When Jersey Sent Troops to the Front

Some 570,000 men, Captain Harry S. Truman among them, passed through Camp Merritt before shipping off to fight in the war.

American troops en route to France from Camp Merritt during World War I.
American troops en route to France from Camp Merritt during World War I.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

America’s late entry into World War I turned the tide for the Allies. A military base that popped up 100 years ago on a swath of farm and estate land in eastern Bergen County played a largely forgotten role in that victory.

Camp Merritt, named for Civil War general Wesley Merritt, was the U.S. Army’s largest staging area for soldiers bound for French and Belgian battlefields. Some 570,000 men, Captain Harry S. Truman among them, passed through, staying mere days before riding trains and ferries to Hoboken, where they boarded transport ships. Nearly as many came through on their return from war.

Sprawling over 770 acres in parts of several towns, the embarkation camp was built hurriedly beginning in August 1917. A veritable mini-city, it included 611 barracks, 189 lavatories and 165 kitchens and mess halls. There were officers’ clubs and hospital wards, welfare organizations and post exchanges—even a theater and a library.

After the war’s end, almost everything was dismantled. Fire later claimed some of the remaining buildings. Before long, suburbia spread over the site. Today, a handful of Camp Merritt buildings survive as homes. The most prominent reminder is the 65-foot granite obelisk inside the traffic circle at the Cresskill-Dumont border, a memorial to the 578 soldiers, nurses and civilians who died at the camp, most during the 1918 influenza pandemic. At the monument’s 1924 dedication, General John J. Pershing, commander of the American forces, declared: “Many a day there sailed from here a larger army than the one which followed Washington across New Jersey.”

“Most people who drive around the traffic circle don’t even know what that monument represents,” laments Howard E. Bartholf, a Bergen County-raised Army historian and author of Images of America: Camp Merritt (Arcadia, 2017).

The camp’s centennial will be celebrated in a ceremony at 2 pm October 22 at the monument on Knickerbocker Road at Madison Avenue in Cresskill.

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