During the hectic months after America’s entry into World War I in the spring of 1917, the government started construction of an Army installation in Suffolk country near Yaphank on a tract now housing the Brookhaven National Laboratory. There, on more than 10,000 acres of flat, swampy, mosquito-laden land, as many as 15,000 skilled workers and laborers struggled through the hot, wet summer to build barracks for 37,000 soldiers, mostly draftees.
Camp Upton was named after a Civil War Union general named Emory Upton. It was a marvel of logistics and supervision since almost all the workmen had to be fed and housed on the isolated site. Special railroad sidings were laid to facilitate the shipment of lumber and other materials, and a large number of private detectives had to be hired to cope with the influx of crooks who swarmed over the camp. Criminality was so rampant that a U.S. District Court was established at the base while it was being built and it tried more than 1,000 cases in about two months.
Troops began arriving little more than two months after construction started, and by the end of the following month, 30,000 men were being trained at Camp Upton. Among them were members of the 77th Infantry Division, which, composed largely of Long Islanders and New Yorkers who were soon to fight valiantly in the crucial Argonne Forest Battle in France. My father-in-law, Lt. Robert W. Morgan, was one of them who was sent to Meuse Argonne. During part of the war, the 82nd Division was also quartered there.
One of Upton’s more famous trainees was songwriter Irving Berlin, who put together a musical revue called Yip! Yip! Yaphank! that entertained not only his buddies but Broadway audiences. Berlin’s experience at the camp led him to compose “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” which survived the war to become a popular song. The musical was turned into a 1943 movie “This Is The Army” starring Ronald Reagan.
Because of its isolation, providing social activities for the soldiers became a major problem. One solution was to let them out, and a shuttle train was run from the camp to the Long Island Rail Road’s main line so the men could spend their weekends in New York. It also enabled thousands of relatives and friends to ride in from the city and other parts of the Island for Saturday and Sunday visits.
After the war, Camp Upton was used as a demobilization center and then thousands of overseas veterans were processed there before returning to their homes. Some of the units demobilized at the camp were: the 327th Infantry Regiment, the 325th Infantry Regiment, the 27th Infantry Division’s 53rd Brigade (105th, 106th Infantry Regiments and the 105th Machine Gun Battalion), and the 101st Signal Battalion. Processed there, too, were thousands of mules that the Army had decided to dispose at auction. After being sold, they were lassoed, had their government brands removed, were herded into railroad cars, and dispatched to their new owners.
In May 1919, Camp Upton became the site of the Recruit Educational Center, an Army program that enrolled foreign-born, non-English speaking, and illiterate soldiers. Most of the Recruit Educational Center’s inductees were immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. In practice, the program aimed to “Americanize” these immigrants through instruction in the English language, military protocol, U.S. history, geography, citizenship, and political economy. Soldiers who graduated from the Recruit Educational Center at Camp Upton were eligible for a three-year term of military service, after which they could be naturalized as American citizens.
In 1921, everything at Camp Upton was auctioned off: barracks, stables, hospitals, warehouses, garages, engines, heating and refrigerating plants, electric substations, telegraph poles, wiring, even lavatories. Structures were moved or torn down and dismembered for parts and lumber. Many of the structures were transported to form the first large scale settlement at Cherry Grove on Fire Island. Hundreds of carloads of material were shipped around the country. Successful bidders had sixty days to remove their purchases. And then all was gone except the land which the federal government kept, designating it Upton National Forest. The place became almost as it had been. An era not only had ended, it had disappeared. But the Twenties had arrived. And Long Island was ready to roar.
Sources: Long Island, a Newsday Book, Wikipedia