World War I Centennial: The 77th Division at Camp Upton (Images from the Postcard Collection of the Suffolk County Historical Society Library Archives.)
On April 6, 1917, a hundred years ago almost to the day, the United States formally declared war against Germany and joined the Allied efforts in the First World War, making 1917 one of the most significant years of the twentieth century in redefining the world order. In the spring of 1917, New York state ordered a military census to secure "certain information from the men and women of the State between the ages of 16 and 50 years...[to ensure] the population shall be completely mobilized for war" (see the 1917 "Instructions for Census Agents").
Draftee Divisions, the 76th through the 93rd, were designated as the National Army. New camps were built to accommodate and train the divisions, one of the largest of them being Camp Upton (today the site of Brookhaven National Lab). But in May 1917, this part of Suffolk County between Calverton and Middle Island was nothing more than a vast stretch of wilderness, scrub oak, and scrub pine. Through the combined efforts of Army men and volunteers, the land was cleared and barracks were erected, enough to accommodate 40,000 troops. By September 1917, Camp Upton would receive its first allotment of draftees from New York City and the surrounding area.
The largest number of troops trained at Camp Upton were the New York draftees known as the 77th Division (bottom postcard image). The first contingent of the 77th left Camp Upton for France in March 1918; under the leadership of General Evan Johnson, the 77th would gain national recognition for its valor at the Argonne Forest in August of that same year. Among the members of the 77th Division was Sergeant Irving Berlin, who while at Camp Upton wrote the military musical "Yip, Yip Yaphank." A Broadway production would follow with Berlin's fellow soldiers filling the cast.
The Suffolk County Historical Society is preparing a World War I Centennial Exhibit with an opening reception on Saturday, April 29, at 1:00 pm, in our Grand Staas Gallery.
All are welcome. Admission is free, and light refreshments will be served. Curated by Richard F. Welch, Over Here, Over There: Long Island & the Great War will feature artifacts, maps, photographs, weaponry, posters, and more depicting Long Islanders’ experiences during the war . . . from the front lines to the home front, neutrality to belligerence, and mobilization to victory.