Giant WWI port of embarkation transformed Hampton Roads

Hampton Roads was transformed by the nation's second-largest WWI port of embarkation, which boasted the Army's

When builders began breaking ground for Camp Stuart in Newport News on July 30, 1917, the size and impact of the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation were still uncharted.

Everyone knew something that encompassed the largest single embarkation camp of World War I, the principal depot for shipping horses and mules and the primary aviation embarkation point, had to be big.

But as the Army revised its plans in response to a changing war, the scale of the HRPE and the magnitude of its effects only grew.

First to expand was the Camp Stuart hospital, where the mounting stream of casualties from France pushed the original call for 200 beds to nearly 5,000.

Then there was the Army's answer to the brutal artillery war in the trenches overseas, which filled its school at Fort Monroe to overflowing before prompting the creation of a giant new training base at Camp Eustis and the quick expansion of the massive firing range there with adjacent Camp Wallace.

So rapid was this immense transformation that, as the Daily Press reported that fall, no one could estimate the cost or see the limits of the struggle to supply soldiers, artillerymen, aviators and draft animals to the war in France.

And combined with the building of Langley Field in Hampton and Naval Operating Base Hampton Roads in Norfolk, the HRPE left an indelible mark, changing the region in ways that were unthinkable then, yet which a century later are indispensable to its economy and identity.

"On the Peninsula alone, we already had the nation's largest stone fort at Fort Monroe. They'd already started on the first purpose-built airfield at Langley — and now they were adding the biggest single embarkation camp, the biggest aviation camp, the biggest heavy artillery camp and a giant station for horses and mules, all with the biggest mine depot still to come at Yorktown," historian John V. Quarstein says.

"Everything about the Port of Embarkation and the impact of World War I on Hampton Roads was big. No other place in the country could match it — and it laid the foundation for our future."

Winning assets

The Army recognized Newport News' advantages as a military port as early as the Civil War, when 15,000 Union troops commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside left the docks at Camp Butler to fight in coastal North Carolina.

The newly founded port town demonstrated its capability again during the Spanish-American War, when infantry and cavalrymen crowded the James River waterfront with tents while awaiting transport to Puerto Rico.

When the United States entered WWI in April 1917, Newport News' deep-water harbor and unusually well-developed rail connections made it a leading candidate for a port of embarkation, and that status was greatly strengthened by its direct access to the sea, the protection afforded by the guns at Fort Monroe and its world-class coal piers as well as the equally capable coaling facilities in nearby Norfolk, Lt. M.J. Mackler writes in "History of the Port of Embarkation, Newport News, Virginia."

It also boasted sprawling merchandise piers and the huge rail yard required to handle hundreds of thousands of tons of military supplies, plus the new, nearly 1-billion-gallon reservoir and treatment plant needed to provide hundreds of thousands of troops with clean water.

Just as important were the large expanses of undeveloped property, which combined with city's superior rail connections to edge out congested and land-poor Norfolk when the port commander opened his headquarters on July 11, 1917.

"You couldn't have chosen a better port," says Virginia War Museum Educator Chris Garcia, underscoring its central location on the East Coast.

"It didn't take long before literally every acre of open ground from the downtown waterfront to Hilton had been staked out for a military camp."

Adding to the city's resumé was the impressive performance of an epic British remount operation.

Beginning in late 1915, its huge downtown corrals had drawn hundreds of thousands of horses and mules by rail from points all across the U.S., then sent them from the C&O docks to the battlefields of France aboard a constant stream of transport ships.

"The success of that British pipeline had a huge influence on the Army's decision to come to Newport News," says Mariners' Museum Archivist Bill Barker, co-curator of an upcoming exhibit on the impact of World War I.

"Why reinvent something that was already working so well?"

Mammoth scale

Despite Hampton Roads' many advantages, "there was absolutely nothing in existence to handle the military business," Mackler writes, adding that "it was clearly evident even at the inception of the port ... that much construction work would be needed."

Building began just 19 days after the port commander's arrival on July 11 and quickly assumed a feverish pace, with some 6,000 men toiling at Camp Stuart and the animal embarkation depot at Camp Hill by September, the Daily Press reported.

Additional workers were brought in from as far away as Texas and Utah, a Bureau of Labor Statistics report says, as the government struggled to make progress with more wartime construction projects than any other place in the U.S.

"Two weeks ago, Camp Stuart was Pulliam's Farm," the Daily Press reported on Aug. 25.

"Today it is a beehive of activity, and where there wasn't a single house standing a fortnight ago, 15 buildings have been completed. It is estimated that over two hundred houses will have to be built to take care of all the troops expected to arrive here by Nov. 1."

So frantic was the rate of construction and the need for more builders that — despite employing a force of mechanics and laborers as large as that at booming Newport News Shipbuilding — the primary contractor advertised on a single day for 300 more laborers, 300 more carpenters, 300 more plumbers, 300 more steamfitters, 300 more sheet-metal workers and 300 more helpers as well as "200 teams with bottom-dump wagons."

Hundreds of new workers showed up daily, lured by wages that had gone though the roof for even modest talents.

"One could earn twelve dollars a day, with no experience," wrote Thomas Wolfe in 1929, when he drew upon his experience at Langley and Newport News for his semi-autobiographical novel "Look Homeward, Angel."

"One could assume the duties of a carpenter, with only a hammer, a saw, and a square. No questions were asked."

Standardized building plans and pre-cut lumber helped save time, enabling the workers to assemble rather than construct hundreds and hundreds of structures, Quarstein says.

But the mammoth scale of the HRPE was still daunting.

At Camp Stuart, the Army erected nearly 320 two-story barracks, not to mention 75 mess halls, 51 latrines, 17 administration buildings, 16 warehouses, three post exchanges and three YMCAs as well as two fire stations, a giant laundry, an equally large bakery, a substantial guardhouse and a commodious theater, Mackler writes.

More than 100 barracks went up at Camp Hill, plus 25 warehouses, 30 corrals and 30 300-foot-long animal shelters.

Camp Morrison required 24 more warehouses and 27 additional barracks as well as a rail spur and 24 sidings for handling planes.

At the Army Supply Base in Norfolk, some 9,000 builders erected two long covered piers capable of loading or unloading eight transports at a time, resulting in a 2 million-square-foot terminal complex that Asst. Sec. of War Benedict Crowell later described as "among the largest establishments in the whole Army supply chain."

The General Ordnance Supply Depot at Pig Point in Suffolk was equally heroic in size, with 75 ammunition magazines and warehouses, a 4,800-foot-long trestle and pier and a rail system capable of handling 100 cars each day, all of it surrounded by a 4-mile-long "unscalable wire fence" punctuated every 500 feet by sentry towers.

"The scale of what they intended was huge," Quarstein says.

"And a lot of it was still being built when the war ended."

Chaotic start

Even as construction began, the HRPE began receiving immense shipments of supplies, especially engineering materials needed by the American Expeditionary Forces and its allies in France.

"Freight and supplies began to pour into the port with no warehouses for storage, the railroad facilities were congested until rail traffic was at a standstill, hundreds of cars lined the sidings with no one and no place to unload them, hundreds more arriving daily," Mackler writes.

"The receipt of large animal consignments were imminent and no corrals existed for their reception ... The early arrival of troop contingents was expected but no adequate facilities existed for their housing or their training."

Other problems beset the HRPE planners, too, ranging from the overwhelmed local telephone service and falling city water pressure to "roads and streets already famous for their poorness becoming impassable" because of the extra burden inflicted by Army trucks and cars.

"The truck was a new technology in World War I. No one was using them on this scale but the Army," Garcia says.

"So they didn't have the infrastructure they needed. No one did."

As a result, the mammoth job of constructing the camps quickly expanded to include millions of dollars in improvements and the expansion of the region's roads and utilities as well as its fire departments and even reservoir system.

Both Harwoods Mill and Skiffes Creek were linked to the city waterworks when the Lee Hall reservoir threatened to run dry, while the booming wartime population at Langley and Fort Monroe prompted another new reservoir at Big Bethel.

"The Army was going from 250,000 men to 4 million in a year and a half, and you can't do that without a lot of problems," Garcia explains.

"Nobody had ever tried to mobilize an army that big and send it as far away as Europe. So they were making it up and adjusting what they were doing as they went along."

More issues cropped up as huge numbers of troops and animals began to populate the camps beginning in late 1917.

But the threat of disease that had weakened the Army so much during the Civil War and Spanish-American War was blunted by the actions of a Port Surgeon and Sanitary Corps eager to apply the lessons of those conflicts, says Andy Watson of the Army Medical Department Center for History and Heritage.

Massive drainage projects at Camps Stuart, Hill and Morrison targeted mosquitoes and the scourge of malaria, then were followed up by weekly inspections and oiling of the waters.

The city's garbage collection and restaurant inspection system was overhauled with the Army's help and insistence, too, in taming an early infestation of flies.

So chronic was the problem of venereal disease that it filled a 600-men tent hospital and led to accusations of police collusion.

But eventually the lure of wayward women in the neighborhoods adjacent to Camp Stuart began to subside as the Army reined its soldiers in with such wholesome alternative attractions as the Liberty Theatre, which offered vaudeville and motion pictures as well as boxing and wrestling matches, and three newly built YMCAs as well as a host of Red Cross offices and Hostess Houses.

"Newport News was a wild town," Quarstein says.

"And Camp Stuart was right next to neighborhoods called 'Hell's Half-Acre' and 'The Blood Fields.'"

Indelible legacy

Despite the initial chaos, the HRPE began to send war supplies and material to France almost right away, beginning with a shipment of 1,650 bales of hay and 80 motor trucks on Sept. 3, 1917 — less than eight weeks after its offices opened.

The first animal shipment of 881 mules and 169 horses followed on Oct. 14, Crowell writes, and on Jan. 17, 1918, eight aero squadrons from Camp Morrison became the first troops to enter the new pipeline to Europe.

"Not once did they give up," Mackler writes, describing the determination with which the HRPE's officers and men wrestled with its many problems.

"They slowly but gradually brought order out of chaos, overcame the difficulties one by one, (and) secured control of the situation."

Even before then, the region had been visibly transformed, with the Daily Press reporting on Aug. 11, 1917, "the hurrying to and fro of military men in every branch of service, the notes of bugles on the Casino grounds and north of the city, sounding 'assembly' or 'boots or saddles,' the grinding of wheels of supply wagons on the streets, the display of uniforms from every clime, accompanied by the sounds of big artillery fire from Fort Monroe. ...

"(It all) gave Newport News the appearance of a city in the war zone on the eve of a mighty battle. ..."

By the war's end 15 months later, the HRPE ranked as the nation's second-largest port of embarkation behind New York, with nearly 800,000 men and hundreds of thousands of tons of war material passing across its piers during the conflict.

At Camp Stuart alone, some 115,000 troops left for Europe and 160,000 returned, making it the largest single embarkation camp of the war, while Camp Morrison ranked as the war's principal aviation camp, Camp Eustis its biggest conduit for heavy artillery and the animal embarkation depot — with nearly 50,000 horses and mules shipped in a year — by far the largest supplier of draft animals.

Had the war continued, the impact of the HRPE would have been even greater, Crowell writes.

But even with the conflict's unexpectedly speedy end on Nov. 11, 1918, the port helped spark an indelible change, redefining an area not 20 miles across as one of the country's largest, most concentrated and most important bastions of military power.

"This was a transformational moment," Barker says.

"And it stamped the region in a way that's still being felt today."

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

ONLINE: Go to dailypress.com/history to see video and a photo gallery of the WWI port.

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