How World War I Was Fought On the Hudson Valley Front

One of the bloodiest conflicts in human history touched every part of New York State.


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In 1916, the US was gearing up for its entry into the war. Here the USS Arizona returns to New York City after initial sea trials.

photograph by robert enrique muller

It was called the Great War, but it wasn’t. World War I was terrible — one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, responsible for more than 17 million dead and 20 million wounded soldiers and civilians.

It was called the War to End All Wars, but it didn’t — it destroyed the old world order and set the stage for the even more devastating Second World War, along with the Russian revolution, and the Cold War.

When the United States entered the war 100 years ago, the country was a relatively minor player on the world stage. The war turned it into a world power. New York State, and the Hudson Valley, played a big part. The state provided the most men, money, and materiel, says Aaron Noble, senior historian and curator of political and military history, at the New York State Museum in Albany. “One in 10 soldiers was from New York State. Fourteen thousand New Yorkers died. Twenty-five New Yorkers got the Medal of Honor,” he says, all far more than any other state. New York was the wealthiest and most populous state, it had the most developed industrial base, and it was the financial capital of the world. “The war touched every part of the state,” Noble says. Here are some of the ways it touched the Hudson Valley.

 

New York Joins the Fight

On July 12, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the entire National Guard of the United States into service. The New York State National Guard Division was officially designated the 27th Infantry Division. New York produced several regiments that went off to war, including the 69th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Fighting 69th,” and the 369th Infantry Regiment, the first African-American regiment to serve in combat in the war.

photo provided by the national archives and records administration

They trained at Camp Whitman, in Green Haven (now the site of Green Haven Correctional Facility), and at Camp Smith, in Peekskill. The Hudson-Mohawk river corridor and the newly built Barge Canal were important avenues to the nation’s biggest port, New York Harbor, from where 75 percent of the war’s manpower and materiel were shipped, Noble says. Iona Island was the site of one of the largest naval ammunition depots in the nation. “The river is deep enough for naval ships to travel up river to load, but it was difficult for submarines to navigate,” he says. “It was used in both World Wars.”

The 27th Division comprised 991 officers and 27,114 enlisted men when it shipped out to Europe on April 20, 1918. The men fought with several British and American army units at various fronts. In September it helped in the Somme Offensive to break through the German defenses of the Hindenburg Line, forcing the Germans into general retreat that resulted in the end of the war two months later. The division was sent home in February 1919, and mustered out several months later, having lost a total of 8,209 casualties during the course of the war.

 

The Forgotten Hero

The 369th division — the Harlem Hellfighters — formed in a Harlem armory (which was actually a cigar store with a dance hall above it) in 1913 as the 15th New York Infantry. They trained at Camp Whitman in Poughkeepsie and arrived in France in December 1917. Among the first troops to arrive in Europe, the renamed 369th US Infantry announced that America was in the fight, lifting French morale.

The regiment participated in many of the war’s important battles, including the second battle of the Marne and the American drive in the Meuse-Argonne. A few weeks after the Armistice was signed, it reached the banks of the Rhine, the first Allied unit to get there. The most celebrated soldier in the 369th was Henry Johnson, a private from Albany. In May 1918, Johnson went to the aid of another private named Needham Roberts and fought off a 24-man German patrol. Though both were severely wounded, they fired until their rifles were emptied, and then fought with their rifles as clubs. Johnson battled with a bolo knife and, according to the field report, “Gave a magnificent example of courage and energy.” He became the first American to receive the prestigious Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military award. President Theodore Roosevelt called him “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war.” His combat nickname was “Black Death.”

Then he returned home. At first, the Harlem Hellfighters were heroes, feted with a parade down Fifth Avenue. But Johnson’s war injuries made it hard to work, and botched paperwork denied him a disability allowance. He lost his wife and three children, took to drinking, and died penniless in 1929 at age 32, largely forgotten by history and by his family, who thought he had been buried in a pauper’s grave.

Only decades later, as his story was re-investigated by Herman Johnson — thinking he was Henry’s son — was it discovered that Henry had been buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with full honors. Herman Johnson, himself a distinguished veteran who served with the Tuskegee Airmen, died before further research showed that he wasn’t related to Henry. But he and others had worked tirelessly and successfully to restore Henry’s good name, earning him a posthumous Purple Heart in 1996, an Albany street named in his honor and, in 2015, the Congressional Medal of Honor.

You can also visit the Art Deco-style Harlem Armory on Fifth Avenue and 142nd Street. It was built between 1920-1930 for the 369th Regiment because of their valor in the war.

 

photo by H.D. Gridwood

Masked Men

The war was notorious for inhumane tactics. Poisonous gases were horrific weapons of mass destruction. The only defense was the Connell Gas Mask, invented by Dr. Karl Connell, who for a time lived in the Town of Denning (Ulster County) and in Scarsdale. Born in Omaha, he graduated from Columbia College in 1898 and from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1900. He was a surgeon at Columbia and at Roosevelt Hospital, along with serving as major in the National Guard medical corps from 1907-17, when he went to France as chief surgeon of a medical unit at the outbreak of the war in 1914.

photo from the national world war i museum and memorial

The Connell Gas Mask was invented by an Ulster County resident. 

“Dr. Connell and other medical personnel set up field hospitals in France to care for all soldiers, no matter the nationality,” says Donna Steffens, the director of Time and the Valleys Museum in Grahamsville. In 1917, he was asked to invent a mask to help protect against poisonous gas. “He suggested a mask with a metal face piece and sponge rubber against the face, and a canister carried on the back of the head,” she says. This proved to be a much more efficient mask: “soldiers can wear it and still see, speak, and shoot,” she says. He continued perfecting the mask, and by 1918 produced the first American mask that protected against all known gases. He then worked with others to create the Richardson-Flory-Kops, or RFK, model, which became the go-to mask for the rest of the war. Three million of them were produced and used in the second Battle of the Somme in 1918, and the mask was credited with saving tens of thousands of American lives. “Only 2 percent of 72,807 US gas casualties died, compared to 13.4 percent of some other countries,” Steffens says. He eventually received the Distinguished Service Medal for his work on the mask.

After the war he moved back to Omaha, where he became Professor of Surgery at Creighton University and founded Presbyterian Hospital in 1920. When he retired, he continued his medical tinkering and obtained 10 patents on improved anesthetic equipment, which he produced in the Long Island village of Branch, where he founded the Connell Apparatus Company. He lived in Ulster County from 1924, on an estate called Wintoon Lodge, until moving to Scarsdale shortly before his death in 1941.

 

Birth of a Hospital

If you were sick at the turn of the 20th century, you were cared for at home, by family. If you were indigent, you went to the county almshouse. In 1914, Westchester County bought a 520-acre horse farm, where they soon began construction on a new almshouse in a building that would become known as Macy Pavilion. When the US entered the war, the Federal government leased various facilities such as this around the country to serve as military hospitals to tend to the returning soldiers. In April 1917, the government paid $190,000 a year for Macy Pavilion, and designated it US Base Hospital 38. Today, it is known as Westchester Medical Center.

Soldiers in need of medical care sought out US Base Hospital 38, now known as Westchester Medical Center.

During the war, and as late as 1919, the base hospital treated wounded soldiers evacuated from the battlefields of Europe, including those with “shell shock,” the term for post-traumatic stress syndrome, and victims of the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. The majority of the sick were cared for in large 20-bed wards with a total capacity of 850, according to the US Army Medical Department Office of Medical History. At its peak in May 1919, the hospital had 1,133 sick or wounded soldiers in its care.

But that care was very primitive, says Dr. William Frishman, MD, Director of Medicine at WMC, and its unofficial historian. “There was very little you could do for patients except provide convalescence,” he says. The staffing was so short, “the patients who were in better shape helped out as nurses, serving food, helping the ones who were less fortunate.” With the discovery of antibiotics still years away, infection was a big problem. Shell-shock victims were sedated, but little else was offered. “They didn’t really understand it then, and frankly we don’t know much more about treating it today.”

troops photo from the u.s. national archives and records administration

The Paris home of Poughkeepsie’s Ogden Livingston Mills (below) became the headquarters for General John Pershing (above) and his troops in France.

When the Army no longer needed the hospital, it was returned to the county government after an extensive renovation on the new building, which the Department of the Army described as “modern in every way” with rooms that are “clean, white, and new.” It was renamed Grasslands Hospital, situated on the Westchester County Public Reservation, which would also house other government facilities such as the county jail, the county medical examiner, and the police and firefighters’ academy. There was also a working farm and a Potter’s Field.

Grasslands Hospital became Westchester County Medical Center in 1977, then dropped its county affiliation in 1998. It traces its beginnings to that commission as Base Hospital 38 as its birth, making this the 100th anniversary of not only the war, but the medical center, too. “It gives us pride in being on staff here, knowing that the hospital has served community and country for that long,” Dr. Frishman says. “It goes beyond being just a local hospital, and we are very proud of that.”

 

 

End of an Era

On June 28, 1914, The Poughkeepsie Journal reported that noted rich person Ogden Mills had recently purchased a 120-room home in Paris, France. Such was the life of the Gilded Age aristocrats like Mills and his peers, who ruled over the Hudson Valley from their stately mansions. Later that day, the world would learn of another event that would effectively end that age as surely as the meteor that ended the reign of the dinosaurs: the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, by an anarchist named Gavrilo Princip, the spark that ignited world war.

photo by Robert enrique muller

After serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during WWI, Hyde Park’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the nation through the war that inevitably followed.

That juicy bit of coincidence was uncovered by Donald Fraser, the educator at the Staatsburgh State Historic Site (SSHS), formerly known as the Mills Mansion. SSHS has curated a thematic tour called “World War I and the End of the Gilded Age.” This tour runs in conjunction with another exhibit dedicated to Ogden Livingston Mills, the son of Ogden and Ruth Livingston Mills, which describes his service in the war. A state senator when war broke out, he quit his job to serve in France. “He was certainly born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and could easily have led the life of leisure. But he dedicated his life to public service,” Fraser says. He became a captain in the infantry and flew reconnaissance missions over enemy lines. The family lent Gen. John Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, their newly purchased Paris home to use as his headquarters, after which he presented them with an engraved silver tray as thanks (which is displayed at the exhibit).

But as any dedicated fan of Downton Abbey knows, the war signaled the beginning of the end of the era. “Before World War I, millionaires were the movie stars of the day,” Fraser says. “How they spent their money garnered the front pages. When war came, the news turned to more serious matters. It didn’t end conspicuous consumption, but it did end the fascination with conspicuous consumption, which was looked at with more skepticism.”

The war brought other seismic shifts in the landscape that had supported these wealthy families. The income tax became a permanent feature of American life during the war. New opportunities for women to work showed there was more to life than social gamesmanship. “These fabulously rich women might have been talented and brilliant, but they had no focus for that except social one-upsmanship,” Fraser says. “But with the war, women start to get into politics and business. You see Alva Vanderbilt become a leader in the suffrage movement. There is much more opportunity for their talents.”

Another local aristocrat, young Franklin Delano Roosevelt, used the war to jumpstart his political career. After serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during WWI, he of course led the nation through the war that inevitably followed — and helped put the Hudson Valley on the front pages, instead of the society pages.

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