Gregory McKee

Wed, 09/05/2018 - 11:25

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of America’s involvement in ending World War I in November of 1918. Many in Greenville are not aware of the role that the 35,000 soldiers trained at Greenville’s Camp Sevier played in piercing the Hindenberg Line in September of 1918. The 30th Division (nicknamed the Old Hickory Division) played a critical and sacrificial role in ending the conflict in France.

We might be even more surprising is the important role of the YMCA in supporting the US war effort at training camps such as Greenville’s Camp Sevier, and at 30 other training locations throughout the United States. As a retired YMCA staff member, I felt it important to share the story of the YMCA role in World War I.

The echoes of Woodrow Wilson’s speech declaring war on Germany on April7, 1917, had scarcely ended when John Mott, the iconic Director of the YMCA of the USA, wired Wilson pledging total support of the YMCA for the American War effort. This was followed up four days later with a meeting outlining the resources and manpower the YMCA would provide. As the book "War Work of American YMCA" (Association Press, 1921) stated. "Its desire was to perform every duty within its power — and it was willing to carry as heavy a part of the burden as its resources would allow.” In today’s terms, the YMCA was “All In.”

How did this effort translate to the city of Greenville? First of all, the citizens and leaders of the city actively pursued the possibility of a training camp in the city.  William Sirrine, Oscar Mauldin, and Alester Furman offered land for the Camp organizations, and a host of organizations — more than 240 — contributed money, resources, and land for the project. The rallying cry for the effort: “Don’t be a slacker.”

The selection of Greenville as a US Training Camp, turned the area along Rutherford Road into a beehive of activity. Roads were constructed, tent sites cleared, and buildings erected at a whirlwind pace. 30,000 recruits entered the site in early August, entering a Camp that was ready for training.

YMCA Staff at Camp Sevier in 1918The YMCA matched the frenetic pace of construction by building 8 “huts” that served the social, personal, and recreational needs of the soldiers. Each of these YMCAs was staffed by three YMCA professionals for each building. The staff picture is a remarkable photo of the 27full time YMCA professionals at Sevier. In addition, there was a YMCA tent in front of virtually every unit of the 20th division, which was used for meetings, movies, concerts, and other forms of entertainment.

The purpose of the huts was simple: Serve the troops. This included sending civilian clothes back home, providing writing paper and stamps, providing information on a 0hese commissar of matters, and serving as a commissary for snacks and sandwiches. It was at these commissaries that Eugenia Duke sold sandwiches, complete with a family recipe mayonnaise that the soldiers loved. The popularity of the sandwiches transcended the YMCA commissaries, leading to the founding of the Duke Mayonnaise Company in Greenville in the early 1920s.

The YMCA took responsibility for the entertainment and recreation needs of the troops. The Amusement tent in the pictured here show advertisements for Friday and Saturday show. The YMCA also sponsored baseball leagues, with a newspaper — The Camp Trench — that reported news, upcoming events, and ball scores. During Holy Week in March, 2018, YMCA staff conducted the church services for the troops.

YMCA entertainment tent at Camp Sevier in about 1918. The YMCA staff at Sevier received strong support of the local YMCA, who made their facility on Coffee Street available to the troops on time off. They even provided cots for the troops to sleep on while enjoying a break from army training.

YMCA services extended to the 4,000 African American soldiers stationed at Camp Sevier. According to Don Koonce, Director of the Old Hickory Project, commemorating the soldiers stationed at Camp Sevier, there was a YMCA hut for these soldiers, with the same services provided. Not much information exists about these soldiers, but the YMCA was definitely a support to these men. This support was given at a time of strong racial segregation in Greenville, so it must have been a blessing to these national guardsmen. It is interesting to note that the African American unit’s band led the parade to the train station when the Old Hickory division was sent overseas in April 1918. 

 The YMCA effort followed the men overseas to France, providing assistance as necessary. This included providing food service for the troops in many cases. YMCA involvement in the war extended right up to Armistice Day, in November 1918. On Saturday, November 9, 1918, Moina Michael, a YMCA employee working for the YMCA War Secretary’s office, came across the poem, “In Flanders Field”, by the Canadian poet/soldier John McRae. She was so moved by the words that she vowed to make the poppy the symbol of the spirit of the soldiers who died to ensure victory in the War. She spent her remaining years seeking to have the poppy declared as a fitting symbol of the war, which it is today. Moina even wrote a poem responding to McRae’s.

Hopefully, each of us should pause sometime in the next few months to honor those who gave their lives and energy to help the Allies win World War I. As we do, we should remember the Old Hickory division that trained at Camp Sevier in Greenville, and the staff and volunteers of the YMCA who so earnestly supported them.