The 65th Infantry Division troops were getting ready for their upcoming move from Camp Shelby, Mississippi to their next temporary station, Camp Shanks, New York in late December 1944. Troop movements during WWII were not widely publicized for good reason. Care was taken to keep large troop movements secure and under wraps. The soldiers of the 65th were pretty sure their days in the good old US of A were numbered. There just weren’t a lot of people in the “know” as to their destination and time of departure. Sometimes trains would take circuitous routes to their destinations. There was a familiar saying in those times . . . “loose lips sink ships” was a reminder that security was of utmost importance. Usually troop and material movement to overseas theaters of operations were done in very large convoys. At one time during the war the troopship Queen Elizabeth carried a division-sized group of soldiers across the ocean . . . over 16,000 men. It set a record that still stands today. It was the largest group of people to travel in one ship at any time in the past or the future. If word had gotten out and Germany would have positioned one of its submarine Wolf Packs along the Elizabeth’s course it could have been devastating, the potential loss of an entire division-sized group of soldiers.
Camp Shanks did not exist prior to 1943. The Army knew they would need a lot more additional space to house, feed and get troops ready for deployment overseas. There were several reasons why the defense department was specifically looking at this location in Orange County for the selection of this site. The area was, in the eyes of the Department of Defense, a place ideally suited for such a camp. First, it was served by two rail lines. Second, it was located near piers on the Hudson River that had deep enough waters to handle large ocean going vessels. Third, the land was primarily farmland, which meant that a minimal amount of effort and resources would be needed to turn the surrounding area into a vast military base. On September 25, 1942 residents in the area were summoned to a meeting. The government told the residents at this meeting that the U.S. Government was in the process of purchasing their land. When the war was over, and the government no longer needed the land the people could buy it back at the same price that the government had bought it from them. The government informed the residents they had exactly two weeks to vacate their land. Three hundred people were instantly losing their homes! Without a doubt there were hard feelings, but for the most part the residents knew we were at war and it was serious business. There had been German submarines on patrol in waters off the east coast and ships had been sunk within sight of land off the Eastern Seaboard.
Once construction started, an entire new city had sprung up almost overnight. Camp Shanks was born. Seventeen thousand workers transformed what had been over 2,000 acres of farmland into a city of 50,000. It included 2,500 new buildings. There were Quonset hut barracks, headquarters buildings, stores, a chapel, theater, laundry, bakery and a hospital. All totaled there were some 2,500 new buildings . . . a complete city! Camp Shanks was open for business in January 1943. Camp Shanks was named after Major General David Carey Shanks (1861–1940). General Shanks commanded Camp Merritt which was in New Jersey during WWI. As far as land surface, Camp Shanks covered an area of approximately 2,020 acres, about three square miles. To put it another way, that amount of land would translate into a square of land that would be about 1.75 miles on each side. It would take a while to walk around that block! It became known to the GIs as “Last Stop USA”. From there they would be on their way to their respective overseas duties.
At Camp Shanks, soldiers were “staged” and inspected to make sure that their weapons worked, they had the proper clothing, and health checks were done. It would not be a good thing if troops that were sick with a communicable disease were put on troopships with troops that were healthy. That could turn out to be a disaster at sea. They also wouldn’t want any epidemics running through the camp either. The men of the 65th soon found out when they reached Camp Lucky Strike that they should have been supplied with cold weather gear and proper footwear as France was experiencing an exceptionally cold and snowy winter. On average, GIs spent eight to 12 days at the camp before shipping out. Some went from the Piermont Pier, where soldiers left directly for Europe on troopships; others were ferried on the Hudson River or transported by train to New York Harbor for deployment. Camp Shanks processed approximately 40,000 soldiers per month. From 1943 until the end of WWII Camp Shanks was by far the largest embarkation base for staging troops within the New York Port of Embarkation. During its existence it had been the host and sendoff camp for over 1.3 million men in arms, which included 75 percent of the soldiers who took part in the storming of the Normandy beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
After the war, a total of 290,000 POWs from other camps in the U.S. came through Camp Shanks on their way back home. The last German soldiers left the camp on July 22, 1946 and soon after, the base officially closed.
The postwar boom saw a lot of changes in the area. Most of the people who had lost their homes when the government took over their land never returned to the area. Nearly a half a million men who returned to the States returned home the same way they left, up the Hudson River to Piermont Pier and to the once Camp Shanks which had now been converted into Shanks Village. Many of the personnel who had staffed Camp Shanks; the doctors, cooks, teachers and their families stayed in the area. The returning vets began taking advantage of the GI Bill and started attending local colleges and trade schools. Many veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to buy houses. The baby boom was in full swing. The Orangetown area was no longer agricultural it was now a “bedroom” community.
Eventually all vestiges of the base were obliterated by urban sprawl and infrastructure development. Almost nothing of the original camp remained. Today there are only two things that remain as a memory of Camp Shanks: Camp Shanks Monument and Camp Shanks Museum, housed in a recreated Quonset hut barracks. The museum opened on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in June 1994. The museum has era photos and artifacts, including movie posters and war posters, uniforms and other things that a soldier of that time would have been issued.
By William J. Dobbin
Rockland County Historian
(Reprinted from a 1962 issue of "South of the Mountains", published by Tappan Zee Historical
Society, Orangeburg, New York, with the kind permission of J.R. Zelmer, president)
When the last German prisoner of war boarded a harbor boat at the Camp Shanks pier in the
Hudson River on July 22, 1946, the final chapter was written in the war career of Camp Shanks,
a 2,040-acre military installation in Orangetown. There followed, of course, the work of disposing
of 30,000 mattresses and thousands of other items, but this last task was like the cleanup
of a stadium after a final World Series game.
Colonel Harry W. Maas, commanding, and his adjutant, Captain William R. Madden, locked the
gate for the Army and turned the key over to the United States Public Housing Authority. Camp
Shanks then became a student-veteran housing project.
Although it was but 20 air miles from Broadway and Forty-second Street, few persons then
knew or appreciated all that took place at the Camp since it opened on January 4, 1943. What
was perhaps the greatest movement of troops in history occurred in New York's front yard, and
the secret was well guarded.
There were 1,362,630 American troops sent overseas from here. Many never had a chance to find out they were at Camp Shanks but called it "Last-Stop, U.S.A." There were initials carved in the barracks and on the benches in the recreation and orientation centers of soldiers who never came back.
Camp records also show that 533,869 persons were debarked at the Camp on returning to the United States, and that several thousand miscellaneous groups were processed, including civilians and Allied troops.
An average of 40,000 troops were sent overseas from Camp Shanks every month. A inspection of the records reveals that some of the better known organizations processed here were General George S. Patton's 3rd Army Headquarters staff and the 13th Corps Headquarters.
Divisions staged here included the 6th, 7th, 10, 12th, and 14th Armored and the 26th, 63rd, 65th, 66th, 75th, 83rd, 94th and 103rd Infantry. The roster includes hundreds of small units.
It usually took eight to twelve days to process a unit. The procedure included the issuing of combat equipment, uniforms, adjustment of personal affairs, medical inspection, a trip through a gas changer to test gas masks, and last, but what was considered extremely important, complete instruction in how to abandon ship.
An incident not publicized at the time concerned a special battalion, trained to use "Long Tom" 155s. Almost to a man they arrived sick with a stomach ailment so severe they were transported in ambulances. General Eisenhower made a fervent plea that this group be rushed to North Africa, where the invasion had commenced. Following a conference of New York Port of Embarkation and Camp Shanks medical staffs, the men were taken by ambulances to New York piers. They were placed aboard ship with two healthy units, who helped a staff of doctors and nurses take care of the patients. When the ship arrived in Africa every man was in perfect condition except nine, a normal sick list for any ship.
There also was strictest secrecy August 31, 1943, when General Anthony C. McAuliffe and General D.F. Pratt arrived with their 10st Airborne Division. This group, which was to be used as ground infantry in the Battle of the Bulge, had little idea then they were to become one of the best known outfits of the war. General Pratt was killed in action in Normandy, and General McAuliffe became famous when the Nazis asked for his surrender, and he replied : "Nuts!".
Although Camp Shanks had seven staging areas for troops, one for Wacs, and another for medic units it was considered an almost impossible task to fully utilize its 42,000 processing capacity. It was done once. With a full division of 15,000 and numerous small units being processed, word arrived that a complete division would start rolling into the railhead within twenty-four hours and must be processed at once.
Some men of this division were taken directly from the trains to lifeboat drill and others to gas chambers to test gas masks. In fifty-two hours the division was embarked. Army authorities believe this a record.
The Camp's principal duties were to serve as a staging area for troops going overseas, the processing of retuning wounded so that they were sent to specialist centers for treatment as near their homes as possible, the processing of rotation troops after the collapse of Germany, and handling the return of troops after the final surrender of Japan. Troops were debarked, processed and sent to discharge centers throughout the United States.
Military personnel on the camp staff reached 5,967 on January 4, 1946, the record station complement. This was caused partly by the arrival of thousands of German prisoners of war, necessitating large escort guard. After January 1946, nearly the entire work at the Camp was devoted to processing German prisoners.
Froom wooden benches officers and enlisted men from every State watched the leading stars of the stage, screen and radio both before going over and on their return. There is hardly a big name in the theatrical world that did not give one of his or her best performances at Shanks.
Major league baseball teams played on the local field for the troops before they went aboard ship. joe Louis was assigned to Camp Shanks and put on exhibition matches.
Civilians were employed for the police, fire department, officework, motor pool, communications and many other jobs.
During November 1945, out of a record number of 96,574 returning troops, 84,856 made calls through the telephone center of the Camp. More than a hundred picked operators handled these calls.
There is much early historical lore associated with Camp Shanks. General Washington's army camped twice on the site. General Lafayette lived in a house within the post's boundaries in 1780. The Continental Army, after Yorktown, camped here twice more in 1782. The role of Camp Shanks in World War II is another impressive chapter in the history of this area.
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