Christopher Capozzola on Richard F. Welch. Long Island and World War I. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2018. 144pp. $21.99 paper.
When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Long Island remained a semi-rural agricultural hinterland of New York City, with few signs of a future that included residential suburbs, shopping malls, and industrial infrastructure linked to aviation and national defense. By the time the war ended nineteen months later, there were more potato farms than aircraft factories. But a historical corner had been turned, and Richard F. Welch’s accessible and detailed study, Long Island and World War I, sheds light on this important moment.
Welch, an author, professor, and public historian, curated an exhibition at the Suffolk County Historical Society in 2017 to commemorate the war’s centennial. In this companion volume, Welch draws on local newspapers, photographs, letters, and diaries to tell the local history of a global conflict. America’s first world war brought to the region rapid social and economic mobilization, and revealed fault lines of ethnicity and class in local communities. For Welch, wartime Long Island “provides a case study for exploring the larger American experience during the Great War.”  The war touched every aspect of daily life. Small towns sent young men into the army while women rolled bandages and raised funds for relief. The home front’s presiding spirit was former president Theodore Roosevelt. From his home at Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, Roosevelt loudly demanded military intervention as early as 1914 and launched incessant attacks on his Democratic rival, President Woodrow Wilson. Local elite youth, inspired by TR, volunteered abroad or joined officer training courses in the summers before the war. After 1917, Roosevelt’s four sons all marched off in uniform.
There were antiwar voices: Welch recounts a November 1915 meeting, convened at the now-demolished Garden City Hotel, that established the American branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). During the war, the F.O.R. was a small and beleaguered group of pacifists, but in later decades it catalyzed the civil rights movement. Louder voices of dissent came from suffragist women who used their wartime volunteerism to advocate for the right to vote. New York State extended the ballot to women in November 1917; a Huntington newspaper observed that “[t]his war has emphasized the fact that women are just as patriotic … and are making just as great sacrifices as men for the welfare of the nation.”  A nationwide constitutional amendment followed in August 1920.
Everywhere they turned, wartime Long Islanders experienced pressure—from government agencies, local newspapers, and even their neighbors—to conserve food and ramp up agricultural production. As harvests of potatoes and corn skyrocketed, the government shipped some to soldiers and sailors in France; most went to feed consumers in the booming metropolis of New York City. Long Island’s growth accelerated during the war—Nassau County’s population doubled between 1910 and 1920—but fears of outsiders and strangers increased, too. While the region did not experience the xenophobia that gripped other parts of the country, isolated incidents documented in this book reveal an undercurrent of violence and suspicion. During the war, the village of Germantown changed its name to Islip Terrace; Sag Harbor residents burned the German Kaiser in effigy in a June 1918 bonfire. Amityville eliminated German teaching from the curriculum and that town’s German-American Alliance closed up shop in March 1918. Nor were Germans the only ones who found themselves under scrutiny: the culture of surveillance reached recreational sailors, small-town barbers, and even overly curious library readers.
The war also planted the seeds of Long Island’s industrial transformation and its ties to national defense. Firms in Port Jefferson and Northport attempted to revive the region’s shipbuilding past, but the whaling days were long over, and a new military technology soon appeared on the horizon. On a grassy plain in Mineola, Hazelhurst Field hosted a training facility for Army Air Service pilots; planes also flew from smaller sites in Wantagh and Commack. More than a million men passed through the region for training at Camp Mills in Mineola or at Camp Upton near Yaphank. Volunteer soldiers of the 15th New York National Guard, informally known as the Harlem Hellfighters, stood guard duty at Camp Upton. Throughout the book, Welch incorporates the history of Long Island’s small but growing African American communities, and documents incidents of racist violence perpetrated against Hempstead residents by soldiers on leave from Camp Mills.
Concentrations of young men led to concerns about alcohol and fraternization with what one YMCA official called “the soda water fountain type of girl.”  A constitutional amendment imposing prohibition was still two years away when the 69th New York Infantry Regiment gathered at the Garden City Hotel in October 1917 for a farewell dinner before shipping out to France, under the tune of “Send Me Away with a Smile.”  Welch traces the military engagements of local soldiers in France, drawing on a previously unpublished diary of August Swenson, a young recruit from Commack. Swenson’s terse diary entries recorded the Americans’ grim fighting all the way until the war’s last day. “Heard during the afternoon,” he wrote on November 11, 1918, “that the Armistice was signed at 11A.M. ending the War.”  Festivities soon followed at home, including an impromptu parade in Huntington and a formal ceremony in Riverhead a few days later. Swenson returned to Commack soon after the war’s end, but not all came home. Theodore Roosevelt’s beloved son Quentin was shot down over France in July 1918. To honor his memory, the air training facility at Hazelhurst was renamed Roosevelt Field.
Decommissioned and now the site of a massive shopping mall, Roosevelt Field is easily the World War I site most familiar to Long Islanders, although most shoppers could not name Quentin Roosevelt or tell his story. A few monuments—many of them documented in Welch’s final chapter and some of them restored during the recent centennial—dot the region’s landscape. In its own way, Long Island and World War I joins the ranks of those memorials. It will endure as an important reference for future readers, and as a tribute to the men and women who lived through that critical moment in national and local history.