77th Division – New York City’s own – organized and trained on Long Island in 1917-18

Non-commissioned officers of the 302nd Ammunition Train’s Company D pose for a photograph at Camp Upton near Yaphank, New York sometime in 1918. The division trained there before deploying to France. (Photo from the Vion Joseph Dunkly Collection at the New York State Military Museum)

“Every type was represented – the gunman and the gangster, the student and the clerk, the laborer and the loafer, the daily plodder, the lawyer,” the division history says

In the summer and fall of 1917, New Yorker’s fell in love with the New York National Guard’s 27th Division, and the 42nd Division-organized from the National Guards of 26 states, including New York’s 69th Infantry Regiment-at Camp Mills on Long Island.

The two National Guard divisions were gearing up to go to war against Germany and there was plenty of interest in them.

But there was another division associated with New York-and specifically New York City-which was also created as the American Expeditionary Force was put together: the 77th Division.

The Army created the 77th Division on August 25, 1917. The first 2,000 Soldiers assigned to the division arrived at its headquarters at Camp Upton on Long Island at the site of the present-day Brookhaven National Laboratories on Sept. 10.

Soldiers of the 77th Division parade through New York City on Feb. 22, 1918, to mark Washington’s Birthday. The division was nicknamed the Metropolitan Division because the bulk of its draftee Soldiers came from New York. On March 27, 1918, the division shipped out for France. (Library of Congress)

Eventually, almost 28,000 men, most of them from New York City, but with some from New Jersey and Connecticut, would fill the ranks of the division. The division was nicknamed the Metropolitan Division because so many Soldiers were from New York City.

When the Army divisions began creating distinctive shoulder patches to identify their men, the 77th patch featured the Statue of Liberty to reflect the New York City roots of the Soldiers.

When the Army expanded to fight the World War, it created three classes of divisions.

In the first category were the divisions of the Regular Army, formed from the individual infantry, cavalry and artillery regiments which were scattered across the United States. These divisions were given single digit numbers from the 1st Division – known since then as the “Big Red One”-to the 8th Division.

The second class of divisions consisted of National Guard divisions organized from multiple states or by large states. These divisions were numbered 26 to 42.

And finally, there were divisions that would be created out of civilians drafted to serve in the Army. These “National Army” divisions were numbered 77 to 91.

The 77th was the first National Army division to be organized.

Camp Upton, where the division assembled, was one of two Long Island military bases controlled by the New York Port of Embarkation. The other was Camp Mills, the site of present-day Garden City, where the 42nd Infantry Division was organized.

A third camp was in Bergen County, New Jersey.

Construction of the base near Yaphank began in the summer of 1917. When the first drafted troops showed up they were put to work finishing the camp, which was declared complete on Dec. 20, 1917.

Members of the division reflected the melting pot city that New York was and is. Soldiers from 25 different nationalities were part of the division.

The regular Army officers who were assigned to lead and train the men were not impressed, according to the division history published by the 77th Division Association in 1919.

The new draftees were “little used to Army discipline and heretofore in the habit of changing environment if conditions did not suit their fancies,” the history says.

“The recruits represented all races and all creeds – men who had only recently been subjected to the pogroms of Russia, gunmen and gangsters, a type peculiar to New York City, Italians, Chinamen, the Jews and the Irish, a heterogeneous mass, truly representative both of the varied human flotsam and the sturdy American manhood which comprise the civil population of New York City.”

One of those members was songwriter Irving Berlin, then age 30. Berlin who was already famous, and wrote and produced a musical show called “Yip, Yip, Yaphank” about the experience of training at Camp Upton.

The show featured the song “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up In The Morning” which Berlin performed. The song related how the Soldier hated the bugler who woke up the troops each day.

One song Berlin wrote, which he dumped from the show was “God Bless America.” It didn’t fit with the rest of the music, he decided, but would find release it in time for World War II.

The draftees heading to Camp Upton assembled in Manhattan and Brooklyn and took trains out to Long Island, escorted by Army officers.

“Many of the boards carried large, highly expressive signs directing the Kaiser where he might best sojourn,” the division history says.

“Musical instruments of all sorts were brought along and many hip pockets bulged suspiciously. Midst much bantering to and from the crowd, the trains pulled out accompanied by a voluminous cheer from the assembled relatives and friends. On the train, the officers called the roll to see that everyone was present and were given an excellent opportunity to judge the men who were to form the nucleus of the 77th Division.”

“They were a motley crew: some had donned their best suits for the occasion, but the majority wore their oldest clothes – sensibly too, for early [Camp] Upton paid no regard to clothes. One former Marine appeared in his dress uniform with an Expert Rifleman’s Medal on his breast,” the unit historian reported.

“Every type was represented – the gunman and the gangster, the student and the clerk, the laborer and the loafer, the daily plodder, the lawyer. They could be divided into two large classes – the man of muscle and the man of brain,” the division history says.

“From the variety of languages spoken one might have imagined himself at the Tower of Babel. These diverse types, accustomed to every condition of life, knowing for the most part no master, were to bow down before the military authority and emerge from the melting pot of training, an amalgamated mass of clear-thinking, clean-living men of whom America might well be proud,” according to the division history.

At Camp Upton the men learned to march, shoot, throw grenades and the ins and outs of military service.

“Some days it seemed like real warfare, with the huge tank, brought from England, lumbering over “No-Man’s Land,” machine guns in emplacements, and the infantry going “over-the-top, ” their bayonets flashing in the winter sun,” the division history reports.

They also learned how not to miss the last train from New York City to Camp Upton when they were on a weekend pass.

On March 28, 1918, the division left Camp Upton for France.

It would be the first draftee division to arrive in France and the first to go into the line alongside the regular Army Soldiers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd divisions and the Guardsmen of the 42nd Division and the 26th Division.

By the end of the war, the motley crew of New York City Soldiers had distinguished themselves, accomplishing their missions-advancing 355 square miles of enemy territory and defeating 11 different enemy divisions. 1,486 Soldiers were killed in action, 552 died of other causes, 8,708 were wounded and 529 went missing by the war’s end.

In World War II the 77th Division was reactivated and fought in the Okinawa campaign in the Pacific. It was while covering the men of the 77th Division that beloved newspaper writer Ernie Pyle was killed.

Today the lineage of the 77th Division lives on in the 77th Sustainment Brigade of the Army Reserve which is headquartered at Joint Base Maguire-Dix-Lakehurst.

During the World War I centenary, the Division of Military and Naval Affairs will be highlighting New York’s World War I history based on information provided by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. More than 400,000 New Yorkers served in the Army and Navy during the First World War, more than any other state in the union.

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