WWI and the Peninsula's Forgotten Contribution to the War Effort

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Soldiers in training at Camp Fremont, a World War I Army cantonment located, in part, on land the U.S. War Department leased from Stanford University. (Courtesy of Bob Swanson)

One hundred years ago today, World War I ended. It was a global war, with profound impacts even for those who didn't participate. But here in California, where we did play a part, the history has faded and there aren't many people left who experienced what happened here during the Great War.

It likely comes as a complete surprise for most Bay Area locals to learn Northern California's U.S. Army training camp was based in what we now know as Menlo Park. It certainly did to this Menlo Park resident, even though I live three blocks away from a park established to memorialize what was called "Camp Fremont."

"That's curious," I thought. "Why is this park here named after the 19th century California explorer John C. Fremont?"

"It gets in the news every once in a while," said Jym Clendenin of the Menlo Park Historical Association, which is hosting an Armistice Celebration Sunday morning in the park. "Somebody’ll be digging in the backyard and find some crazy thing that relates to the camp. In fact, over on Stanford grounds, they found an unexploded artillery piece not too long ago."

Camp Fremont troops engage in mobile artillery practice, near what is now The Dish. The guns are aimed toward Foothills Park and Portola Valley, where 75mm shells were unearthed as recently as November 2010. (Courtesy of the Portola Valley Historical Society)

Rolling Hills Like Those in France

Let's dial the clock back to April of 1917, when the U.S. joined World War I nearly three years after hostilities officially began. At the time, only 2,300 or so people lived in this unincorporated area. The community consisted of a couple hotels, a few bars and other businesses, largely clustered around a Southern Pacific train station.

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Stanford University, then as now, was the primary landowner in the area. When the federal government starting casting about for 32 training camp locations nationwide, the campus put itself forward for duty, and also rent money. Camp Fremont leased 68,000 acres – including 7,000 acres at Stanford – between San Carlos to the north and Los Altos to the south.

Located conveniently near San Francisco, the rolling hills of the Peninsula seemed an excellent choice for artillery practice. Military officials thought the geography was not too different from what the soldiers might encounter in France. The camp was named after John Fremont, (so I wasn't that far off), and construction began in earnest in the fall of 1917. Numerous Stanford students and faculty enlisted.

By January of 1918, more than 28,000 men of the Eighth Division were installed on this sprawling base that also included parts of what now know as Portola Valley. Nick Skrabo, a young boy during World War I, wrote of his memories of that time, vignettes later donated to the town archives:

We had seen great columns of soldiers tramp past our school, four abreast and stretching from Harry Hallett's [846 Portola Road] to W. Jelich's place. There were many horses and mules pulling artillery. They went to the Skyline Road to practice. From there they fired artillery shells to the near top of the Tea Garden Ranch [near Los Trancos Woods] 4 or 5 miles away. Sometimes they had the band with them. As they approached the school, the teacher would dismiss us for a few minutes while they played some army songs.

The Menlo Park Historical Association recently installed signage in Fremont Park to explain the history. This map details how the nucleus of the camp was laid out.
The Menlo Park Historical Association recently installed signage in Fremont Park to explain the history. This map details how the nucleus of the camp was laid out. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

The preeminent history of this period, by all accounts, belongs to local historian Barbara Wilcox. In her book, "World War I Army Training by San Francisco Bay: The Story of Camp Fremont," Wilcox writes community elders were worried about the possibility of thousands of "lusty" young men corrupting local young ladies: "Many Stanford women resented the university's harsh — and, as it turned out, futile — new rules, imposed to keep them away from the soldiers."

For most soldiers, that kind of "action" would have been the extent of their wartime engagement. Given how late the U.S. entered the war — and how far away California was from the front lines in Europe — most of the men trained here never saw combat. The real killer in Menlo Park was the infamous influenza epidemic of 1918, the so-called "Spanish flu," that hit the San Francisco Bay Area in late September.

Over the course of six weeks, 2,418 patients suffering from respiratory diseases were admitted to the base hospital. Hundreds more with relatively mild cases were cared for in camp infirmaries. Of the 408 related cases of pneumonia reported, 147 soldiers died.

From "The Illustration of The Siberian War." This image is titled, "No. 16. The Japanese Army Occupied Vragaeschensk."
From "The Illustration of The Siberian War." This image is titled, "No. 16. The Japanese Army Occupied Vragaeschensk." (Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

The Siberian Sojourn

Camp Fremont did send soldiers abroad to Russia. Roughly 5,000 soldiers were posted in Siberia, following the Bolshevik Revolution.

"One of the original reasons to send U.S. troops was to open another front for the Germans, but the troops arrived and stayed well past the end of World War I," said Andrew Postovoit, who wrote his master's thesis at Stanford about the American soldiers' experience in Russia from 1918-1920.

"The official reason President Woodrow Wilson gave to the troops was to maintain stability by protecting the local railroad," Postovoit said. Given the "Red Scare" at the time, soldiers would have likely also presumed they were there to bolster the armies of the White movement against the Bolshevik Red Army.

Postovoit gives a hat tip to philatelist named Edith Faulstich, who took an interest in this chapter of history and wrote a book, now out of print, called "The Siberian Sojourn."

In truth, the U.S. was more concerned about its ostensible ally Japan than it was about Moscow. Initially, the Imperial Japanese Army planned to send more than 70,000 troops to occupy Siberia, a plan scaled back because of opposition from the United States.

This helps to explain why soldiers were not relieved of their Siberian duties until 1920, long after World War I ended in late 1918.

Little remains besides this pocket park in downtown Menlo Park to remind locals of Camp Fremont, where more than 28,000 U.S. Army soldiers were trained during WWI.
Little remains besides this pocket park in downtown Menlo Park to remind locals of Camp Fremont, where more than 28,000 U.S. Army soldiers were trained during WWI. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

As for Camp Fremont, the buildings were packed up or auctioned off, and by April 1920, only a handful of landmarks remained to remind locals of what happened here during those war years.

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But as Wilcox wrote in an essay for the Stanford Historical Society, "In many ways, Camp Fremont brought the larger world, in all its complexity, to Stanford’s doorstep and augured the university’s growing role in national and global affairs."