Life at the new proving ground full of challenges

Soldiers pose in front of the Y.M.C.A. Hut that opened on APG on April 1, 1918. The purpose of the "hut" was to strengthen the morale of the soldiers by giving them different forms of instruction and entertainment, including religious services, educational classes, and movie nights.

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – “The place God forgot.”

Those were the words locals used to describe Aberdeen Proving Ground and Edgewood Arsenal, in September 1918, less than a year after the government officially took ownership of the land. Only in it’s infancy at the time, the area known today as APG North and South was working tirelessly to become the site of state-of-the-art weapons production on what had been farmland only a year before— all while battling an influenza outbreak.

This daunting undertaking meant rough conditions for the Soldiers stationed here. With few exceptions, they gave it their all to make sure the proving ground was up and running to meet the needs of their brothers defending the nation on the front lines during World War I.

Construction on the area started almost immediately after the federal government took possession of the land in Harford County on Oct. 20, 1917, following President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation several days earlier. Barracks were desperately needed to house all the manpower required for the proving ground to have an impact on the war in Europe.

By December 1917, when the first Soldiers arrived from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the civilian laborers from the Maryland Dredging and Contracting Company had managed to complete four temporary barracks, constructed of tar paper and composition board. Most of the Soldiers arriving to the proving ground were assigned to these temporary barracks.

Permanent barracks would be constructed with tile bricks and include living rooms and fireplaces as luxuries to boost Soldier morale. As enlisted men awaited barracks, officers took over many of the abandoned farmhouses that still dotted the land.

Soldiers’ arrival

Joe Sleeper, one of the 150 enlisted men who arrived from Sandy Hook that December, recalled during a 1967 interview, his arrival to the proving ground with Company A, First Battalion.

“The contractors were using three of these [barracks] for living quarters and supplies, and the fourth was used for administrative personnel. Our entire company pitched in to help and by nightfall we had erected a fifth building, in which we slept without the benefit of heat.”

With the temperatures rapidly falling, civilians and Soldiers worked side-by-side to keep construction moving at a rapid pace. By December 1917, a total of 12 buildings were completed on the installation. That pace, however, slowed down considerably with the arrival of winter.

January 1918, one of the top five coldest months on record in Maryland, brought with it brutal temperatures that hovered around 24 degrees. Construction continued, but the mud used to aid transportation of heavy guns and supplies during the fall became rock-solid, slowing the building process extensively.

With delays and a shortage of Soldiers, those arriving at APG and Edgewood Arsenal were required to take on any type of duty that came their way. According to a 1918 yearbook produced by the Ordnance Department entitled, “The Big Gun,” officers had to play “chameleon,” by adapting themselves to whatever was required to get the job done.

“Blacksmiths were put on bookkeeping and clerical jobs, while the lawyers and stenographers were put to digging ditches.”

Morale boosters

Free time was in short supply for Soldier stationed at APG, but there were efforts made to keep up morale. The Army Y.M.C.A. Hut opened in April 1918. There, Soldiers could attend religious services, take classes in English, French and chemistry, watch movies, or pick up paper and envelopes to write their families back home free of charge.

Company ‘L’ made sure the Soldiers were well fed by running the Proving Ground Farm, which was in the middle of the Artillery Range. The mess halls were filled with peaches, tomatoes, sugar corn, potatoes and grain— all harvested from the farm to feed the Soldiers working nonstop for the war effort.

As construction continued, the installation started to feel more like home for the troops who had come from all over the county.

The Post Exchange was opened in January 1918, where Soldiers could go to buy cigars, pies, and even souvenirs, “for the girl back home.” With the addition of three more Exchanges that year, the combined total revenue reached $153,000 (that’s equivalent to more than $2.6 million today). Eighty thousand dollars of that was put back into the post for the purchase of pianos, books, pool tables, sports equipment and instruments.

Soldiers at APG play a game of football in their free time in 1918. Each company formed a team that competed in a sports league on post.

By the summer of 1918, Walker Field, a large athletic field, opened on post as a home for the many sports teams formed by troops. Edgewood Arsenal had a championship baseball team, and sports such as football, boxing, wrestling, and track and field were activities Soldiers could participate in as well.

Far from enough

Although the population of APG continued to grow, the 1,300 enlisted men stationed here by May 1918 were far from enough to complete all of the tasks that remained. More men were desperately needed to fulfill APG’s mission to test and manufacture ordnance in order to equip the Soldiers overseas with the best weapons possible.

There was an extreme shortage of men in the areas of building gun platforms and proof work, leading to constant overtime work at night and weekends. This shortage went on until more men were sent from Camp Dix and Raritan Arsenal in New Jersey and Camp Upton, New York to fill in where needed.

Influenza Epidemic

By September 1918, there were 5,000 enlisted men stationed at APG and 6,000 civilians. While the influx of people was good for the men who had been constantly working long hours and needed relief, it wasn’t for the Influenza epidemic that had been raging on the base since January.

New recruits were put into quarantine on arrival to APG and Edgewood due to the epidemic that also ravaged nearby Baltimore City, the newly established Fort Meade, and the entire country. The post hospital on the arsenal was, at one time, packed so full patients had to be placed on cots in hallways. The epidemic eventually broke in November 1918, but by that time many Soldiers, civilians, and even Army Corps Nurses had succumbed to the disease.

Even with tough conditions and setbacks, the building of APG from a quiet countryside on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay to the world’s largest proving ground at the time is nothing short of impressive. In a little over a year, 500 buildings were erected, ten miles of concrete road were laid, 30 miles of railroad were in use, 300,000 square feet of concrete gun platforms were in use, and 70,768 rounds had been tested.

Though the Soldiers and civilians stationed at APG were not on the front lines of World War I, there is no doubt they buckled down and did their part for the country during the war.

Story by Lauren Finnegan, APG News