Camp Dix under construction in 1917.
|1917: The doughboys of Dix|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
| When America jumped into the international killing frenzy known to history as World War I, it looked like the rip-roaringest of adventures for the young men of Greater Trenton.
From smoky industrial plants, quiet farms, and the halls of Princeton University, they enlisted, heeding calls to rally round the flag and safeguard democracy.
They were rawboned and green and knew nothing about the grim reality of muddy, mechanized slaughter on the Western Front. But they were young and felt indestructible.
Dorothy Rogers was young back then, too. A 6-year-old girl, she joined her mother in boiling coffee and baking cookies to give to the men whose trains paused at the Pennsylvania Railroad station behind her East State Street house.
"It was a big time, it was an exciting time," recalled Rogers, who is now 87 and lives on Second Street.
"We would carry the stuff in wicker baskets. My neighbor, she was maybe 16, she once wrote her name down and gave it to a soldier. I guess she hoped to be his girlfriend, but she only heard back from him once."
The idea of war as romance was still strong in the United States of 1917. A year of bloody fighting, accompanied by disease and privation, would make that a thing of the past. By war's end on Nov. 11, 1918, 148 Trenton men were dead. So were 21 of Princeton's best, brightest young students.
For others, however, war would take them to places they had never seen before, broadening their view of the outside world and giving them a new sense of comradeship with their fellow soldiers.
They were men like John Vernam, a gangling Ewing farm boy who signed his letters home "Your boy, Jack;" Earl Storer, a city man who told his diary about trench cooties; and Princeton star athlete Hobey Baker, who went from the gridiron to the Air Corps.
Mercer County was to play a key role in this war. The president who led us into war, Woodrow Wilson, was a Princetonian and former New Jersey governor. And it was Trenton soldiers, engineers and contractors who built Camp Dix, the Army base that would become the training ground for enlisted men from New York and New Jersey.
War came to America on April 6, 1917. A week later, there was a patriotic rally at City Hall featuring James Gerard, America's former ambassador in Berlin. Gerard told a cheering crowd how one of the Kaiser's diplomats had given him a warning — 500,000 German-Americans stood ready to rise up if the U.S. ever fought Germany.
"I told him," Gerard said, "that we have 500,000 lampposts to hang them on."
That was Trenton's attitude — pugnacious and not a little intolerant. In coming months, the school board would consider, but defeat, a resolution to ban teaching the German language. A woman would be fined for insulting the flag and a street-corner agitator was thrown in jail for making speeches against the draft.
When Trenton's first war casualty was reported — a private who drank himself to death — the Trenton Evening Times pondered whether the fatal dose of demon rum came straight from the enemy. "There is faint suspicion that the ... booze party was a part of an alien plot involving natives of Germany," it reported.
However, German-Americans were strikingly loyal to the American war effort — as shown by the city's first family, the steel-making Roeblings, who gave their plant over to war production and served on the city's defense committee.
The national call to arms required a military buildup unseen since the Civil War. In early 1917, the Army didn't have a single unit of division strength. By the end of the war, it would have more than 5 million men under arms.
Wrightstown, 16 miles southwest of Trenton on the edge of the Pinelands, was selected as one of the many Army bases — "cantonments," in the military lingo of the day — that had to be created from scratch, with incredible haste.
The Army planners picked Wrightstown for its proximity to the East's great population centers and its terrain, which could simulate the trenches of France. They named it Camp Dix after a 19th century general-politician, John Dix. (It became Fort Dix in the '30s, when the brass decided a name change would suggest permanence).
In less than four months, Camp Dix had to be turned from a sparsely settled tract of woodland and farms into a city of 1,600 buildings, housing 70,000 soldiers. It took 10 hours to build each barracks — and the haste was evident in the yellow-pine quarters, each of which was heated by a single stove and lit by a single bulb. One of the world's largest hospitals, with more than 2,000 beds, went up in a week. Rifle pits were dug and artillery ranges set up.
Supplies were short and workers demanded high wages with the shortage of civilian labor. "The Jews in Egypt who were called upon to make bricks without straw had a soft job in comparison," griped the officer in charge of Dix's construction, Maj. Henry Williams.
The whole thing was done, however, by Sept. 4 — just in time for the first draftees in the expanded Army to arrive.
They were men of the 311th Infantry Regiment, 78th Division, and they were raw and poorly equipped. For a week, they marched and learned to shoot and salute wearing civilian clothes for lack of any uniforms at the camp.
But what they lacked up in experience they made up for in ardor. Watching the doughboys practice with the bayonet, one observer marveled: "If the Kaiser could only get a glimpse of the smashing thrusts made by the capital city men, we would know what is in store for him."
Camp Dix developed into a self-sufficient community, effectively one of the 10 largest cities in New Jersey. Charity organizations built auditoriums, clubs, a pool. A newspaper, "Trench and Camp Weekly," started printing. Army brass proclaimed prohibition in a five-mile circle surrounding Dix, but the men found entertainment in other ways — "not all of them innocent," one of them wrote.
Vernam, the Ewing farmer who grew up working a field where Antheil Elementary School now stands, behaved a lot better during his time with the 312th Engineers. After enlisting in May 1918, he wrote home saying "I'm feeling fine and able for any task they give," and thanking his parents for the ginger snaps and strawberry shortcake they sent him.
"Received a lot of offers and tips," the young recruit wrote in letters now preserved at the Ewing Historic Preservation Society. "The one emphasized the most was to keep your feet clean, pretty good tip too, because we got orders last night for every other man to reverse his pillow, this brings a pair of feet quite close to your nose."
Shipped to France, the men of Dix proved themselves to be tough, able warriors. In one campaign, Raymond Schroth, wielding an empty pistol, singlehandedly held off a force of 20 Germans. In a separate action, Benjamin Kaufman, his right arm shattered by gunfire, advanced alone on an enemy position, lobbed a grenade into it with his left hand and saved his scattered unit from destruction.
Hobey Baker, the fair-haired, handsome, nervy Princeton athlete, flew the skies with the same aplomb he showed in evading Yale tackles, and became an American war hero, shooting down three German fighters. In admiration, his squadron painted their planes orange and black — Princeton's colors.
Storer, the Trenton man who served in the 303rd Engineers, fought his own campaign against rats, lice and supercilious officers. "Had fight with English sgt.," he wrote in his diary, now kept at the Fort Dix Museum. "Very insulting lad. Said we were hogs."
On Armistice Day, while the rest of the world was exploding with joy over the end of war, Storer had another miserable day. "Mad after getting up and finding cooties on me," he wrote.
Vernam's girlfriend had died during the 1918 influenza epidemic that swept through Dix and Trenton, carrying off as many as 1,000 people, but the Ewing farm boy made it home safely. He eventually married; his wife, Lina, is now 90 and remembers how he remained proud of his war service.
"He had an Army buddy he always corresponded with, in Cleveland," Lina Vernam said. "They saw each other every year for the next 60 years."
It took months for the men of Mercer County to come back to Camp Dix, demobilize and return to their homes, wives and girlfriends. But eventually they did, and came back to civilian life with exciting tales to give their children. Storer, Schroth, Vernam — all of them lived long lives. Kaufman even went on to be president of the Jewish War Veterans Association of America.
Baker did not make it home. It was Dec. 21, 1918, the night before he was to take his plane to Paris for demobilization, when he took it on a test run. At 600 feet, the engine failed and the plane crashed, taking Baker to his death.