Remembering Camp Shanks
More than a million World War II soldiers headed overseas after a stint at Camp Shanks in Rockland County
In mid-August, the division assembled in regimental formation. A band played ‘Over There’ and the Red Cross girls cried as the men marched to the 20 trains waiting to take them off to war... The trains headed north, toward Camp Shanks, 30 miles up the Hudson River from New York City.”
The division mentioned here included E Company — Easy Company — of the 101st Airborne, on its way to D-Day, as described in Stephen E. Ambrose’s best-seller, Band of Brothers. The book and subsequent HBO miniseries made Easy Company famous. But what was that Camp Shanks, 30 miles up the Hudson River from New York City?
From 1943 until the end of World War II, Camp Shanks was the largest Army port of embarkation in the United States. It comprised 2,040 acres in Orangetown, Rockland County, and served as the staging grounds for about 1.3 million troops, including 75 percent of those who took part in the invasion of Normandy. The GIs knew they were headed overseas from there, which is why they nicknamed the camp “Last Stop, USA.”
The army brass had several reasons for selecting Orangetown as the site for this enormous military installation. The area was served by two railroad lines; it also had quick access to piers on the Hudson River which could handle large military ships, so troops could get in from bases across the country and then back out to New York — and on to Africa and Europe. It was also mostly farmland, which made it relatively easy to transform into an army base. So, on September 25, 1942, about 300 residents were called to a meeting at the Orangeburg School (now the library) and told the U.S. Government was buying their land, which they could buy back at the same price at the end of the war. They had all of two weeks to get out. One hundred thirty families lost their homes.
“I am sure many were upset, but we were at war,” says Jerry Donnellan, director of the Rockland County Veterans Office and a volunteer at the Camp Shanks Museum. “By the end of ’42 we weren’t making much headway, and we were in pretty dire straits. There were worries of German submarines off the East Coast. They realized this was serious.”
Combat ready (top): Soldiers arriving at Camp Shanks battle the Hudson Valley winter; below, a bird’s-eye view of the camp’s buildings
A new city in three months
As only the Army can, 17,000 workers were mobilized to transform Orangetown’s farms into a city of nearly 50,000; the base included Quonset hut barracks, headquarters buildings, stores, chapels, a theater, a laundry, a bakery, and a hospital. “In three months, they built more than 2,500 buildings,” says Donnellan. “You can’t put a deck on your house in three months now.”
Named after the general who commanded New Jersey’s Camp Merritt during World War I, Camp Shanks opened in January 1943. Here soldiers would be “staged” — inspected for proper equipment and supplies and made ready for deployment. “After being trained all over the country, they came here to make sure their rifles worked, that they had the proper boots, then they got their orders and were put into units,” Donnellan says. There were seven staging areas, including one for the Women’s Army Corps — and one for African Americans. The military was still segregated, Donnellan says, and blacks were at times treated worse than prisoners of war, who also were housed at the camp. “The WAC area was near the POWs, but the blacks were kept all the way across the camp,” he says.
The camp had its own baseball team, orchestra, and newspaper, which was staffed at different times by cartoonists Bill Mauldin and Milton Caniff (later of “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon” fame). “And being so close to New York, it was easy for someone to put the arm on a celebrity and bring them up,” Donnellan says, noting the camp hosted stars like Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, Joe Louis, and Joe DiMaggio.
Top: Italian POWs and their visitors enjoy an outdoor meal; boxing great Joe Lewis (bottom left) shakes hands with an officer at the camp
On average, GIs spent eight to 12 days at the camp before shipping out. Some went from the Piermont Pier, where soldiers left directly for Europe on troop ships; others were ferried to New York Harbor for deployment. Camp Shanks processed about 40,000 soldiers per month this way. By war’s end, 1,362,630 GIs had passed through. Another 1,200 Italian and 800 German prisoners of war lived there. After the war, a total of 290,000 POWs from other camps in the U.S. came through Camp Shanks on their way back home. The last German left the camp on July 22, 1946 and soon after, the base officially closed.
But the camp’s impact lives on. Though next to nothing of it remains, Rockland County was forever changed by its existence.
The postwar boom
Most of the original Orangetown inhabitants who left when the camp was built never returned. When the now-veterans sailed home from the war, more than half a million of them came back the way they left — up the Hudson and onto the Piermont Pier. They needed temporary housing, so — about three months after closing — Camp Shanks was converted into Shanks Village to serve that purpose. Many of the personnel who had staffed the camp — doctors, cooks, teachers, and the like — and their families stayed in the area. The vets, taking advantage of the GI Bill, started attending Columbia University, NYU, and City College. Rather than move to the city, they used that GI Bill money to buy homes — and start families — in Rockland County. The baby boom was on.
“Orangetown was no longer an agricultural community, it now was a bedroom community,” says Mary Cardenas, Orangetown historian and director of the Orangetown Historical Museum and Archives. Within the next 10 years, the construction of the Palisades Parkway and the Tappan Zee Bridge would obliterate any vestiges of the base and accelerate the transformation. “But Camp Shanks and Shanks Village were the beginning of that switch,” she says.
The Village was dismantled in 1956, its remnants subsumed by suburban sprawl. For those like Donnellan who grew up in Rockland just after the war, Shanks was common knowledge. But 20 years ago, when he began formulating plans for a Shanks Museum, he realized that wasn’t the case for younger residents. “For anyone who came here after the mid-’50s, there was nothing left and no memory of it,” he says. “The whole episode is like Brigadoon — it came out of the mist and went back just as quickly.” •
The War, Back Home
There are just two shrines to the memory of Camp Shanks and Shanks Village. The first is the Camp Shanks Monument (above), at Independence Avenue and Lowe Lane off Western Highway, in Tappan.
The Camp Shanks Museum, on South Greenbush Road near the intersection of Routes 303 and 340 in Orangeburg, opened in June 1994 — the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Housed in a recreated Quonset hut barracks, the museum has photos, uniforms, music, movie posters, and other artifacts of the era. Hours are 12-4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day through Labor Day; admission is free.