The Building of Camp Dodge
History of The Iowa National Guard
CW2 David L. Snook
It was Friday, April 6, 1917. Newspapers around the country trumpeted the news. Congress had just approved President Woodrow Wilson’s request for a declaration of war against Imperial Germany.
Northwest of Des Moines, a small National Guard encampment called Camp Dodge would play a key role in helping to train a rapidly expanding national army for the Great War. Camp Dodge was established in 1909 as a training site for the Iowa Militia. It was named for Major General Grenville M. Dodge of Council Bluffs, Iowa’s most famous Civil War commander. Originally constructed on a 78-acre tract of land, the post had been expanded to 570 acres by 1917. On June 15, 1917, a delegation from the U. S. Army Selection Board chose Camp Dodge as one of sixteen regional training camps for the National Army of the United States. Expanded, through lease options, to 6,400 acres, Camp Dodge provided initial military training to recruits (both volunteers and draftees) from Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota.
From July to November of 1917, construction at Camp Dodge took place at a frenetic pace. Thirty barracks were built, each a two-story building, 140 feet long, 43 feet wide, and able to accommodate 150 men. Each barracks included a mess hall and an assembly hall. Two headquarters buildings, a 3,000-seat auditorium, a base hospital, three fire stations, post offices, libraries, and railroad depots were also constructed. In addition, there were 8 YMCA halls, a YWCA auditorium, a YWCA Hostess House, and centers for such organizations as the Knights of Columbus, the Lutheran Brotherhood, and the Jewish Welfare Service. At peak capacity, Camp Dodge was a self-sufficient community of approximately 40,000 people.
As carpenters and plumbers scurried to meet construction deadlines, the U. S. War Department put together plans to create an army of sixteen divisions, each to be headquartered at one of the newly created cantonment camps. The camps would provide sixteen weeks of intensive training. Divisions would then be shipped to France, depending on the need for replacement and the availability of transportation.
Camp Dodge became the headquarters for the 88th Division, commanded by Major General, Edward Plummer. "Initially, the 88th Division was comprised of 27,000 men from ages 21 to 30, including 8,000 Iowans. The remaining troops came from Minnesota, the Dakotas and central Illinois. War Department statistics later revealed that seventy percent of the recruits had been drafted and that eighteen percent were foreign born, with little understanding of English. (Grover, Timothy, "Camp Dodge," The Iowan, Winter Issue, 1987)
Wilbur Boian, a World War I veteran from Des Moines, remembered the initial physical as not very intensive. According to Boian, the examining officer "looked in my mouth to see if I had teeth and checked to see if I had fallen arches. I don’t recall that he ever checked my heart, but I was in the army then." (Grover) Boian eventually went overseas, where he served as a photographer, bridge engineer, and battlefield observer.
For Boian and his fellow recruits, the first days at camp emphasized physical training, marching drills and the study of the army manual. By November of 1917, specialized training schools had been established at Camp Dodge. In addition to learning how to handle small arms and field artillery, soldiers learned the basics of gas warfare and intelligence techniques.
Soldiers’ leisure time was filled by a variety of recreational activities. Baseball and football were both popular. In November of 1918, a Camp Dodge football team played the University of Iowa Hawkeyes to a scoreless tie in a charity game. Throughout the winter of 1917-1918, boxing techniques were taught by former heavyweight champion, James Corbett. A variety of educational courses and musical activities were also provided.
Social dancing was popular with the troops. "Their partners were provided by the Girls Volunteer Aid, ‘an organization of 2,000 carefully selected young Des Moines women.’ Camp Dances were closely monitored, and city officials posted strict rules at public dance halls. ‘All unnecessary shoulder or body movement shall be forbidden,’ said one. ‘No undue familiarity or suggestive forms of dancing will be tolerated,’ warned another." (Grover)
For a time, it appeared that the 88th Division would serve only as a training division. It is estimated that 80,000 recruits who received their initial training at Camp Dodge were transferred elsewhere for specialized training before ultimately receiving their overseas assignments.
Finally, on July 22, 1918, the War Department ordered the 88th Division activated for combat. An advanced detachment set sail for Liverpool, England, on August 6. A Division Headquarters was established at Semur, Cote d’or, France, on August 20. By early September, the entire 88th Division was finally overseas as an intact unit.
Back home, at Camp Dodge, a newly organized 19th Division continued to train new recruits. The mission of the 19th Division was soon complicated by a different kind of foe – the dreaded Spanish Influenza of 1918. A worldwide epidemic that claimed 20 million victims, the Spanish Influenza reached its peak in the United States in October. At Camp Dodge, more than 10,000 soldiers were hospitalized, and 702 of them died. Miraculously, the emergency ended as quickly as it had begun. By November 1, most of the people in this country who had been stricken and survived had recovered. No new cases were being reported.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the Meuse-Argonne offensive drove the Germans back to their border, and an armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. "The death toll for Iowa in World War I was 3,580 – of these deaths, 1,550 were combat-related; 1,890 were disease-related; and 140 were accident-related." (Grover)
"With the end of the war, the bustling community of Camp Dodge had outlived its purpose. Within a few months after the Armistice was signed, only Iowa National Guard members remained at the camp to utilize the facilities. In May of 1921, the federal government sold much of the camp to the Northwest Lumber and Wrecking Company from Minneapolis. The firm paid $251,000 for approximately 1,200 buildings. Seven miles of hastily constructed barracks fell to the wrecking ball." (Grover)
Since World War I, Camp Dodge has continued to serve as the headquarters for the Iowa National Guard. Currently, Camp Dodge is in the midst of another period of expansion. The 1990s saw the construction of the United States Army’s National Maintenance Training Center, the new, $16 million State Area Command (STARC) Armory complex, a new direct support maintenance company training center, a physical fitness center, a 640-soldier battalion support complex, a new maintenance company armory, a regional equipment paint facility, and a new post exchange.