Archive for Sunday, February 17, 1991

SOLDIERING AT FORT RILEY

February 17, 1991

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When Rebecca Schulte leads tour groups through Kansas University's Kansas Collection, she always shows selections from the 30,000-photograph Pennell Collection.

Recently, she said, she and others at the regional research library have been struck by the parallels between Pennell's World War I-era Fort Riley photographs and current-day Persian Gulf war scenes.

Joseph Judd Pennell was a Junction City photographer from 1893 until 1922. His glass negatives, preserved today at KU, show everyday life in and around Junction City and nearby Fort Riley.

Many of Pennell's pictures were taken at the fort, which then was known as the "cradle of the U.S. Cavalry." His interest there was great enough that he even co-published a book, "Picturesque Fort Riley," in 1900.

Nicolette Bromberg, photo archivist for the Kansas Collection, is writing a book about Pennell's work.

Bromberg said that among the World War I-Persian Gulf parallels pointed up in the work is speedy construction of the fort's WWI-era Camp Funston and the swift U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf.

THE UNITED States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. By July, construction had begun on Camp Funston, which was to be an infantry training center.

By December that year, the camp, which had hundreds of buildings and housed 50,000 men, was complete. The entire process took just a month longer than the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf last year, which began in August and was completed in December, with more than 400,000 troops deployed there.

"Cantonment Life, Camp Funston Illustrated," a booklet in the Kansas Collection, notes Funston was named for Gen. Frederick L. Funston, who commanded the 20th Kansas Regiment in the Philippine Insurrection and cost $10 million to build, complete with waterworks, electrical and refrigeration systems.

Terry Van Meter, director of the U.S. Cavalry Museum at Fort Riley, said it became the largest of 16 such infantry training camps established nationwide during World War I.

IN SEPTEMBER 1917, the Selective Service law went into effect, and recruits all men in those days began to pour into Funston, helping build their own barracks as well as training for war.

Van Meter said the 89th and 10th Divisions headquartered there, each with some 20,000 men, and were trained by Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood.

"Ft. Riley, It's Historic Past, 1853 to 1953," another publication in the Kansas Collection, notes that those in the initial draft "trained . . . in overalls and with wooden guns."

Pennell photos show soldiers' cots set up outdoors at Funston, waiting to be moved into barracks still under construction, as well as other scenes around the camp and in the field.

Van Meter said the Pennell Collection is very significant with respect to Fort Riley in terms of its historical perspective on the everyday life of soldiers there.

THE MEN'S training, which took six weeks, included bayonette fighting, grenade throwing, field fortifications, automatic rifles, scouting and French, according to a history of the 355 Infantry of the 89th Division titled "They're from Kansas," also in the Kansas Collection.

Bromberg noted a particularly haunting Pennell photo that echoes across the years, of a soldier in a gas mask.

Van Meter said army personnel began training in chemical warfare during World War I and continue the practice today on every post.

Other Pennell scenes show field life and firing range practices similar to contemporary scenes, as well as training in hand-to-hand and mounted combat with sabers, something foreign to today's soldiers.

Van Meter said the biggest single change between World War I and contemporary warfare is the accuracy of weapons.

"Technology has changed," he said, explaining today's soldiers can score very precise hits while the WWI doughboys, as American soldiers were called, had to "blanket" an area to ensure a successful strike.

"THEY'RE from Kansas," the 355th's history, complained of WWI-era equipment shortages just as news reports indicated some Missouri soldiers on duty in a gulf field hospital did recently.

In the case of the 355th, though, saddles were in short supply.

"An Army Hospital from Horses to Helicopters," by KU graduate and military man George E. Omer, noted Fort Riley also was home to the first Medical Officers Training Camp of World War I, the first modern field hospital and the first modern ambulance company.

Pennell photographs document such medical training, too.

In Omer's book, also in the Kansas Collection, he noted one of the drawbacks of speedy construction of the medics' camp, which was on the fort proper: "No allotment was made to prepare the barracks of the Medical Officers' Training Camp for winter occupancy. The buildings were built with partially cured lumber and the walls soon shrank with many visible cracks.

"As an expedient, permission was obtained to haul scrap lumber left over from the construction of Camp Funston," which itself had 14 infirmaries and numerous regimental dispensaries.

CAMP FIELD classes for the medics included map reading, orthopedics, sanitary tactics in the field, and roentgenology," which had to do with taking x-rays.

Omer's book also quotes First Lt. Elizabeth Harding, the first chief nurse at Fort Riley, giving a flavor of post medical life that contrasts greatly with today: "I arrived at Fort Riley about the middle of October 1917, in a snow storm!

"I spent the coldest winter of my life and the hottest summer that I can remember. Barracks were being converted into hospitals. At first it was very primitive with no toilets or bath facilities except in the basement of the buildings. Hot water and heat were scarce. . . .

`As usual in large groups as were housed together at Camp Funston, there were many epidemics. Many of the troops came from the farms where they had never come into contact with contagious diseases. The most serious outbreak was meningitis. . . . At one time, we have over 800 cases of mumps, there was measles, smallpox, diptheria, and every conceivable contagious disease."

THE DAY Harding left Fort Riley, in October 1918, "a flu epidemic had just struck . . . and there were over 5,000 patients."

Fort statistics show that same month the base hospital had its highest census ever, with 11,645 patients, cared for by 122 doctors, 297 nurses and 1,024 enlisted men.

Van Meter, who also is director of the First Infantry Division (Big Red One) Museum now under construction next door to the cavalry museum, said most all post buildings that existed in Pennell's day remain in use, with appropriate updating.

He noted as examples the two giant riding halls, which measured 100 by 300 feet and now house a gym and commissary.

WWI-era Camp Funston, however, was completely dismantled after the war, Van Meter said, and sold at auction in 1921 and '22.

Parts of the camp were rebuilt during World War II, he added, and some buildings remain in use today.

Van Meter said monuments to both the 89th and the 10th divisions, which trained there during WWI, have been erected on the old camp site, which travelers pass on Kansas Highway 18, going from Manhattan to Junction City. That highway turns into Huebner Road on the post, he added.

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