The Building of Camp Devens - 1918

Map of Camp Devens (1918), Courtesy of the YMCA. GGA Image ID # 139c7d071b

Six months ago, the traveler on the road between Ayer and Fitchburg saw little to attract his attention. About a mile from the former town began a stretch of scrub and brush, populated only by an occasional rabbit.

There was nothing unusual about this tract. It had its quota of hills and swamps, two or three ponds, and here and there a farmhouse.

At that time, the passers-by merely noticed that it was a particularly drab and unattractive bit of waste. There are hundreds of areas of similar appearance and topography in New England.

The little town of Ayer was then merely an ordinary New England village. The fact that it was the junction of the Fitchburg, Worcester, and Portland branches of the Boston and Maine Railroad added little to its importance.

In appearance, the center of Ayer was not unlike that of a Maine village of the "backwoods" type. Commercially, there was only a single street, lined on one side, for a space of a few blocks, with the town's business enterprises.

The village had neither declined nor advanced during the last half-century; independent of the outside world and the vaguely distant metropolis of Boston, it had maintained a placid and unruffled existence, the tranquility of which was interrupted only by the arrival of an occasional train and the advent and the departure of the United States mail.

The two or three hundred dwellings, small, neat cottages belonging, for the most part, to the respectable, hardworking class, were the only other evidence of life in the little village. As I heard a native say: "In those days Ayer was present, but not voting."

Upon our entrance into the war of the world, the order of things changed. The military authorities, searching diligently for a favorable site for the projected divisional cantonment, came to Ayer, viewed the nearby waste, and pondered.

When the reports went to Washington, someone stuck a pin with a little red flag on it at the dot on the map marked "Ayer." The real history of the town began. More military experts came, accompanied by engineers and men skilled in planning enormous projects.

Eventually, they agreed that the wilderness tract on the Fitchburg road should be the training-camp of the youth of New England. Early in June, the leases of the land were signed, the contract awarded to Fred T. Ley Company of Springfield, and on June 18, the vanguard of the army of laborers arrived at the future Camp Devens.

The construction of the Seventy-Sixth Division's cantonment was a triumph of engineering and contracting skill and a monument to American efficiency and industry.

Nearly nine thousand acres of virgin bush and swamp, a tract seven miles in length and two in breadth, was transformed into a huge city of soldiers within ten weeks. Five thousand workers, the pick of the skilled and unskilled labor of the state, were shipped to the grounds.

Before any work could be done, quarters for these men had to be constructed, and they were housed in long shed-like structures of wood, covered with tar paper. Then the actual work began.

Under the supervision of Captain Edward L. Canfield, Jr., the quartermaster of construction, the brush was cleared, the swamp drained, the terrain leveled. As soon as conditions allowed, the carpenters set to work erecting buildings on the cleared areas. Surveyors laid out lines of barracks and mapped out the many miles of roads. 

Day after day, the work went on unceasingly; the wilderness lost its desolate aspect of former times and hummed with industry. Throughout the day, there came the sounds of tireless hammering, of digging and blasting. Steamrollers toiled in every section of the camp.

A great squadron of motor trucks ran in a continuous line to and from the spur of the tracks, which had been extended to the camp, distributing endless supplies and equipment.

The contractors did everything in their power to ensure the health and comfort of the workmen. Their quarters were completely fitted out with the necessary equipment, which they were compelled to keep in the best of condition.

A great dining-hall was erected, where they might obtain good food at nominal prices. The skilled laborers and office-workers had a restaurant near the headquarters, with à la carte service. 

For the Italian workers' benefit, a special restaurant was built; here, Italian chefs prepared Italian foods to suit the taste of the most discriminating. In the vicinity of the restaurants, there sprang up the commercial center of the camp.

A barbershop opened for business; an Italian store, a tobacco shop, and canteens selling every variety of small merchandise made this center a true shopping-district.

In order to assure the contentment of its employees, the contractors paid phenomenally high wages and liberally rewarded overtime work. Unskilled laborers earned up to thirty dollars a week; some members of the skilled trades earned as much as a hundred dollars weekly. The payroll of the contractors amounted to over $100,000 a week.

As soon as the buildings were erected, electricians, plumbers, and steamfitters started their work. Shortly after the carpenters left a barrack, the men of other trades took possession, and it was soon ready for occupancy. It is difficult for the uninitiated to conceive the magnitude of the work.

In those ten short weeks, five thousand men built 1400 buildings, laid twenty miles of road, installed 2200 shower baths, 400 miles of electric wiring, and 630 miles of heating pipes. Over forty-million board feet of lumber were necessary for the stupendous building operations.

The electric lights were switched on for the first time on August 30. Two days later, the contractors announced that the camp was ready for occupancy. New England had the unique distinction of being the first section to complete its cantonment.

Major-General Harry Foote Hodges was appointed commander of the new unit, the Seventy-sixth Division, and ordered to Ayer. The subordinate officers were, for the most part, those who had received commissions at the Plattsburg camp, with a scattering from the regular army.

In honor of General Charles Devens, the illustrious Civil War soldier of Worcester County, the military authorities announced that the Northeastern military department's cantonment should be called "Camp Devens."

The first draft men arrived at Camp Devens from Maine on September 5; from that time on, the flow from all parts of the district continued until 40,000 men were within its borders.

The authorities distributed them immediately into the various organizations of the camp till each had its full quota. Four regiments of infantry were established: the 301st, 302nd, 303rd, and 304th. These were installed in barracks on the further side of the divisional headquarters.

A depot brigade of thirteen battalions was formed. There were three regiments of field artillery: the 301st and 302d of light artillery and the 303d of heavy artillery.

Three machine-gun battalions the 301st, 302nd and 303rd; the Headquarters Train, comprising the 301st Ammunition Train, the 301st Supply Train, the 301st Engineers' Train and the 301st Sanitary Train; the 301st Signal Battalion and unattached units of the Quartermaster's and Medical Corps, and the 23d Engineers, completed the roster of organizations in the camp.

In general, the assignments were as follows:

  • 301st Infantry: Boston.
  • 302 d Infantry: Southeastern Massachusetts.
  • 303rd Infantry: Eastern New York.
  • 304th Infantry: Connecticut.
  • Field Artillery: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont.
  • Depot Brigade: Western Massachusetts.
  • Machine Gun Battalions: Connecticut and Northeastern Massachusetts.
  • 301st Engineers: Rhode Island.
  • Headquarters Train: Central Massachusetts.

There are some specific exceptions to this summary, which is, of course, subject to change at any time.

At first, the men were scantily equipped with rifles, uniforms, and other military accoutrements. Eventually, the supplies poured in so freely that there were enough uniforms and equipment to outfit each man properly.

There are now thirty thousand soldiers at Ayer; the average has been forty thousand. At one time, there were forty-eight thousand within the camp's borders.

Take all the inhabitants of Fitchburg or half the people of Springfield or Hartford, put them in a field of 9,000 acres, and you have some idea of the population of Camp Devens. And it is not only a city in terms of population, but also in many other ways.

This military city has a post-office, a telegraph office, a telephone switchboard, several police stations or guardhouses, an adequate fire department, an excellent hospital, a restaurant, a theatre, and many other like institutions. Its police system is perfect and is far better than any municipal department in the country.

The spirit of the draft men has been admirable. Few wanted to leave their families, their homes, their businesses; but when they found that they were needed, they responded to a man. There are many discomforts in a soldier's life, and these men were most of them untried and untrained by hardships. Nevertheless, they are contented and, if they complain, it is with a smile on their faces.

The transition from civil to military life has been abrupt, the difficulties of training men at Ayer have been many, but the path ahead is clear, and when the crucial test comes, the enemy will find that the American Citizen, trained as a soldier, is second to none.

This book is intended primarily for Ayer's soldiers and for their friends and families at home. To the boys in camp, it is hoped that it may serve as a memento of their army life, their companions, their work, and their play. Those who are unacquainted with military life will be able better to appreciate what it all means. They will see where their boys live, how they live and will realize the progress they have made and are making.

Are the boys happy? In answer to that question so often asked, I refer you to any one of the pictures. Most of the men have broad grins; all are smiling. These pictures illustrate the Ayer spirit; and the spirit which will bring us peace with victory.

For permission to reprint several pictures of the incoming draft increments, I wish to acknowledge the courtesy of the Boston Herald; I am also indebted to R. W. Barton of Cambridge, and to the following officers of Camp Devens: Major Roger Merrill, 151st Brigade; Captain Leslie E. Thompson, Adjutant, 3304th Infantry; Captain Charles D. Case, 3304th Infantry; Captain Weston B. Flint, Depot Brigade; Lieutenant Russell Codman, Depot Brigade; Lieutenant E. C. Wynne, Adjutant General's Department; Lieutenant Julian Lathrop, 3303d H. F. A.; Captain Brown and Lieutenant Hal S. White of the Intelligence Department, and above all, to the enlisted personnel of the camp whose aid and co-operation enabled me to prepare this volume.

December 20, 1917

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