  The military attempted to offset this problem by citing the Selective Service Act of 1917 (SSA), which it claimed had the authority of the federal government to prohibit the sale of alcohol from local bars and package stores to any active member of the military.  The SSA, made law on May 18, 1917, began the draft that would conscript almost three million American men into military service along side another two million volunteers, and it was used to justify an order by President Woodrow Wilson that established a "five mile dry zone, [that regulated the] moral conditions around military camps."[14]  The United States Department of Justice backed the president's prohibition order,[15] which, of course, did little to stop local tavern owners from serving soldiers who were more than willing to dole their money out in the name of a good time, especially since so many of them were away from home for the first time in their young lives.
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Being AWOL was considered a form of desertion, unintentional as it often was, but in most cases the punishment was rather tame as offenders were given extra camp duties put on a bread and water diet, but others faced much more serious consequences, which included a court martial, jail time, and perhaps even a dishonorable discharge that would follow a man around for the rest of his life.  One resistor to the draft named Isadore Curson, was "sentenced to 40 years at hard labor at Fort Jay, N.Y.,"[16] for desertion and refusal to wear a uniform, which was still a more agreeable alternative to the death sentences being meted out in Great Britain for the same offense.

The government was not entirely adverse to one being a conscience objector, however, proof of which was the case of a Quaker name Benjamin Satterthwait who had reported for duty and requested that he "be excused from bearing arms, but offered to do any other kind of work assigned him."[17]  His request was not only granted, but he was soon promoted to the non-commissioned officer rank of Corporal, so it was clear that while the U.S. Army may have taken a dim view of refusing to fight, it was willing to make some compromise based on religious and moral objections provided that the objector did not desert as a means of protest.
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                                      Map courtesy of Rutgers University Special Collections
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The first major influx of draftees was scheduled to begin on September 5th, but even as late August 1917 there was still much work to do as roads leading to the base were still being paved and artesian wells being dug, but in due course the work was completed by mid-December.[18]  From that point on Camp Dix was one of the most important military installations in the United States throughout war as it became, "the point of mobilization for all troops from other cantonments on their way to transports."[19]  As the government demanded more quotas for the draft, the towns complied sending their young men off to Dix where they would become strong soldiers worthy of joining the Doughboys[20]of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, and so with only eighty percent of the construction complete,[21] the boys came to begin their new life as Army recruits.

The first man to attempt to register at Camp Dix was Clarence Brown, who hailed from Parkertown in Ocean County, but officially that honor went to George M. Aiken of Mt. Holly in Burlington County, because Brown did not produce the proper paperwork having left it at home.[22]  As the dedicated enlisted and drafted men from New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey honorably reported for duty the ranks swelled and soon the camp was humming with the many joys and sorrows of military life that self-discovery and the pain of boot camp tends to highlight as one advances through the training that will help them to survive on the battlefield.  There were rejections as well, of course, in one case an Ocean County man named Harvey Yorkes was sent home because he had lied about his age, which at that time required an enlistee to be twenty-one years old.[23]  As the war pressed on, however, there were many underage soldiers who served that were not made manifest, even some under the age of 16 who had presented falsified documents, but whenever found out those brave and patriotic boys were immediately pulled from the battlefield and sent home.
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In addition to its purpose as a boot camp for 311th and 312th Infantry recruits,[24] Camp Dix also served as home to the 78th, 87th and 34th Divisions, which trained for battle on the large expanse of the base's tract, and in due course the National Army called them into service and sent them as needed to the various Army divisions for more preparation before heading off to fight.  The first call from the War Department came in October 1917, which took 6,000 men (about a third of the camp), with 1,000 soldiers ordered to 29th Division in Anniston, Alabama, and the remainder joining the 82nd Division at Camp Gordon in Atlanta, Georgia.[25]  There was also an influx of troops in January of 1918 when four artillery regiments were deployed to Camp Dix for "intensive training,"[26] the 307th and 308th consisting of white soldiers, and the 349th and 369th made up of "colored" regiments from New York, New Jersey and Delaware.[27]  Later that same month 150 officers would be ordered from the 153rd Depot Brigade at Dix to two Signal Corps camps in Waco and Dallas, Texas,[28] where they would be trained in the all-important art of communications.  Throughout the remainder of the war draftees and enlistees came and went as did other facets of the military that were trained not just in how to win the war, but also in how to survive it.
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Once the Armistice officially ended the war on November 11, 1918 and the hostilities in various theaters of war across the globe had ended, Camp Dix shifted to a center for discharging soldiers out of the Army and providing for their travels back home.  Those recruits still in training at the cantonment, some 15,000 in all in the last months of the war,[29] were immediately sent home, and those who returned to the base to "muster out," were celebrated as the heroes that they were.  Their stories of bravery in their battle to stop the Central Powers "against big odds,"[30] echoed in newspapers across the country, and whether they knew it or not, their place in history was from that time on secured for future generations to learn from and to be remembered.

In addition to its importance to the war, Camp Dix[31] also proved to be an immediate boom to neighboring towns and continued to be so over the many decades of its existence that followed.  Nearby bergs such as Cookstown, Browns Mills, and Pemberton in Burlington County, Cream Ridge and Upper Freehold in Monmouth County, and New Egypt and Jackson Township in Ocean County, all owe a great debt of gratitude to Camp Dix.  By the middle of the Great War the government had begun to expand not just the use of the camp, but its physical size as well, by acquiring surrounding land in both Burlington and Ocean Counties.  This trend would continue over the years and also waned according to the ebb and flow of wars and conflicts throughout the 20th century, but no matter what form that eventually became, Camp Dix will always remain as the place that helped to save the world.

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Endnotes


[1] Camp Dix was first known as Camp 13 denoting that it was the 13th of 16 army cantonments.  Camp Dix became Fort Dix on March 8, 1939 as the government moved to make it a permanent installation as the onset of World War II became apparent.

[2] Among its many provisions, the National Defense Act of 1916 also partitioned the Army into three sections, the Regular Army, which replaced the Continental Army of the American Revolution, the National Guard, which was a formalized version of the old-style militia first established by Connecticut in 1861, and federally as the Army National Guard under the Militia Act of 1903 (also known as the Dick Act), and the newly-formed National Army (also known as the Volunteer Army), which acted as a reserve of a million troops should they be needed to augment the 286,000 troops established in the Regular Army under the same Act.

[3] Addison Moore, "'Camp Dix' is the Name of the Government Camp at Wrightstown," New Egypt Press, July 20, 1917, pg. 1.

[4] Amongst all of the activity emerged the Camp Dix News, which began publication on August 16, 1917. The twelve-page newspaper gave a personal voice to the camp over its 15 editions.  The newspaper was published by the Irwin & Leighton construction company, the same company that was contracted to build the base (Addison Moore, "Big Flag Raising at Section No. 1, Camp Dix This Afternoon, New Egypt Press, August 24, 1917, pg. 1.).  The paper was filled with a balanced mix of construction news and military events, as well as many photographs that depicted the progress of the building and military personnel.  According to Library of Congress records, The Camp Dix News merged with the Wrightstown Herald sometime after its last edition published on November 24, 1917.  The Library of Congress also lists the Camp Dix Times, which was "published weekly under the auspices of the Y.M.C.A. War Work Council, by the Trenton times," its first edition debuting on November 22, 1917 and ending sometime in 1919, and the Trench and Camp, also published by the Y.M.C.A, it debuting on October 18, 1917 and ending shortly thereafter.

[5] Unknown, "Gen. Dix's Order," New York Times, September 14, 1872, pg. 1.

[6] General Dix's other public service accomplishments included Adjutant General of the New York State Militia (1830), 16th Secretary of New York (1833-1839), New York State Assemblyman (1842), filling a four year vacancy as a U.S. Senator from New York (1845-1849), 24th Secretary of the United States Treasury (1861), New York City Postmaster (1860-1861), United States Minister to France (1866-1869), and one term as Governor of New York (1873-1874).  He lost a bid for reelection as governor in 1874, and then a campaign for Mayor of New York City two years later, which effectively saw the end of his career as a public servant until his death in 1879.   In business he served as president of the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad in 1853, president of the Union Pacific Railroad (1863-1868), and president of the Erie Railroad in 1872.

[7] Addison Moore, "'Camp Dix' is the Name of the Government Camp at Wrightstown," New Egypt Press, July 20, 1917, pg. 1.

[8] Unknown, "Camp Dix Tutor," Asbury Park Press, October 17, 1917, pg. 1.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Addison Moore, "Big Flag Raising at Section No. 1, Camp Dix This Afternoon, New Egypt Press, August 24, 1917, pg. 1.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Addison Moore, "Doing Big Things at 'Camp Dix' at Wrightstown," New Egypt Press, July 27, 1917, pg. 1.

[14] Addison Moore, "Dry Zone Covers 5 Miles," New Egypt Press, July 27, 1917, pg. 1.

[15] Addison Moore, "Notice to Hotel Men," New Egypt Press, June 6, 1917, pg. 1.

[16] Unknown, "40 Years for Deserter," Asbury Park Press, December 12, 1918, pg. 2.

[17] Unknown, "Hates to Fight, Yet Wins Colonel's Liking," Asbury Park Press, March 13, 1918, pg. 2.

[18] Unknown, "Building Over At Camp Dix, Many Workers Return," Asbury Park Press, pg. 1.

[19] Unknown, "To Enlarge Camp Dix to Accommodate 80,000 Men," New Egypt Press, pg. 1.

[20] The term "Doughboys" was used to describe American fighters in the European theater of war.

[21] Unknown, "Men at Camp Dix Begin Army Life," Asbury Park Press, November 7, 1917, pg. 1.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Unknown, "Soldiers of the 312th Now Getting Their Guns," Asbury Park Press, October 3, 1917, pg. 2.

[25] Unknown, "6,000 Camp Dix Boys Are Ordered South," October 11, 1917, Asbury Park Press, pg. 1.

[26] Unknown, "Big Guns Soon To Be Heard At Camp Dix," January 11, 1918, Asbury Park Press, pg. 7.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Unknown, "150 Officers Go To Signal Corps," January 25, 1918, Asbury Park Press, pg 4.

[29] Unknown, "15,000 At Camp Dix Will Be Sent Home," November 19, 1918, Asbury Park Press, pg. 9.

[30] Unknown, "Won Against Big Odds," Asbury Park Press, pg. 7.

[31] On March 1, 1939, Commanding Officer, Major Wallace E. Hackett, made the announcement that Camp Dix was officially made a permanent Army installation and renamed "Fort Dix" as per General Order No. 1 for 1939 signed by Major General Hugh A. Drum, Commandant of the Second Corps Area.  This was particularly important given that tensions were brewing in Europe saw Hitler's invasion of the Rhineland three years earlier that would lead to his invasion of Poland on September 1st of 1939, setting the stage for World War II. ( Addison Moore, "Camp Dix Changed to Fort Dix Yesterday," March 2, 1939, New Egypt Press, pg. 1.)

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