For many American soldiers who served during World War II, Camp Shanks in Orangeburg was the last piece of American soil they stepped foot on before setting out to liberate Europe. Camp Shanks opened in 1942 and was the largest WWII embarkation camp on America’s East Coast for soldiers heading for the front lines in North Africa and Europe.
The camp contained 1,500 barracks, mess halls, theaters, a hospital, and other facilities where some 1.5 million G.I.s (approximately 40,000 a month) were issued combat equipment and underwent final inspection before bracing for the battlefront. Most soldiers spent a week at the self-supporting complex dubbed “Last Stop, U.S.A” and named after Maj. Gen. David Cary Shanks, who was the Commanding General of the New York Post of Embarkation in WWI. After the war, Camp Shanks was converted into housing for veterans with families attending Columbia University; the last residents left in 1956. Located in simulated barracks, a museum was established near the site in June 1994 which displays artifacts that delineate the history of Camp Shanks, and describe the everyday life of male soldiers and female administrators at the facility. The Rockland County Times was given an exclusive tour of the museum, guided by eager volunteers, some of them veterans, who anticipate more visitors in the last few weeks of the summer.
“Camp Shanks is a key point in war history,” said Peter Hingley, a volunteer. “This museum grants visitors the opportunity to become locally aware of the history around them.”
Once spread over 2,040 acres, the camp processed service personnel, including 75 percent of those participating in the Normandy Beach D-Day invasion. When soldiers at the camp were notified that they were on “Alert” status, they knew they would be ‘shipping out’ within twelve hours. The soldiers removed their division sleeve patches, and their helmets were chalked with a letter and a number, indicating the proper marching order from the camp to the train and the railroad car to ride in. It was a short train ride to the New Jersey docks, and a harbor boat ferried soldiers to a waiting troopship, while some marched the four miles from the camp to the Piermont Pier to board the boats. The million plus men and women who passed through its gates knew that their next stop would be the chaos of a world at war; therefore, the camp provided a measured leisure for its units before departure.
Camp Shanks also housed 1,200 Italian and 800 German prisoners of war (P.O.W.s) between April 1945 and January 1946, with the first Germans arriving in June 1945. At the close of the war, 290,000 P.O.W.s passed through the camp as they were processed for the return to their native countries. The camp treated the P.O.W.s well, and some German ‘prisoners’ even crafted a wooden chess set as a ‘thank you’ to Camp Shanks. After Victory in Europe (VE) Day, Shanks started a two-way operation, with GI’s coming home to the U.S. and ‘prisoners’ going back to Europe. The camp was always bustling, with the busiest month being October 1944, when 78,354 soldiers arrived at the camp and 85,805 were sent overseas. Nonetheless, Camp Shanks was closed until early 1945 and the public was not directly aware of what went on inside the camp for “security reasons.” In similar fashion, “today, a lot of people don’t realize that the museum is here,” said Ronny Diz, war veteran and volunteer. “This museum enables locals to learn more about history and what barracks life was like.”
Apart from the included uniform and equipment inspections, gas mask operations, military security lectures, weapon checks, medical vaccinations, and other standard activities, Camp Shanks offered various amenities and entertainment providing a ‘home away from home.’ The camp included gymnasiums, ballfields, six movie theaters, post exchanges, telephone centers, and a swimming pool. Major League teams including the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies played exhibition games at the camp. Prominent stars of stage and screen performed at the amphitheater, including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, and Helen Hayes. The camp even had its own weekly publication, The Palisades.
The barracks in which the transient soldiers lived measured 20 feet by 100 feet and consisted of two rows of bunks and three coal-burning pot-belly stoves which provided limited heat. Two Women’s Army Corps (WAC) detachments, consisting of over 400 women, were assigned to the camp, and filled positions ranging from clerk to mechanic to warehouse staff to armorer.
In July 1946, Camp Shanks was closed. In Sept. 1946, Shanks Village offered housing to 1,100 students, 300 Rockland County veterans, and 75 military personnel in the area who needed low-cost housing.
IN 2020 a $1.5 million state grant to Rockland Homes for Heroes (RH4H) charity that assists homeless veterans find subsidized housing, allowed the organization to begin redeveloping an abandoned missile base on the property into 14 supportive homes for veterans.
“The connection is here,” said Hingley. “This museum gives veterans an outlet, a place to hear their stories from the war.” The museum has been so impactful that even a 96-year-old WWII veteran, who spent his time at Camp Shanks, visited over the summer. Tourists from locations from France and Sweden have walked the barracks of the museum to witness history.
“The people at Camp Shanks did their part for the war,” said Diz. “We now must foster that history.”
Open on weekends during the summer, Camp Shanks Museum offers a glimpse of the past, a chance to pay memory to the brave men who served in the war, and a rich experience of local history making a notable impact on the global past.
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