Prewar and Building Camp Devens

Central Massachusetts has been a predominantly white, agrarian society for most of America’s history of European settlement.  Although Central Massachusetts embraced the Industrial Revolution and formed industrial cities and towns, many of the towns remained rural.  Cities and towns with railways built through them tended to become more industrialized, as transportation of materials, goods, and people became easier and more efficient. As America prepared for World War I, the U.S. Army looked to set up temporary camps in 1917 to enlist, train, and deploy soldiers.  The army chose a piece of scrub grassland with small trees along the Nashua River in Central Massachusetts as the site for what would eventually become Camp Devens.  Due to its close proximity to the railways in Ayer, the army saw this area as an ideal location. 1

In a matter of ten weeks, the small town of Ayer, with approximately 2,500 people, mostly white, became a center of people of many different national origins and races.  People of different European descent, including German POWs, and people of other races descended upon Central Massachusetts and created a diverse environment on a 5,000 square mile piece of land while the surrounding communities maintained their homogenous society.  The people of America appear to have united together during World War I and created what seemed to be a more harmonious racial environment on the surface.  By looking at Camp Devens we get a glimpse into how America came together and prepared for World War I.  Its story touches many towns in Massachusetts and the South as the 366th Regiment, an African-American unit, was stationed at Camp Devens.  The story of Camp Devens shows how diverse groups came together and worked for a common cause but it also shows that despite the new opportunities for all groups, racial tensions still existed.  Within these racial contexts that white American perceptions of African-Americans during World War I fueled the fight for civil rights movements within the military, and within Devens itself, during World War II.

World War I broke out at a time of change in American history.  While industrialization brought more people to the cities and the country was connected by more communication and transportation options than it had been in the past, it was still a country divided by race and ethnic tensions, and male dominance.  At the beginning of America’s involvement in World War I in 1917, race relations in the country were strained.  In the southern states, Jim Crow laws ruled the social structure.  This is a time when Plessy v. Fergusen, which proclaimed blacks were “separate but equal,” was only twenty years prior, and Brown v. the Board of Education, which outlawed school segregation, was still close to thirty years away from becoming law.  While northern communities did not practice de jure segregation, de facto segregation existed in some social forms and racial prejudices still existed in the minds of many northern, white citizens.  Industrialization opened new job opportunities, prompting southern African-Americans to move to urban centers in the South and migrate to cities north and west.   The population movement increased the tensions between whites and non-whites in northern towns as northerners now had to compete with African-American migrants from the South.

Industrialization also brought changes to economic classes.  While professional, working, and upper classes continue to exist, a new consumer-oriented middle class emerged.  As the country shifted to a consumer economy, people bought more canned and prepared foods, shopped at home from Sears and Roebuck catalogues and improved home appliances.  This gave people more time for leisure and Americans embraced new forms of entertainment outside of their homes.  With this time for leisure, Americans started creating and joining various social clubs.  Being socially involved became very important in society and countless clubs came into existence, which played an important part of military cantonment life.

Another group of people began to compete for jobs with white Americans and African-Americans: immigrants from Europe.  Starting in the late 1800s, America became home to millions of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.  Prejudice against immigrants greatly increased as new cultures and languages infiltrated the nation.  Prejudice ran so high that the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese people from immigrating to the United States (there were a few exceptions for non-laborers to immigrate to America).  While America continued to increase in diversity, the United States was still very much a country based on notions of creating a perfect society of Anglo-Saxons.

As Europe became embroiled in a war in 1914, America would soon need to face its principles and call on all America’s diverse population to fight in the war.  But America did not offer the diverse population equal opportunity and treatment.  Stemming from the Fort Brown incident in 1906 and Houston riots in 1917, which exacerbated racial tensions between African-American soldiers and southern civilians, the government initially barred African-Americans from serving in the infantry units during World War I.  Southerners fought over conscription of African-Americans as they felt arming blacks would cause a war within the United States.  Local conscription boards routinely denied African-Americans from registering for the draft, which also denied the enlisted African-American men the higher wages they would receive as soldiers.  However, the federal government was pressured by African-American advocates to allow African-Americans to fight.[1]  In response to this pressure, twenty-five percent of all African-American soldiers served in two combat units.  The United States loaned the 93rd Division to France (they fought extremely well).  The 92nd was dispersed and scattered across the country in small units to allay southern fears of black violence.[2]  At Camp Devens, the African-American soldiers served in the 366th infantry as quartermasters.

Construction of Camp Devens

Once America decided to join World War I in 1917, the federal government mandated a draft and set conscription quotas that each state needed to meet, eventually reaching an enlistment of over three million soldiers.  The country called on all its occupants, including immigrants, of whom many did not speak English and were not citizens, and African-Americans.[3]  The War Department built thirty-two self-sufficient camps throughout the country to train the soldiers.[4]

The camps needed to be built fast.  Camp Devens’ construction began in June 1917, with the army expecting its first soldiers a few weeks later in August.  Construction job ads posted in Boston newspapers brought workers of different ethnicities to Devens.  The construction was so fast that more than ten buildings were put up every day.[5]  The workers were paid well and treated well. Barber shops and stores were set up in the encampment, and cooks catered to the Italian workers when an Italian restaurant opened.  Construction workers drained wetlands, filled ponds, and leveled land to create training fields.  This land was undeveloped and all aspects of a town needed to be implemented, including sewage, water, electric, and heating systems.[6]  In just ten weeks, the camp had barracks ready for soldiers. While building still continued after the first soldiers poured in, the feat accomplished by these workers was astounding.  The camp would eventually have 1,334 buildings at a cost of $12,000,000.[7]

World War I: The Town: Ethnic and Race Relations

Ayer embraced this fast moving change.  A local Ayer newspaper, Public Spirit, published a daily report on camp happenings in a column called “Camp News” by October.  The Public Spirit October 6, 1917 issue mentioned the many different races and languages spoken at the camp and states that there is one thing that unites them: “that is loyalty to the United States.”  The article mentioned cars with license plates from Texas and Missouri seen driving the streets in Ayer.  Two officers from the Hawaiian Islands came to see the camp.  The local people seem to have taken well to the diversity the new camp brought; however, prejudices and stereotypes still existed.  One newspaper reported a strong friendship between a six-foot-eight-inch black man and a four-foot-eleven-inch black man and referred to them as “darkys.”[8]  Another book written in 1918 about the history of Camp Devens proclaims in a caption under a picture of black soldiers, “and the dusky lad could soldier too!”[9]

Some local townspeople embraced the diversity while others did not.  During Thanksgiving, one woman from Nashua, New Hampshire requested that a “lonely soldier” come visit her on Thanksgiving, stating she did not care where he came from, what he looked like or whether he spoke English or not, saying “If they’re good enough to fight for my home, they’re good enough to eat at my table.”  Other people, however, were not as accepting.  Shortly after Thanksgiving, one woman requested that forty soldiers come to her house for dinner but requested that none of the soldiers be Irish or “Hebrew.”  After receiving the letter, an officer decided to abide by her wish and sent forty black soldiers from Florida to her house.[10]  The soldiers had a good time but the hostess apparently became “ill” during dinner. These small acts show that to a certain level, prejudice was not accepted.  But this by no means suggests that African-Americans did not suffer from inequality on the base, as they did for many years to come.

[1] Christopher Paul Moore.  Fighting for America (New York: Random House, 2005), 9.

[2] Nancy Gentile Ford. Great War and America: Civil-Military Relations During World War I, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008), 52.

[3] Other races were involved in World War I but this paper does not include all races.

[4] “Army Will Build 32 Huge Camps,” New York Times, May 18, 1917.

[5] William J. Robinson, Forging the Sword: The Story of Camp Devens (Concord, NH: Rumford Press: 1920), 9.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Order of battle of the United States Land Forces During the World War, Zone of the Interior: Territorial Departments Tactical Divisions Organized in 1918 posts, Camps, Stations, Volume 3, Part 2, Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C., 1988.  World War I Collection, Fort Devens Museum, Devens, MA.

[8] “Long and Short of it at Camp Devens, Mass,” The Norwood News (New York), July 20, 1918.

[9] Robinson, Forging the Sword, 96.

[10] Robinson, Forging the Sword, 81.