Thursday, April 6, 2017

Patriotism or Opportunity? Naval Recruits in Newport During the First World War

Naval Training Station Newport was already a busy place when the United States entered the First World War on April 6, 1917. The base operated schools for yeomen, signalmen, hospital corpsmen, commissarymen, musicians, and firemen, as well as a preparatory school for the Naval Academy. On the eve of war, approximately 2,000 recruits lived and trained on Coasters Harbor Island at any given time. That number swelled to over 10,000 following the American declaration of war against Germany. This massive influx of men and women required new housing, training facilities, and infrastructure for the base. Almost overnight, two new training areas named Camp Palmer and Camp Sadler sprang up on Coasters Harbor Island. Tents, temporary barracks, mess halls, and auxiliary buildings filled almost every available piece of open ground. When no more room was left, the Navy bought 161 acres on Coddington Point and began expanding toward Middletown.

The Newport Recruit, vol. 1 no. 4
Box 2, News Collection 9
Naval Historical Collection, U.S. Naval War College

The base newspaper, The Newport Recruit, included an editorial in the April 1917 edition that reflected on the chain of events that had brought the country to the brink of war (it was published one day before the United States entered the conflict), beginning with President Wilson’s decision to maintain U.S. neutrality when fighting first broke out in Europe:

We saw treaties violated, international law defied, and neutral rights utterly disregarded; we saw truth, and justice, and fairplay outraged, we saw blockades instituted that were as illegal as they were indefensible, mines strewn upon the high seas in defiance of every rule of war, submarines let loose to do their will, and all the hideous nightmares of inhumanity which followed when belligerent outvied belligerent in the ghastly work of retaliation.

One month later, the editors commented on the influx of new trainees pouring into Newport. Though the Selective Service Act of 1917 required all men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for military service, the editors noted that the imposition of the draft did not seem to be lowering the quality of recruits who arrived at the Training Station:

We are getting the finest and the best of our young manhood, but we are delighted to find that the people’s representatives have seen fit to recognize the fact that citizenship has its responsibilities as well as its privileges and that the first and most vital of these is the duty of National Defense.

Physical training at Naval Station Newport, c. 1915
Naval War College Museum Collection
It is interesting to contrast their observations with those made just one year earlier. An editorial in the April 1916 edition of The Newport Recruit complained that in the articles submitted to the newspaper for publication, sailors usually mentioned the educational, physical, and financial benefits of joining the Navy as among their reasons for enlisting. Few, however, cited patriotism as a motive. The editors wondered aloud if the young men of that generation were too materialistic to make good sailors.

Now we don’t for one moment suppose that these young men are unpatriotic, but we do believe that material considerations have so weaned them from an unselfish point of view that patriotism instead of being the compelling impulse behind their interest in the Navy, is merely a secondary issue.

They are more concerned with pay, opportunities of advancement, opportunities of travel, opportunities of acquiring a trade, and opportunities of saving money, than they are in the honor of being enrolled as first line defenders of the Flag. All this is so close to the mercenary spirit, and so utterly divorced from the standard of value which was dear to our fathers, that it is time to make a mild protest against it.

They need not have worried. By the end of the First World War, 65,000 sailors had graduated from the training schools in Newport. Many of them went on to serve in the Atlantic Fleet where their duties included convoy protection, anti-submarine patrols, and laying the North Sea mine barrage, a defensive barrier intended to keep German U-boats out of the Atlantic. Their success in carrying out these operations ensured that American troops reached the front in Europe and contributed to the Allied victory in 1918.

Rob Doane

Curator, Naval War College Museum