In September and October 1917, the place to be on Long Island was Camp Albert Mills, where the 42nd Division—better known as the Rainbow Division—was organizing for war.
The 42nd—which today is a part of the New York Army National Guard—was made up of men from the National Guards of 26 states and the District of Columbia, one of the first true multi-state combat divisions in the Guard.
The goal had been to get as many National Guard soldiers as possible to France as quickly as possible, and to not single out any one state’s National Guard for the honor of being one of the first American Expeditionary Force units to go to France.
The multi-state nature of the division made news in papers across the country and interest in the division was tremendous. Camp Mills, built near Mineola was a tourist attraction.
On Sunday, Sept. 16, the New York Times reported that 60,000 people had visited the division. Many of the visitors were New York City residents there to see members of New York’s 165th Infantry Regiment, better known as the 69th Infantry.
But, according to the Times: “The 165th Infantry Regiment was not the only regiment favored by the throng, and hundreds of motor cars bearing travelers arrived here from points in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and Illinois.”
The New York City residents got to see Mary Gertrude O’Brian of 523 West 151st Street get married to Michael Joseph Mulhern, a member of the regimental band, by Capt. Francis T. Duffy, the regimental chaplain.
On Sept. 22, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker showed up to review the Rainbow Division and more visitors descended on the camp to watch 26,000 of the division’s 27,000 parade by Baker. Thousands of people lined up to see the parade, the Times reported.
The Times noted that the strength of the 42nd Division exceeded by 2,000 men the total number of soldiers in the regular U.S. Army when the Spanish-American War was launched in 1898.
The 42nd Division, like all the American division’s was twice as large as the divisions the French and British armies fielded.
On Oct. 8, another parade, this time past Major Gen. William A. Mann, the division commander, was watched by 75,000 people.
The troops marched far better than they had for the Secretary of War, the New York Times reported. The Times also noted that only the infantry had weapons. The machine gunners, artillerymen and others would get their weapons once they got to France.
The Times also reported that 5,000 automobiles were parked outside the parade grounds.
There were dinners for the troops at night at the houses of the rich, and garden parties and dances. Training was not so bad.
There were so many people descending on Camp Mills each weekend, and so many soldiers in what had been a small town, that New York State took notice of the sudden increase in eating and drinking establishments. The liquor commission, the New York Times noted, was investigating which establishments were licensed to sell alcohol.
There was so much interest in the Rainbow Division, even among its own members, that the division had the 1917 equivalent of the Facebook website, prepared so that the soldiers would know who they were soldiering with.
Lt. Harold Stanley Johnson, a member of the Mississippi National Guard, prepared the division’s roster for printing in early October. Soldiers who wanted to know the address of Major Marion S. Battle, the division’s assistant adjutant—106th East 85th Street, New York City or Bugler Howard Hamilton, Kent, Ohio—could buy a copy of the book.
Thomas R. Marshall, the U.S. vice president, visited. Senators came to visit sons in the division and governors, like South Carolina’s Richard Irving Manning, showed up to visit the contingents from their state.
On Oct. 15, 1917, Manning reviewed the 117th Engineer Regiment, whose 1st Battalion was from his state National Guard.
Three days later the 117th Engineer Regiment was boarding a ship as the 42nd Division headed for France from New York City.
The Regular Army’s 1st Division had arrived in France in June 1917 and the 2nd Division—composed of a brigade of Regular Army soldiers and a brigade of United States Marines—had landed in France in August 1917.
The 42nd Division was not-as had been expected—the first of 17 National Guard divisions to deploy to France. That honor went to the 26th “Yankee” Division composed of National Guard soldiers from New England.
The 42nd Division was the fourth American division to depart for France.
At 2 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 17, 1918, the first contingent of the division, the 117th Trench Mortar Battery from the Maryland National Guard and the second battalion of the 166th Infantry Regiment of the Ohio National Guard left Camp Mills for Hoboken, New Jersey.
That night a six-ship convoy left New York harbor bound for France. The voyage took two weeks.
The ships were blacked out to prevent a German submarine from spotting them, and soldiers were crammed into every corner of the ship. Three days out the S.S. President Grant, carrying the Iowa National Guard’s 168th Infantry Regiment, vanished.
The rumor was the ship had been torpedoed. The reality was more prosaic. The ship had developed engine trouble and gone back to port.
At dusk on Oct. 31, the five ships remaining in the convoy entered the port of St. Nazaire.
New York’s 165th Infantry Regiment would take a more roundabout way in its convoy to France.
The regiment’s 1st battalion took a train to Montreal, Canada the night of Oct. 25, 2017. At Montreal the soldiers boarded the S.S. Tunisian on Oct. 27, which took them to Southampton, England.
The New Yorkers took a train across Britain and then took a ferry across the English Channel to Le Havre, France.
The regiment’s 2nd and 3rd battalions sailed from New York City on Oct. 29 aboard what had once been the German passenger liner “Amerika.” The men passed their time playing cards and singing.
“If there is left in the Atlantic a mermaid who cannot now sing “Over There,” “Goodbye Broadway, Hello France,” “Mother Macree” and “New York Town,” it is not the fault of the 69th New York,” noted Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, a New York Times correspondent and poet who served in the regiment’s intelligence section.
Once in France the division’s soldiers were loaded in French box cars known as “40 and 8s” because they could carry forty men or eight horses, and transported to Vaucouleurs, France.
By December 1917 all the division’s elements were in one place again, including the Iowans who had been on the President Grant, and the division was ready to train for war.
During the World War I centennial period the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs will be issuing a series of history articles based on information provided by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.