Over the summer of 1917, the US government identified 16 sites to use as cantonments–or military bases. In a few short months, they laid roads and constructed buildings and prepared these camps to accept the hundreds of thousands of recruits who began arriving in September.
Camp Funston, in north-central Kansas, was one of the larger camps, built on the grounds of the historic Fort Riley (from the 1850s) and close to the town of Junction City. It stretched out over a flat river plain between the Kansas River to the southeast and low hills to the northwest. Wind was a notable feature of this area, kicking up dirt and dust across the sprawling camp.
October 4. “You don’t want to look for a very tidy letter,” Grandpa wrote, “for there is lots of dirt here.”
Much of that dirt was stirred up by the massive construction needed to house more than 40,000 recruits and the 10,000 officers who would train them. They arrived from seven states–South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. This group became the 89th Division.
For Grandpa, coming from a tiny farming community, Camp Funston was remarkable.
October 8. “Sure is marvelous to see how many is here and still coming.”
The training started immediately. “I have been drilling most all day, learning fast,” he wrote Grandma on October 8, “but they say it takes 6 months to make a trained solider.” That same day, “We got our jackets today, I have everything but an overcoat. I have more clothes than I ever had before, and good ones.”
The barrack shown in the postcard above became central to Grandpa’s life in the army. Typically, a single barrack housed 150 men, the average size of a company, although at times this number stretched to 200. Whenever possible, men from the same state were kept together as a way to maintain a sense of familiarity, a link to home. The upper floor held bunks and lockers, the lower floor was split, with bunks on one side and the mess hall—attached to a one-story kitchen—on the other. On October 11, Grandpa was assigned to be a cook for his company—Company “C”, 356th Infantry, working out of such a kitchen and serving 196 men. He was part of a staff that included four cooks, four waiters, and four dishwashers.
Reading between the lines, Grandpa seems ambivalent about his assignment as cook. A week later he wrote, “I and every one else is just like a horse we will go just where they say.”
Grandma asked him in a letter about army life. Here’s how he responded, “You ask me to tell what I think, . . . .”
In October, my grandfather adjusted to a dusty camp, taking orders from superiors, and making a home far from his family and friends. But something unexpected upended the daily order of army life. Grandpa had noted this during his first week, writing to Grandma on October 8, that “I don’t see how very many can get sick every thing is in sanitary shape.” A few days later, he wrote, “see a dead one here real often taking people to the hospital all the time.”
In the coming months, Grandpa would count among the growing number of soldiers taken ill. There was a mystery afoot, as disease and death swept through Camp Funston as persistently as those blustery Kansas winds.
NOTE: Information on Camp Funston is based on materials from the Kansas State Historical Society (www.kshs.org) and the History of the 89th Division, by George H. English, published in 1920.