Tuesday, July 31, 2007

6. Getting "Over There"

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"We'll be over, we're coming over,

And we won't come back 'til it's over Over There."
[Click here for the lyrics and melody of George M. Cohan's famous WWI song.]

In late July 1918, the 339th Infantry, to which Bryan was assigned, was sent by train from Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Michigan to Camp Mills in Nassau County, Long Island, New York. Second Lt. Hugh McPhail of Company A (Bryan was in Company I) shared in his memoirs that the train first stopped in St. Thomas, Ontario for a much-needed stretch of the legs and beef sandwiches and coffee. Swinging by Niagara Falls, the troops went on to Hoboken, New Jersey and took a ferry across to Long Island, arriving at the camp in the late evening (whether this was a one- or two-day trip is not clear).

According to an excellent historical website on Camp Mills, it was one of four staging areas for the Port of Hoboken. The other three were Camps Dix, Merritt, and Upton. Today, Camps Mills and Merritt (Bergen County, New Jersey) are housing developments, and Upton (Suffolk County, Long Island, New York) is Brookhaven National Labs. Camp Dix later became Fort Dix (Burlington County, New Jersey), still continuing in operation. Upon arrival, Bryan would have been fed, and given a card to fill out and mail home, assuring his family that he had arrived safely. For obvious intelligence reasons, no information would be given to the soldiers about where they were headed.

On Sunday morning, July 21st, the troops were marched down to the ferry and then embarked on the U. S. S. Plattsburg, a merchant ship that had been commissioned for troop transport. Originally christened the Harvard, she had been built in 1888 in Glasgow, Scotland. She had already served a commission with the U.S. military during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Since then, she'd been decommissioned, refitted with new engines, and then recommissioned by the U.S. Navy for use until 1919. In 1922, she was renamed the New York, but was scrapped in Genoa in 1923. Originally, she probably looked like this depiction in a photo postcard, but probably had this camouflaged painting as shown here, during her troop transport service. Once on board, the troops were ordered belowdecks, where they were to remain until the ship was out to sea and out of sight of land. For two weeks they zigzagged across the Atlantic, avoiding enemy submarines, until they arrived in Liverpool on August 3rd.

From Liverpool, they rode by train over 200 miles to Camp Aldershot (nicknamed "Camp Cowshot" by the Yanks) in Hampshire (the south of England), where they stayed for three weeks. According to Lt. McPhail, it rained nearly every single day. It was here the men of the 339th got whiff of a rumor that, instead of going to France to fight the Huns, they might get shipped to North Russia, as being Midwesterners, "they were used to the cold, anyway." By now, it was mid-August and someone decided to clothe the soldiers in good long-john underwear in preparation for the cold Russian winter ahead. They were taken out on one of the few sunny warm days for a ten-mile hike, which must have been loads of fun wearing long underwear in the humid English climate!

I know that many readers tend not to click on links in blogs, but I highly recommend that you do so on this post. I found fascinating descriptions of the history of the places mentioned, along with historical photos and postcards, all of which I would have loved to use to illustrate this post. Copyright prevents me from doing so, so please check out the links. They will give you a better overview than what I've been able to do of the sights and experiences the men of the 339th--many of whom had never until then left their home communities--would have had on their trip from Michigan to England.

Other posts in this series:
1. A Polar Bear in North Russia
2. The Family of Angelo and Lula Robbins
3. Bryan and Marie - A WWI Romance
4. Bryan Gets Drafted
5. Basic Training at Camp Custer
7. Bryan and King George V
8. To Russia, With Influenza
9. A Letter from Mother - 25 Sep 1918
10. A Letter from Father - 7 Oct 1918

1 comment:

Dave Robbins said...

Amazing history. I applaud you for finding so much. By the way, I remember Lakeside as being on the shoreline of Mona Lake in the Heights. That is where we got our ice (for iceboxes) when I was a kid.