CRESSKILL — For many American army recruits, “Over There” began over here.
As European countries mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the first catastrophic modern war — World War I — reminders of the sacrifices of the American doughboy who fought in 1917-18 mark Northern Valley’s landscape.
There is the mighty obelisk erected 90 years ago at Madison Avenue and Knickerbocker Road in memory of what was hoped to be The War to End All Wars. And traces of the $5-million embarkation camp, large enough for 50,000 men, that swamped Cresskill — population 600 at the time — as well as Dumont, Haworth, Demarest and Tenafly.
Eventually, a recorded 1,088,081 troops passed through what became Camp Merritt, the most through any camp in the country’s history.
“Just imagine a small town of a few hundred turning into 40,000 overnight,” said Cresskill native Carol Banicki.
Banicki is a retired Dumont teacher and current Cresskill historian dedicated to teaching children “the history of what happened in their own backyards.”
The number of soldiers leaving camp for overseas duty went from 8,190 in November 1917 to more than 50,000 in March 1918. Such numbers became a weekly norm for the little host communities.
And as a result, the townspeople dutifully served those troops.
Banicki informs her students of the personal stories she’s learned of how residents shared their homes with the families’ of the soldiers. One key account is that of an old friend and former Girl Scout counselor of Banicki’s, Gladys Belle Crabbe.
“At the time I lived at 82 Hillside Ave., in Cresskill. I was about 8 years old,” Crabbe recalled in a written account. “My parents and many others in Cresskill would plan to have soldiers for Sunday Dinner at about one o’clock. My parents rented a large room with a dressing room for wives, girlfriends and parents coming to see their loved ones off, fearing they would never see them again.
“Our home was just about a mile from Camp Merritt. This was probably the only such stop before Alpine — down the Palisades — to the troop ships. For us children this was very exciting.”
Crabbe added that she was “still proud that Cresskill was chosen for Camp Merritt, proud of the people who welcomed this opportunity to show our patriotism.”
World War I began in 1914 among European powers, but America didn’t enter it until 1917. The rapidly building U.S. Army needed an embarkation site close to Hoboken, where troops would be shipped to France. Cresskill was chosen “in part because the location afforded the speedier and less-expensive construction for sewer and water systems,” said John Spring, Cresskill historian and former Bergen County Historical Society president.
Site clearing began in August 1917, and it was ready for troops by November, covering 770 acres, its center at the point where the Cresskill monument is today.
During construction, residents were paid $25 to leave their homes, because railroads had to be built directly through them. Crabbe recalled “not feeling [her] town suffered from having this complex suddenly in [its] midst. The government completed the legal work of taking over homes and property in a period of 20 days.”
For those against leaving their homes, deals were struck to move their dwellings on roller logs.
But building the camp and relocating residents were minor events compared with the casualties across the Atlantic. In what was then the deadliest conflicts in human history, more than 116,000 U.S. soldiers died before the guns fell silent on Nov. 11, 1918.
But also, not all of those deaths were in combat: In Europe, half of those Americans fell to the Spanish flu that began in August 1918 in Europe and spread to the U.S. The influenza pandemic in total killed 675,000 Americans among 20-40 million people worldwide.
Bob Meli of Hackensack, a retired carpenter and historian, has studied the Spanish Flu and Camp Merritt, connecting how the pandemic of 1918 would affect people today — “We think we are so far removed from history, but we are all touched by forms of history.”
Meli calculated the populations of Bergen County and its affected communities and, using the 2012 census, concluded that the population of 64,336 in Cresskill, Dumont, Tenafly, Haworth, Northvale, Closter and Emerson would about equal the number of servicemen killed by the flu in 1918.
Crabbe’s “most vivid memory was of the troops marching past [her] house day and night. During the summer the troops fell out in front of our house and others on Hillside.” But Banicki said soldiers were later seen “dropping dead to the flu” while marching in those very streets, and “trains passing by with coffins on them.”
Meli discovered articles detailing the local severity of the pandemic. Leroy Martin of the Twin-Boro News reported the illness hit just when the U.S. was transporting 250,000 men a month to the war. But when President Wilson tried to cease that flow to avoid spreading the flu, he met arguments that “every American soldier who dies on his way to France has just as surely played his part as his comrade who died in France,” according to Martin.
“During the evening of Sept. 27, 1918, a large contingent of soldiers left Camp Merritt for Alpine Landing from where they were to be transported by ferry to Hoboken for embarkation. Shortly after the march started, men started falling by the roadside after suddenly being struck with fevers and symptoms of influenza,” Martin wrote.
Meli also found an Evening Record story reporting how the camp was “Quarantined” in October 1918.
Throughout Camp Merritt’s existence, 558 enlisted men, 15 officers, four nurses, and one civilian died there. And so the Camp Merritt monument was built to honor their service and sacrifice.
Today, the monument represents all of the local history. And illustrating that importance to the Great War, the camp monument was dedicated by Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. Pershing commanded U.S. ground forces in the war and was the only soldier promoted during his lifetime to General of the Armies, the highest rank ever held in the U.S. Army.
Nearlly 100 years ago, men from every corner of America passed through the yards of North Jersey homes that still exist, and it’s a history a small group of historians thinks should not only be recalled, but honored.
One of Banicki’s kindergarten students understood that concept: When he and classmates teamed with Banicki to raise money to light the monument, the boy said how he was glad to give his penny, “because the soldiers can look down and see that we haven’t forgotten them.”
To read further on or see images of Camp Merritt visit Bob Meli’s site.