Army Recruited from Idle Men (Jul, 1934)

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Army Recruited from Idle Men

WARS AGAINST FIRE and FLOOD By Robert E. Martin

A YEAR ago the Government, with incredible swiftness, created the Civilian Conservation Corps. Two ends were sought in its creation. It was designed first of all to take out of the ranks of the unemployed 300,000 young, single men with dependent relatives. Of equal importance was the intention to use the labor of these men in conserving the vast timber and soil resources of the country.

The call for men was sounded in early April. Work in the woods and a living for themselves and dependents were offered in addition to $30 a month, of which $25 was to go to the dependents. Eagerly young men in the cities, discouraged by fruitless job-hunting responded. The mention of woods, with its suggestion of adventure, captured their imagination, and in their eagerness, they overwhelmed the employment offices. On April 17, 1933, less than three weeks after the CCC had been authorized, the first camp was established in George Washington National Forest near Luray, Va. Eight weeks more and camps had sprung up in the California mountains, in the arid basin of Death Valley, on the floor of Grand Canyon, and in the forests of almost every state. There were 1,330 of the camps and in them 275,000 men were assembled.

These recruits were doing what Americans before them had often done. In a time of economic stress, they were striking out into the wilderness.

The CCC workers, however, were not brawny pioneers. Few of them had ever seen a big woods before. They were just young men out of jobs, a crowd such as one might find any summer afternoon in the bleachers of a ball park.

At first the life did not seem as wild and woolly as the men had pictured it. They found comfortable tents or bunk houses in the camps, clean beds and uniforms and abundant food. And they found camp commanders who insisted upon discipline.

Discipline was in the hands of Army men but it was discovered quickly that the job of whipping the recruits into condition for work in the woods could not be done by Army methods. These men had been too long out of jobs. Some of them would have none of discipline; they simply deserted. So methods were adjusted to the situation. Discipline became lenient enough to maintain morale but strict enough to be effective in its control of the men.

During July, the number of men in camps was increased by 25,000 war veterans and work was ready to begin in earnest.

The program was both huge and varied for an army of untried woodsmen. The men were to replant forests that had been cut over or burned and to check the rapid washing away of soil in areas where the threat of erosion was greatest. They were to suppress the blister rust, a white pine disease which menaced all of the country’s white pine forests. The possibility of forest fires was to be reduced and the task of fighting them simplified. The men were to exterminate harmful rodents and insects and were to stand ready for scores of jobs of less economic importance.

The conservation work was directed by expert foresters and the men, glad to be relieved of the rigorous preliminary training, turned to it with a will.

Work was limited to forty hours a week, leaving abundant time for relaxation and sports.

But for a good part of every week day the CCC men toiled doggedly in the forests, on canyon floors, and out in open fields under the blistering sun.

In the woods, they sweated with ax and saw to remove the fire hazards of fallen trees and underbrush. They cleared wide tracts of dead timber and brush, making fire breaks to check the spread of possible future flames.

In their creation of fire prevention facilities, they shinned up trees with the aid of climbing spurs to string miles of telephone lines to lookout towers. They turned carpenters to build the towers and roadmakers to grade and clear forest trails so that fire apparatus might be got through with the least possible delay.

Battling gypsy moths and other insects, they trudged over wide areas with spraying equipment and fired insect-infested trees. They set traps for rodents and destroyed millions of gooseberry and currant bushes which fall prey to the white pine blister rust and communicate the disease. And during exciting interludes they fought forest fires.

In some camps, the work was of different character. In wild life sanctuaries harmful rodents were destroyed, on historic battlefields redoubts and earthworks were restored to a semblance of their original appearance, and in national parks and other spots of beauty and interest tourist camps were laid out and cleared.

Death Valley, California, for example, was made more endurable for tourists. CCC men developed three good water holes and a spring and laid water lines to a 20,000 gallon reservoir which they erected. They graded miles of automobile roads and trails and leveled an eight-acre site for camping.

Such toil was exhausting in the beginning and many among the recruits tired of it and went home. But the majority stayed on and, as muscles hardened, they came to enjoy the work. They could labor all day and still be fresh enough to plunge into recreational activities and to do all manner of odd jobs to make themselves more comfortable in the quarters assigned them.

For amusement, they boxed and wrestled in rings built by themselves and swam in swimming holes dug and cleared at attractive spots on convenient streams. They read and studied in the night schools which were organized to teach a wide variety of subjects. Amateur theatricals caught their fancy and flourished.

Diversion was sometimes supplied in unexpected ways, such as by the discovery of gold in a California camp. Gravel for the camp streets had been brought from two abandoned gold mines. Two of the men kicked up nuggets and precipitated a. furious rush to pan the streets.

In some western camps, the youths dug up the fossil remains of prehistoric animals, leading to organized searches. In a Louisiana pine forest, the presence of savage wild life persuaded the men to turn hunters. They took a wolf, two wild cats, thirty-three rattlesnakes, and countless tarantulas, scorpions, and centipedes.

With all the work and excitement, however, the city-bred men felt the lack of some of the conveniences upon which they had learned to depend. But they did not despair; they contrived substitutes. Ingenious shower baths were soon rigged up with a few lengths of pipe and the water for the showers was warmed in heaters improvised from discarded oil drums.

The same ingenuity enabled the men to maintain a supply of fresh food, which the remoteness of most camps made it impossible to furnish except at intervals.

In a New York camp, bread was baked daily in a Dutch oven constructed of two gasoline drums. The end was knocked out of one drum and the two placed in a hole cut into a hillside. The drums were insulated with twelve inches of clay, sand, and broken stone, and a four-inch smoke stack was erected at the buried end of the drums. For baking, a fire was burned (Continued on page 109) in the oven for two hours and then drawn. Bread dough, on large pans, was then inserted.

Food was kept fresh during warm weather, in some camps, by building half-buried, screened houses in shady spots.

At every camp, garbage disposal was a perplexing problem but solutions were found. One camp commander bought ten young pigs and built pens for them a mile from the camp. Men were detailed to carry the garbage to the pigs but the men found no cause for complaint. In due course they were rewarded with a welcome supply of fresh pork. At another camp, an ingenious incinerator overcame the problem. Pits were dug and fires built. Over half of the fires, rocks were placed and garbage was eliminated by throwing it upon the hot rocks.

Thus working and playing and learning to do for themselves, the men passed the first summer. They had worked hard but the sun had tanned them and the toil had hardened them. Most of them gained weight.

WHEN first enlistments began to expire in October, many recruits chose to leave rather than tackle a winter in the open. But the majority stayed on and prepared to make themselves comfortable. For them the summer had been one of enjoyment alloyed only slightly with labor. For the men who had conceived and directed the project, the summer had been one of gratifying accomplishments.

The men in the CCC had strung enough telephone line to cross the continent three times and had built 3,266 lookout towers, nearly enough to supply one to each county in the United States. Almost 10,000 erosion dams had been built and enough forest trails had been constructed to reach half way around the world. White pine blister rust had been fought over an area three times the size of Rhode Island. Rodent control work had extended to more acres than are contained in Connecticut. Insect elimination had covered an area greater than that of Delaware. In addition, fire hazards had been removed from thousands of acres, airplane landing fields had been leveled, and a great amount of flood control work accomplished. Winter compelled a slacking off in effort but the time was enlivened by stray bits of emergency work. Most unusual of rush jobs was that of saving the fish in Silver Lake, Iowa, one of that state’s prized fishing spots. Snow blanketed the lake so deeply it was feared the fish would suffocate. CCC men worked three days chopping channels in the ice, churning the water with outboard motors and pumping it high in the air so that it might absorb sufficient oxygen to support marine life. The job saved Iowa the $1,000,000 it would have cost to restock the lake.

SUCH ready calculation of the value of the first year’s work of the CCC has not been possible in every instance, but those directing the work consider that the main objectives have been attained. Forest fire losses for the year have been seventeen percent less than the average for the previous five years. The 600,000 men who have passed through the camps have been given work for their bodies and stimulation for their minds and their dependents have been removed from the rolls of charitable organizations. The value of conservation work is incalculable but it is estimated that it has been the equivalent of ten years of ordinary effort.

There is much work still to be done this summer but the men now in camp welcome it. There’s a lot of fun to be had in doing it.

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