Camp Polk: Tanks Come to Raleigh

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A British Mark V tank at Camp Polk, across Hillsborough Street from the NC State campus during World War I (photo from the 1919 Agromeck)A British Mark V tank at Camp Polk, across Hillsborough Street from the NC State campus during World War I (photo from the 1919 Agromeck)

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of U.S. participation in World War I, Special Collections continues its examination of the impact that the war had on the NC State students, faculty, and campus.  The post below focuses on Camp Polk near the NC State campus.

Introduction

During the summer of 1918, large numbers of Americans first saw combat in Europe during World War I.  Back in the United States, the U.S. army established military training camps to prepare troops for battle.  Raleigh leaders wanted a camp, and on August 1 the city’s Chamber of Commerce traveled to Washington, DC, to secure a tank training facility that became known as Camp Polk (named after Revolutionary War hero William Polk).  This is the story of Camp Polk’s brief existence and its connection to NC State University.

Camp Polk really encompassed a number of different facilities.  There was the temporary tank camp located in the fairgrounds (which in 1918 was across Hillsborough St. from NC State in the Fairmont neighborhood).  A few miles to the west, the permanent tank camp covered 22,000 acres “ . . . encompassed [by] the area approximately within the present boundaries of Hillsborough Street to the south, Glenwood Avenue to the north, the Raleigh Beltline [I-440] to the east, and just west of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport to the west.”  Buildings at the permanent camp were to be erected at sites now occupied by the State Fairgrounds and NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. About 1 mile north of there was a labor camp for white construction workers. In Raleigh’s Method neighborhood, another labor camp may have existed for African American construction workers.[1]

View of temporary camp at Camp Polk.  This view is probably from Patterson Hall on the NC State campus.  (photo from 1919 Agromeck)

Construction of the Camps

Survey work on the permanent camp site began around 16 August 1918, and construction was expected to take several months.  The army wanted to begin tank training immediately, so it contracted with the directors of the North Carolina State Fair to use the fairgrounds as a temporary camp.  The army hired Scofield Engineering Company of Philadelphia to conduct “survey work . . . for the location of water lines, electrical lines, buildings and tent sites,” and work commenced at the temporary tank camp around September 4.  Originally the temporary camp was planned for 1500 soldiers, but this number kept increasing throughout the fall as it became clear the permanent camp would not be ready by winter. At the temporary camp, “workers hastily erected row upon row of temporary tents, with tarpapered wooden sides, each heated and electrically lighted and equipped with its own kitchen,” and latrines were dug.   The fairgrounds grandstand became a garage for the tanks.

Raleigh’s infrastructure was insufficient to handle the new camp, and modifications began immediately.  Low water pressure at the fairgrounds necessitated installation of two booster pumps in Tompkins Hall on the NC State campus. An even greater water supply was needed for the thousands of soldiers coming to the permanent camp. The city's water source at that time was Lake Raleigh (now on NC State’s Centennial Campus), and plans were implemented to raise the dam there by 8 feet and extend new pipelines out to permanent camp.[2]

Proposed plan for permanent camp at Camp Polk, Oct. 1918

The army’s Quartermaster Corps and Scofield Engineering moved into NC State’s Winston Hall, taking over space previously occupied by the electrical and civil engineering departments.  With the semester in full swing by that time, conditions were described as “congested.” Dept. of Civil Engineering head C. L. Mann assisted Scofield in compiling maps from deed descriptions for 7000 acres of the land designated for the permanent camp, and other faculty members may have also been involved.  Several NC State alumni participated in the camp’s construction, including J. P. Rose and G. R. Rose (both Class of 1906), who were “architects” on the project, and Scofield employees Wilmer Betts (Class of 1917), Victor Winfred Breeze (Class of 1914), Leland Miot Craig (Class of 1914), Claude Milton Lambe (Class of 1908), and P. D. Davis (Class of 1913).[3]

During October, construction work progressed at both the permanent and temporary camps.  “Grading and building is going forward as fast as men and material can be obtained,” reported the Raleigh News and Observer.  At the permanent camp, “big crawlers” knocked down trees and workers constructed “an immense tower, to be used for guard purposes.”[4]

The "Tankers"

The U.S. army planned Camp Polk as its principal tank training facility.  Soldiers sent there were considered a select group, men who were “. . . physically and mentally fit, from all sections of the Union.”  Newspapers described them as “real men” and those “. . . who want active service will get it in the tank corps,” its slogan being “treat ‘em rough.”  These men weren’t common soldiers but rather “ . . . the pick of the army . . .,” and many would be skilled mechanics. Reflecting the racism of the time, the army only trained white men on the tanks.  Early estimates called for 9000 to be stationed at Camp Polk, but just as at the temporary camp, that number also grew during the fall of 1918.

Soldiers on Hillsborough St. in front of Patterson Hall (photo from 1919 Agromeck)

In September the existing tank training schools in Pennsylvania began to transfer men to the Raleigh camp, and soldiers from infantry, artillery and machine gun camps in other parts of the country moved to Camp Polk as soon as facilities could be constructed.  A recruiting office was established at the temporary camp specifically to enlist men in the tank corp, and many in- and out-of-state enlistees joined the army that way. By October 2 five tanks had arrived and actual tank training commenced. Equipment included “ . . . Ft-17 light tanks imported from France and Mark V heavy tanks imported from Great Britain.”[5]

By late October, Camp Polk’s population was increasing by 25-100 soldiers daily, and approximately 5000 total arrived during the camp’s existence.  The local newspapers called them “tankers,” praised them as better than average army recruits, and even described them as “husky men.” A few were even housed across the street at NC State, and at least one NC State alumnus was stationed at the camp (Noah Burfoot, Jr., Class of 1917), but there were probably more.[6]

Tank Corps mascot and slogan with NC State logo (from the 1919 Agromeck)

Entertainment

Shortly after the first soldiers arrived, their presence was noticed in Raleigh.  The News and Observer noted on September 12 that “seventy-five per cent of the ‘treat-‘em-rough’ soldiers came down town last night and for a brief season during the evening lent comparative gayety [sic] to the business district,” going on to say that “ten of the ‘tankers’ made up a dinner party at the Yarborough [hotel] . . . afterwards staging a concert in the dining room for the hotel patrons.”  Soldiers typically “ . . . confined their fun-making to the motion picture houses, hotels, dining rooms and cafes.” The paper made a special point showing the soldiers’ good behavior, stating that the military police who patrolled downtown “ . . . had nothing to do.”

Other reports presented the soldiers as wholesome, even good Christians:   “many of them are employing their evenings at the Central Y.M.C.A., while good numbers of them are spending their time off at the Christ Church and Good Shepherd rest rooms.”  By late October the YMCA established a branch at the temporary camp, and a voluntary organization called the War Camp Community Service worked with local religious, civic, and fraternal groups to provide entertainment for the troops.  Some of the soldiers even formed a basketball team, which played NC State in January 1919 (NC State won).[7]

Another view of the temporary camp at Camp Polk.  The military tents in the lower left were on the NC State campus. (photo from the 1919 Agromeck)

Labor Shortages

In addition to the soldiers descending upon Raleigh, a number of workers came too because of a shortage of local labor.  Nevertheless, construction of the permanent camp progressed slowly because the project never had more than 40% of what was needed for common labor and 60% for skilled labor.  Some Raleigh residents opened their homes so outside workers had places to stay. Because the permanent camp would have been considered out in the country at that time, the army used automobiles to shuttle “. . . engineers and civilian employees to get back and forth from their homes to their work,” and a train ran daily from the Raleigh station to Method, carrying approximately 100 men.  Some white workers were also housed in a civilian camp set up a mile north of the permanent camp. That fall the labor shortage was exacerbated by the influenza pandemic that hit Raleigh, making it “ . . . very difficult to secure and keep labor.”[8]

The Camp Polk construction also impacted NC State’s ability to maintain its physical plant.  President W. C. Riddick complained of problems “ . . . securing engineers, plumbers, carpenters, firemen, janitors and other laborers.”  He told the Board of Trustees that “it was almost impossible to secure competent men for these positions, and when hired at all, prices had to be paid which were out of all proportion with previous wages.”  The shortage caused the college to postpone new boilers for the steam plant, and during this time the campus grounds were “ . . . somewhat unkempt in appearance.”[9]

Demonstration of French FT-17 tank at Camp Polk (photo from 1919 Agromeck)

African Americans

African Americans provided a great deal of the civilian and military labor at Camp Polk, and they experienced segregation and discrimination from both the community and the army.  A battalion of black “stevedores,” after first receiving training in Charlotte, came to Raleigh to clear camp sites and perform other construction work, but not for tank training. Some were housed in or near Method, a historically black community within walking distance of the permanent camp site, but not in the temporary camp.  The racist attitudes of the army and local construction contractors prevented African Americans from serving as anything other than “common labor.” There were tensions between local civilian workers and the army quartermaster, who labeled them as “ignorant negroes” and said the local workforce “was only fair in quality . . . .” [10]

After the Armistice

On 11 November 1918, within hours of the signing of the Armistice that ended the fighting in World War I, everything changed at Camp Polk – the army sent orders to close it down.  The recruiting station began turning men away. Supply orders were cancelled, but not before several were already on their way. Within a few weeks approximately 200 railroad cars of lumber and other materials had accumulated, “which it was impossible to unload on account of the labor shortage.”  The workforce had dwindled fast, and only 30 civilian laborers remained to unload the cars. Eventually 500 soldiers were ordered to assist them.

Very little of the permanent camp had been completed by the Armistice, with only one office building finished and the streets partially graded.  The army quartermaster staff moved into the building by November 20, but then they moved to downtown Raleigh in January 1919, after which the building was demolished. The work on the Lake Raleigh dam and the city’s water pipelines was also abandoned.[11]

View of the incomplete permanent camp, Dec. 1918, showing large amount of building supplies (Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina)

In early December 1918, 3800 of the 4000 troops (all or mostly white) at Camp Polk were transferred to Camp Greene in Charlotte, NC.  Half of the African American battalion moved into the temporary camp, taking tents near the fairground’s grandstand. Conditions for these soldiers was even more primitive than they had been for the white soldiers.  The bathrooms in the temporary camp were reserved for whites, and the army had trouble locating facilities for the African Americans in the local community.[12]

It was around this time that the YMCA branch within the camp became fully operational in the fairground’s Floral Hall.  It probably admitted only whites, who entered to listen to “victrolas” [early phonograph players], watch movies, and play the piano, among other amusements.  On Sundays, religious services were held there.[13]

Tank demonstration at Camp Polk (photo from the 1919 Agromeck)

On December 9, the army allowed the general public to inspect the “armored terrors,” (i.e., the tanks) up close for the first time.  The News and Observer indicated that “many Raleigh people have seen them from a distance but until the close of the war a real inspection was impossible.”  In January 1919, the army demonstrated the tanks “in action” to members of the North Carolina General Assembly.[14]

By February 1919 the army was returning the “ . . . property to its physical condition before it was occupied by troops.”  Buildings, tents, and pipelines were removed. A million board feet of lumber was sent to Fort Bragg or sold as surplus.  In April the last troops finally left.[15]

For a few months, western Raleigh had been a hub of activity as thousands of workers and soldiers, both black and white, descended upon the area.  They constructed the camps, drilled on the fields, practiced with the tanks-- and disrupted town and campus.  Today, nothing remains but a historical marker on Hillsborough Street to hint at the fascinating World War I history that occurred right next to NC State.

Notes

[1]”Completion Report, U. S. Army Tank School, Raleigh, North Carolina,” 28 Feb. 1919, p. 1, Folder 2, Camp Polk Tank School Records, WWI 99, WWI Papers, Military Collection, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, N.C. ; Melton A. McLaurin and Paul Blankinship, The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years, Raleigh, NC, N.C. Office of Archives and History, N.C. Dept. of Cultural Resources: N.C. State Fair Division, Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services, 2003, p. 28.

[2]”Completion Report, U. S. Army Tank School,” pp. 2-4.

[3]C. L. Mann to Scofield Engineering Company, 11 Oct. 1940, Flat Folder 5, Carroll L. Mann, Sr. Maps (MC 00296), Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC; Alumni News (West Raleigh, N.C.), 1 Dec. 1918, pp. 6-7; Alumni News (West Raleigh, N.C.), 1 Nov. 1918, p. 5.

[4]“Tank Training Begins at Camp,” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 3 Oct. 1918, p. 12; “Many Recruits Arriving Here, News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), 22 Oct. 1918, p. 10.

[5]“Raleigh’s Tank Camp Will Be Composed of the Pick of the Army,” Greensboro Daily News, 6 Sept. 1918, pp. 1, 6; “Nine Thousand to Be at Tank Camp, Says Department,” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 12 Sept. 1918, pp. 1-2; “Tobyhanna Outfit Now in Camp Polk,” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 4 Oct. 1918, p. 9; “Tank Training Begins at Camp,” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 3 Oct. 1918, p. 12; McLaurin and Blankinship, The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years, pp. 28.

[6]“Many Recruits Arriving Here, News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 22 Oct. 1918, p. 10; author’s telephone conversation with Paul Blankinship (former historian of the North Carolina State Fair), 25 May 2018; “Additional Service List,” Alumni News (West Raleigh, N.C.), 1 Mar. 1919, p. 8.

[7]“Quarantine Up, ‘Tankers’ Get Out,” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 12 Sept. 1918, p. 2; “Tobyhanna Outfit Now in Camp Polk,” p. 9; “Many Recruits Arriving Here,” p. 10; McLaurin and Blankinship, The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years, pp. 28; “Athletics,” Alumni News (West Raleigh, N.C.), 1 Mar. 1919, p. 3.

[8]”Completion Report, U. S. Army Tank School,” pp. 3, 5, 8-10; McLaurin and Blankinship, The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years, pp. 27-28.

[9]Annual Report of W. C. Riddick to Board of Trustees of the North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering, 27 May 1919, Legalbox 5, Folder 17, North Carolina State University Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes (UA 001.001), Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC.

[10]“Tobyhanna Outfit Now in Camp Polk,” p. 9; “Many Recruits Arriving Here,” p. 10; “Completion Report, U. S. Army Tank School,” 28 Feb. 1919, pp. 4-5.

[11]“Raleigh Stands Little Chance of Keeping Its Camp,” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 16 Nov. 1918, p. 1; “Mystery About Camp Polk”, Winston-Salem Journal, 27 Nov. 1918, p. 1; “Completion Report, U. S. Army Tank School,” pp. 5-6, 9.

[12]“3,800 Camp Polk Men to Go at Once,” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 30 Nov. 1918, p. 10; “Start to Raze Old Camp Polk,” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 8 Dec. 1918, p. 10; “Want Baths for Camp Polk Men,” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 20 Jan. 1919, p. 4.

[13]“Start to Raze Old Camp Polk,” p. 10.

[14]“Public May See Tanks on Monday,” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 8 Dec. 1918, p. 10; “Legislators to Have Chance to View Tanks,” News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 13 Jan. 1919, p. 12.

[15] “Completion Report, U. S. Army Tank School,” p. 9; author’s telephone conversation with Paul Blankinship (former historian of the North Carolina State Fair), 25 May 2018.