Hoboken

Book Review – New Jersey and the Great War by Richard J. Connors

Connors, Richard J. New Jersey and the Great War: 1914-1919. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing Co., 2017, Print.

No one questions The Great War’s monumental impact on the world at large. How it affected areas outside the battle zones sometimes gets lost in analyses of the conflict.  Historian Richard J. Connors made a great stride towards rectifying this gap. In New Jersey and the Great War, he showed how the First World War both shaped and became shaped by the Garden State’s contributions. Both an enlightening and engaging read resulted.

The author explained how the expression above the state capital’s railroad bridge, “Trenton makes, the world takes”, applied to the entire state beginning in 1914. (Page 6) New Jersey served as a source of munitions, shipbuilding and aircraft. “Just as the Du Ponts had come to dominate explosives, John D. Rockefeller dominated oil.” (Page 23)

To my surprise, the city of Hoboken played a much unheralded role in the war. (Pages 37 -39) During America’s neutrality it served as a major location for many of the industries that contributed to the Allied war effort. Following the nation’s entry into the conflict its availability as a major port made it a primary center of embarkation for Europe by American “doughboys.”

While all readers know the dangers of combat, Dr. Connors described how civilians faced comparable risks working in war related industries.

In all its phases, munitions was a dangerous business. Manufacturing powder, loading shells, transporting these to the waterfront, placing munitions onto barges for transfer to ocean going vessels: every step was at high risk…Fires, explosions and related disasters became part of the New Jersey story during the Great War. It was not in a corporation’s interest to publicize these, but news of major tragedies did reach the press. Examples from 1914-17 include and explosion at Du Pont’s Carney’s Point plant in January 1916; disaster at Jersey City’s Black Tom complex in July 1916; the destruction of the Canadian Car and Foundry plant in Lyndhurst in January 1917; a major explosion at Du Pont’s Haskell works that same month. (Page 28)

The Du Pont Haskell facility was a particularly treacherous place to work. The plant experienced twenty-five explosions in 1916. (Page 30) Another tragedy occurred when the T. A. Gillespie facility located in the Morgan section of Sayerville exploded in 1918. Historians estimate that it cost one hundred workers their lives. (Page 35)

Dr. Connors balanced his depictions of weaponry and war materiel with the state’s contributions to preserving life.

During the war years, New Jersey did make significant contributions to the survival of military casualties. One was in the field of quality surgical instruments, a Newark specialty. Another was anesthetic ether, where E. R. Squibb of New Brunswick had been active since the late nineteenth century. Arguably the most important was the work of the Johnson brothers, who headed another New Brunswick firm. Johnson and Johnson (J & J) was a nineteenth century pioneer in sterile surgical dressings, absorbent cotton, and bandages. During the Great War the Allies obtained the bulk of these necessities from the firm. (Page 26)

Of interest to both military and local history buffs, the book contained brief but informative histories of both the 29th and 78th infantry divisions. These units included soldiers from New Jersey. As a South Jersey native, I enjoyed reading about the origins of the latter’s home: a facility built during 1917. At the time known as Camp Dix, the facility still operates today.

Dr. Connors concluded his history by discussing Garden Staters who distinguished themselves in combat far above the call of duty. The first appendix detailed service members who received the Medal of Honor for their valor. The next included biographical paragraphs regarding airmen who received the “ace” designation. (James Pearson, the man believed to have been the last surviving American ace of the war, passed away at the age of 97 in Upper Montclair on January 6, 1993.) New Jersey native and World War I casualty Joyce Kilmer’s “Rouge Boquet” rounded out the final one.

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture Dr. Connors presented concerning this subject. His colorful wit and erudition inspired me. At the conclusion of his remarks, I wanted to learn more about New Jersey and the Great War. I found his book of the same title an extraordinary resource to do so.

 

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