Recalling life at Camp Cody – New Mexico History
Although in 1916, there was no planning effort being made to prepare the military for war, situations in Mexico made it necessary for troops to be placed along the border. Regular Army forces were placed along the border first, then turned over to National Guard troops. On March 9, 1916, Mexican forces under Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico, just thirty miles south of Deming.
The United States Government declared war on April 6, 1917, and realized that all military sources plus more would have to be put into action within a short period of time. Secretary of War, Baker, made the decision to establish thirty-two camps across the country. Existing military posts were unable to handle the number of men expected so camps were to be built within ninety days to house them.
In May, the Army’s examining board inspected the site of Camp Deming, which had encamped the National Guard during the Mexican crisis and closed only three months before. The village of Deming received word in June that it had been selected as one of the training sites; it would be named Camp Cody, after the famous buffalo hunter. The encampment would cover about 1,800 acres on the northwest fringe of the town.
The oft-quoted figure of 30,000 soldiers at the local camp was actually for a short period. Construction began in July 1917, with 3,000 workmen employed at the height of activity. Early in October, the troops numbered around 10,000. Most of these were National Guardsmen from Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota. As construction neared completion in November, the soldier count increased to 22,000.
Early in 1918, Camp Cody contained about 25,000 troops. The influx of draftees during the mid months of the year increased the camp population to near its maximum. When the 34th Division shipped out to Fort Dix, N. J. to late summer, the base personnel dropped to about 3,000. Then another gradual buildup took place as the 97th Division began formation. At war’s end in November, the troops numbered in the neighborhood of 9,000.
During World War I, Camp Cody was an army training camp for the National Guard units from North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa. Soldiers received basic training there before leaving for the war in France. The different National Guard units together formed the 34th Infantry Division and were nicknamed the “Sandstorm Division, ” a name based on the camp’s desert climate.
1918 recollections of Camp Cody by Elsie French-Wolcott R.N.
“Corporal of the guard, Post No. 14.” The rookie’s voice shook, and startled, I raised on my elbow and peered out the window. A brilliant moon on the white sand made it nearly as light as day. Something was undoubtedly moving in the shadows of the yucca plants by the roadside. The guard called again in a voice he tried hard to control, “Advance and be recognized!” He drew his gun to his shoulder and stood motionless. I could scarcely breathe. Was I to see a German spy, I wondered? The moonlight flooded the road and out from the dense shadows moved slowly – a little Mexican burro! Such was my initiation on my first night at Camp Cody, Deming, New Mexico.
My husband, a top sergeant in the 136th Ambulance Company, 109th Sanitary train, and I were married early in June, 1917, in Iowa. When he left for Deming with his company in September I felt that the end of the world had come, for of course we expected them to be in camp but a short time before embarking for overseas. The ways of the War Department are past comprehension and as month after month dragged by they were still in camp. I arrived in Camp Cody at 2 A.M. on November 30, 1917.
There were no hotel rooms to be had in Deming. It was a small western town of possible 2000 with the friends, relatives, and camp followers of 30,000 men suddenly dumped in its lap. It was impossible to get a call through to camp at that hour so I did the only thing left to do – sat in that wretched little depot and waited until morning. It was then I had an example of true western hospitality. Two Texas Rangers (finer gentlemen never lived) were also waiting for morning. Noticing my plight they visited with me in their delightful Texas drawl and brought me countless cups of coffee from the lunch counter.
Morning brought my husband, and we immediately set about finding a home of some sort for me, since army regulations required his staying in camp. A hotel was out of the question on an enlisted man’s salary. The soldiers’ wives were living in tents, shacks, or any sort of room which could be found. We found a frame house just outside one of the big gates into camp, close to the Y.M.C.A. swimming pool and the bathhouse. A guard was posted at this gate day and night, and it was thrilling for me to hear his eerie call at night, “Corporal of the guard, Post No. 14.” Ours was a four-room house, each room occupied by some soldier’s wife. I wonder what has become of the lieutenant’s wife who lived back of me. She was also homesick and lonely; we spent many long sunny mornings (provided there were no sand storms) sitting on the stops conversing about Iowa and the never-ending, “When will the troops be moved out?” Our housekeeping was the sketchiest – no one had more than the barest necessities. It was customary to say, “Come on over, but bring your chairs; we have only one,” or “Come and have lunch with us; bring your dishes.”
I learned many things about camp life – the proper place of an enlisted man’s wife in the social scale, that I could not get into camp with a pass (even though the gate was at my doorstep), also how precious passes out of camp were for my husband. His being a first sergeant helped and his C.O. was very kind. We had many delightful hours together.
Is the moon in New Mexico not closer and more beautiful than anywhere else in the world? It seemed so to me, then. One hike we enjoyed together will always stay in my memory. It was on Christmas day, 1917, and was warm and balmy as May in Iowa. We waded sand ankle deep though a dry riverbed. I saw my first horned toad; they are unbelievably ugly but harmless. Yucca plants and cactus grow in profusion. The yucca plant is barbed at the ends with thorns sharp enough to pierce a shoe. I also saw for the first time a Mexican hairless dog and I certainly was not impressed with his beauty. The warm sun, the sand, the blue mountains which looked close enough to be reached in an hour’s stroll, all made it a memorable Christmas day. The mountains were about forty miles away but looked so close that many a rookie was deceived and tried to hike out to them. After walking all day through deep sand they still, apparently loomed the same distance ahead, and the rookie returned to camp, a tired but wiser young man.
The sand blew nearly every morning. The road past our door, which was one main roads into camp, was ankle deep in sand. I often watched from my window the long brown columns of marching men, their feet making a peculiar crunch, crunch in the loose sand. Often they wore handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses to protect them from the whirling sand. I have seen them returning from one of their long hikes, their faces burned with sun, lips cut and bleeding from the sand, their eyes red rimmed and swollen, a sorry, tired lot just beginning to learn of what war was like.
The bayonet practice field was not far from out house. It made me a little sick to see them lunge at the bundle of sticks and with fixed bayonet plunge through it. Word travels fast in the easy, friendly atmosphere of any army camp and it was soon common knowledge that I was a registered nurse. Many and varied were the emergencies I witnessed. A young private knocked frantically at my door one afternoon to tell me his wife was very sick and begged me to go to her. I found her (a frightened young girl) on an army cot in a tent a few doors from my house. She was in premature labor and I dispatched her husband to Deming for a civilian doctor, telling him to rush. Before they returned, however, a tiny premature infant had been born, gasped once, and died.
Sometime in February 1918, we experienced the severest sandstorm ever witnessed by even the old timers. The sand blew in such fury that visibility was reduced to zero. Instead of abating by noon as it usually did, the storm grew steadily worse until by 2 P.M. it was as dark as night. The wind drove sharp sand through every tiny crevice. Men straggling in from a hike were lost, and wandered about in that howling wilderness of sand for some time before finding their way into camp.During the afternoon the husband of my civilian friend knocked at my door. I let him in. He was nearly distracted. His wife was about to be confined and the little shack they lived in threatened to collapse in the high wind at any moment.
I told him to try and get her the short distance to our room and he managed to do so. We were fairly safe from the wind as we were in the frame building. I got her into my bed and he started to Deming for the doctor. I doubted if he could make it, but he was an old timer and knew the ways of sandstorms. He returned with the doctor by and by. It was out of the question for me to go to their shack in that howling gale, so we all spent the night in my little room. I thought the doctor would be glad to have a nurse to help him, but on the contrary, he seemed to resent my being there. I think he was ashamed of his medieval obstetrical methods.
However, along towards morning, the baby arrived – a fine boy, none the worse for his eventful journey. The storm had stopped by morning and I gathered up what few clothes I needed and went down to my friend’s little shack. It was still standing and I lived there quite happily for ten days while she stayed in bed at my home. Can you imagine such a situation, exchanging home with a woman little more than a stranger? Of course, you can’t. No more can I, now. But it seemed quite normal, then.
War does strange things to people and there is a close communal feeling in an army camp such as no place else on earth. The men, as well their wives, were kind. The mess sergeant sent me half of a young turkey, split neatly in two with his cleaver, in order that my husband and I might eat our Christmas dinner together.
During all these months the men were expecting daily to be ordered to go overseas. They were over-drilled and extremely restless but still, no order came.The blowing sand was hard on northern men and many contracted pneumonia. My husband grew very ill one evening while he was at home. I notified his C.O., who sent an ambulance for him the following morning. I was ready to accompany him and while the ambulance driver knew he should not allow me to go with him, I insisted and he was too much of a gentleman to actually put me out of the ambulance, so I went along. Arriving at the base hospital, I called upon the captain in charge, who gave me a nurse’s pass which enabled me to go and come regardless of visiting hours, also to ride back and forth with the ambulance. The hospital was situated about five miles from our house so I greatly appreciated the captain’s kindness.
My husband recovered in a few days and camp life resumed its regular routine. On the morning of April 9th, our little daughter was born. I was fortunate in having a friend who was a nurse from my own training school, living in the camp. She came and cared for me. Little Gloria first saw the light of day through the murky half-light of a typical Camp Cody sandstorm. She grew and thrived, however, for a baby is an old-fashioned institution and does well in primitive surroundings.
When Gloria was four weeks old we had her baptized by Major J.C. Clemens, chaplain of the 136th Infantry, 34th Division. It was a glorious Sunday morning in May, warm, sunny, and strange to say, no sand blowing. Little Gloria dressed in her best, Mrs. Clemens, and myself were the only ladies present. The baptismal service was held at the regular Sunday morning Y.M.C.A. open-air service, in the presence of over 1,000 men and officers. The 136th Infantry Regimental Band played “Little Brown Church in the Vale” while the men sang. Then Major Clemens took the baby in his hands, her little dress a blotch of white in the sea of brown uniforms held her up and said, “Doesn’t she look homey, fellows?” Instantly every man was on his feet, cheering. I doubt if my daughter will ever receive such profound homage from so many men again.
We, Gloria and I, often went into camp and ate lunch with my husband. I placed her on the end of the long board table and the men crowded around eager for just a glimpse of her or to touch one of her little hands. I believe I looked at the pictures of the wives and sweethearts of half the men in the company. They were lonesome boys a long way from home, and there is something very heart warming about a baby. Back in Iowa, I learned later; Mrs. Amelia Coan of Sioux City had organized the first American Legion Auxiliary cradle roll and had enrolled Gloria’s name as the first.
One evening the strangest line of march ever witnessed in an army camp halted at our door. A corporal and four men from my husband’s company came plodding through the sand – wheeling a baby carriage! The men in his company had taken up a collection and bought the “Topper’s Baby” a carriage. Not only bought it but delivered it, with sheepish grins and many blushes. Sometime in June we moved t a little shack closer in where I could have a few blocks of sidewalk on which to wheel the baby carriage. Pushing one through ankle-deep sand was not easy task.
I saw, for the first time, the Mexicans making adobe or “doby” bricks. They simply poured a little water into a depression in the ground, stamped about in it, barefoot, until a muddy mass was formed, then shaped the mixture into bricks with their hands and placed them in the sun to dry. Houses were built of these bricks and they are really the most satisfactory type of dwelling, as the thick walls keep out the extreme summer heat.
The heat there in summer is very intense. Many of the men collapsed while on the drill field. I laid a thermometer on the table one afternoon in June and it registered 120. The Mexicans did not mind it. I had a Mexican woman to do my washing. She built a little fire in a small depression in the ground, placed a few bricks around it and set a pail of water over it to heat. With a black shawl pinned over her head, she would stand in the boiling sun rubbing our clothes hour after hour, in heat which would have killed a northern woman. I became acquainted with a Mexican woman who was very friendly. One day when I was a little indisposed she brought me a small bowl of chili and sat down to visit while I ate it. I took one spoonful and, gasping, ran for a drink of water, The tears streaming down my cheeks. Fire itself could not have been any hotter.
I lived close to the depot in our little shack in Deming. The number of military funerals gave one a depressed feeling. There was one which I shall never forget. An account of it was printed in this magazine some time ago, so I shall be very brief in mentioning it here. It was of the two French officers who, together with one of our men, were drowned while driving across an ordinarily dry riverbed. They were caught in a torrent of water from a cloudburst, their car overturned and they were drowned at a spot where for fully 360 days a year, there was nothing but the blowing sand.
It seems an irony of fate that these two young men should live for four years under fire in active service, come half way around the globe to a small western town, and be drowned in a usually dry mountain stream. “God moves in mysterious way…” The funeral was spectacular – the marching bands, their instruments flashing in the brilliant New Mexican sun, softly playing “Lead, Kindly Light” as they came up the street followed by caissons bearing the flag-draped coffins of the two officers. Behind them came two riderless horses, their stirrups crossed over their empty saddles. Taps – answered softly by a bugler in the distance. Three volleys – the men standing at attention. Then the coffins were slipped into their packing cases, loaded onto a baggage care, and started on their long 5,000-mile journey home to France.
Late in August my husband, certain that the troops were soon to be moved, started me home to Iowa. I packed my clothes in my bag and shut the door of the little shack. We never looked as we went down the street to the depot, at the place I was leaving behind. I could not have seen, anyway, for the blinding tears. Of that long trip back to Iowa I shall only say, should you ever desire to know just how kind, how thoughtful people can be, travel alone with a small baby during war time.
My husband’s company was ordered out and entrained shortly after I left. They were held at Camp Dix for six weeks while the flu epidemic swept the country, but that is another story. My husband left for France from Hoboken in October 1918, and returned alive and well in February 1919.
It is only a memory now; my little daughter will soon be twenty and two sisters have come to join the family circle. My husband, like many another Legionnaire, is portly and slightly bald, while I am gray and forty. Housework, clubs, P.T.A., church, American Legion Auxiliary fill my days. Camp Cody seems a long way off, but its thrilling memories will always remain.
FOOTNOTE: After the war, the camp became the Camp Cody hospital complex, treating tuberculosis among veterans. In 1922 the facility was transferred from the Public Health Service to the Deming Chamber of Commerce. The Sisters of the Holy Cross managed the sanitarium until the facilities were destroyed by fire in 1939.