The 65th Infantry Division troops were getting ready for their upcoming move from Camp Shelby, Mississippi to their next temporary station, Camp Shanks, New York in late December 1944. Troop movements during WWII were not widely publicized for good reason. Care was taken to keep large troop movements secure and under wraps. The soldiers of the 65th were pretty sure their days in the good old US of A were numbered. There just weren’t a lot of people in the “know” as to their destination and time of departure. Sometimes trains would take circuitous routes to their destinations. There was a familiar saying in those times . . . “loose lips sink ships” was a reminder that security was of utmost importance. Usually troop and material movement to overseas theaters of operations were done in very large convoys. At one time during the war the troopship Queen Elizabeth carried a division-sized group of soldiers across the ocean . . . over 16,000 men. It set a record that still stands today. It was the largest group of people to travel in one ship at any time in the past or the future. If word had gotten out and Germany would have positioned one of its submarine Wolf Packs along the Elizabeth’s course it could have been devastating, the potential loss of an entire division-sized group of soldiers.
Camp Shanks did not exist prior to 1943. The Army knew they would need a lot more additional space to house, feed and get troops ready for deployment overseas. There were several reasons why the defense department was specifically looking at this location in Orange County for the selection of this site. The area was, in the eyes of the Department of Defense, a place ideally suited for such a camp. First, it was served by two rail lines. Second, it was located near piers on the Hudson River that had deep enough waters to handle large ocean going vessels. Third, the land was primarily farmland, which meant that a minimal amount of effort and resources would be needed to turn the surrounding area into a vast military base. On September 25, 1942 residents in the area were summoned to a meeting. The government told the residents at this meeting that the U.S. Government was in the process of purchasing their land. When the war was over, and the government no longer needed the land the people could buy it back at the same price that the government had bought it from them. The government informed the residents they had exactly two weeks to vacate their land. Three hundred people were instantly losing their homes! Without a doubt there were hard feelings, but for the most part the residents knew we were at war and it was serious business. There had been German submarines on patrol in waters off the east coast and ships had been sunk within sight of land off the Eastern Seaboard.
Once construction started, an entire new city had sprung up almost overnight. Camp Shanks was born. Seventeen thousand workers transformed what had been over 2,000 acres of farmland into a city of 50,000. It included 2,500 new buildings. There were Quonset hut barracks, headquarters buildings, stores, a chapel, theater, laundry, bakery and a hospital. All totaled there were some 2,500 new buildings . . . a complete city! Camp Shanks was open for business in January 1943. Camp Shanks was named after Major General David Carey Shanks (1861–1940). General Shanks commanded Camp Merritt which was in New Jersey during WWI. As far as land surface, Camp Shanks covered an area of approximately 2,020 acres, about three square miles. To put it another way, that amount of land would translate into a square of land that would be about 1.75 miles on each side. It would take a while to walk around that block! It became known to the GIs as “Last Stop USA”. From there they would be on their way to their respective overseas duties.
At Camp Shanks, soldiers were “staged” and inspected to make sure that their weapons worked, they had the proper clothing, and health checks were done. It would not be a good thing if troops that were sick with a communicable disease were put on troopships with troops that were healthy. That could turn out to be a disaster at sea. They also wouldn’t want any epidemics running through the camp either. The men of the 65th soon found out when they reached Camp Lucky Strike that they should have been supplied with cold weather gear and proper footwear as France was experiencing an exceptionally cold and snowy winter. 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 troopships; others were ferried on the Hudson River or transported by train to New York Harbor for deployment. Camp Shanks processed approximately 40,000 soldiers per month. From 1943 until the end of WWII Camp Shanks was by far the largest embarkation base for staging troops within the New York Port of Embarkation. During its existence it had been the host and sendoff camp for over 1.3 million men in arms, which included 75 percent of the soldiers who took part in the storming of the Normandy beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
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 soldiers left the camp on July 22, 1946 and soon after, the base officially closed.
The postwar boom saw a lot of changes in the area. Most of the people who had lost their homes when the government took over their land never returned to the area. Nearly a half a million men who returned to the States returned home the same way they left, up the Hudson River to Piermont Pier and to the once Camp Shanks which had now been converted into Shanks Village. Many of the personnel who had staffed Camp Shanks; the doctors, cooks, teachers and their families stayed in the area. The returning vets began taking advantage of the GI Bill and started attending local colleges and trade schools. Many veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to buy houses. The baby boom was in full swing. The Orangetown area was no longer agricultural it was now a “bedroom” community.
Eventually all vestiges of the base were obliterated by urban sprawl and infrastructure development. Almost nothing of the original camp remained. Today there are only two things that remain as a memory of Camp Shanks: Camp Shanks Monument and Camp Shanks Museum, housed in a recreated Quonset hut barracks. The museum opened on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in June 1994. The museum has era photos and artifacts, including movie posters and war posters, uniforms and other things that a soldier of that time would have been issued.
Camps Shanks—Last Stop USA
Submitted by Jim Hanson, son of Maynard Hanson (565Sig)