Eisenhower and Camp Colt (7/18)


On July 19, 1917, four weeks after his arrival in France, Maj. Gen. John J. Pershing ordered his staff to study the idea of incorporating into the American Army a terrifying new weapon that could change the course of the war in Europe. America’s allies, Great Britain and France, were already developing this weapon – the tank.

On Sept. 1, Pershing’s staff concluded the tank was “destined to become an important element in this war.” Orders to establish an American training school for tanks in France fell upon Capt. George S. Patton Jr. In December, he wrote to his wife, “I hope I can make a success of this business but starting with nothing is hard. After we get a little nucleus it will go easier. Now I feel hopeless and almost beaten but I will make a go of it”.

Some three months later and 4,000 miles to the west, another captain named Dwight Eisenhower found himself facing the very same circumstances as Patton.

In late March 1918, Eisenhower arrived at Gettysburg to command the first tank training center in the United States, on the old battleground. The site had been an infantry training camp the previous summer. With scores of empty buildings, he was tasked with the basic training of Tank Corps personnel and overseeing their transfer to Europe when called upon.

As with most wars that America fought, the nation was unprepared. Arms and equipment were in short supply. No tank training manuals existed nor the tanks to train with.

Severe weather, discipline, and the Spanish Influenza in the fall created serious challenges. The camp’s population steadily grew from 1109 men at the end of March to 6850 men at its height in July. Nevertheless, through creative training Ike got the job done.

The men were kept busy through participating in service schools, infantry training, athletics, and patriotic community activities. Soldiers appeared in parades, holiday ceremonies, band concerts and local fairs throughout the area to keep up their morale and that of the local citizenry.

During the nine months of the camp’s existence, strong bonds and lasting memories were formed between the Tankers and Adams County, especially during dark days of the influenza epidemic.

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of Camp Colt as part of the World War I Centennial. Please join retired National Park Service employee Paul M. Shevchuk as he takes members of the Cumberland Township Historical Society on a tour of the camp. Historical photographs from 1917 and 1918 will be used to give you a “then and now” perspective of the camp’s facilities and appearance. The tour will begin at 6 p.m. on Aug. 13 and take 90 minutes. The rain date is Aug. 20. Please meet in the grassy field at the corner of Johns Avenue and Long Lane and dress accordingly. Bring water and insect repellent. Parking for the event will be along the west side of Johns Avenue behind General Pickett’s Buffet.

Paul Shevchuk is a retired National Park Service employee and associated with the Cumberland Township Historical Society.