Camp Custer, Michigan

Posted on Sunday, November 8th, 2020

Camp Custer, Michigan

6-Camp CusterMichigan’s response to America’s entrance into the Great War was to immediately construct a massive facility responsible for preparing its young men for war. Camp Custer, named for Michigan’s Civil War and Indian fighter, George Armstrong Custer, began its existence in July 1917 as a collection of raw blue prints. Then, nearly 8,000 construction workers were brought in, and in six months the sprawling four-square-mile facility opened for business.

Soon afterward, thousands of Michigan’s volunteers and draftees arrived, unloading from Michigan Central Railroad passenger cars. The prospective soldiers were housed in so many barracks it was estimated the material used in the camp’s construction could fill a freight train thirty-five miles long! The soldiers were fed in mess halls supported by a bakery capable of furnishing bread for a city of 40,000. Thousands of acres were allocated for drilling, maneuvers, rifle practice, parades, and for playing baseball. A hospital large enough to accommodate 2,200 patients, along with the 5,000 seat Liberty Theater substantiated the fact, this military base was prepared for any need the soldiers might have. Camp Custer was called, “A national university that takes young men from the farm, the shop and office and in a few short months graduates soldiers … ready to fight the battles for democracy.”

Fifty thousand civilian men arrived in the fall of 1917, and another thirty thousand in early 1918, all who were trained for war. Then they were shipped to France, to be marched into the horrors of trench warfare. In June 1918, thousands of more young Michigan men were drafted, and from this massive pool of civilians-turned-to-soldiers came the men who formed the 339th Infantry. The process was quick, one draftee wrote, “I got the green card, a notice to be drafted, two weeks before drafting. Then I got the red card; they gave me 24 hours.” He, along with hundreds of others, arrived in mid-June by train, to be instantly hustled into the world of the military. Alfred Floyd Lewis (Co. M) noted, “The day we arrived in camp we were processed for the preliminaries; hospital shots and vaccinations and such.” Lewis added, “Finally at 2 o’clock in the morning we were ushered into a large hall … the officers up front [began] asking [our] various lines of civilian work.” The men were then assigned military roles based upon civilian employment. One soldier recalled, “I talked to the captain … I told him I’d been in the food line since I was 13 years old … [he said to me] ‘You’re going into the kitchen’ … In a few days I was detained as a [mess] sergeant.”

The training then began. The men were schooled in close-order drill, taught how to wear gas masks, bayonet straw-dummies, and march-march-march. One freshly-minted soldier remembered, “[The officer] shouted, ‘You’re supposed to be standing at attention’. I wondered, ‘Some guy’s getting the hell bawled out’. Pretty soon he walked [up to me] … ‘I’m talking to you’ he said … I answered, ‘I’m standing at attention!’ It’s a wonder he didn’t court-martial me.” Then, the recruits were issued rifles and marched out to the target range. For some soldiers this was a completely new experience. Samuel Safer (Co. M) wrote, “I had never fired a rifle in my life.” But for others, this was no big deal. Richard Zank (Co. L) remarked, “We got our guns. I always was a fairly good shot. I was out for rifle practice. [They said to me]‘You don’t need any practice, you’re good enough’.”

And finally, after only three weeks of frantic training at Camp Custer the men in the 339th Infantry were packed up and crowded into trains bound for New York, and soon after, on to ships headed for England, and from there, to northern Russia. They had become part of the 90,000 Michigan men trained at Camp Custer; soldiers considered prepared for war. A year later, in July 1919, the Polar Bears returned to Camp Custer, to be demobilized, the final batch of nearly 100,000 Mid-Westerners to be reprocessed back, from soldier to civilian. One returning veteran, Pvt. James Siplon (Co. I) reminisced, “I had no objection to being drafted … [but] I wouldn’t take a million dollars to go over it again.”


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