BY BILL DEMAREST
When Jerry Donnellan visits the Piermont Pier – jutting about a mile into the Hudson River from Rockland County – there is a special significance for him to the panoramic views that seem to stretch endlessly.
“This is one of the last views of home that thousands of G.I.s had as they went off to fight World War II,” said Donnellan, a Vietnam War veteran who is director of Rockland County’s Veterans Services Agency. “A lot of those G.I.s never came back.”
Donnellan is also curator of the Camp Shanks Museum in Orangeburg, which is dedicated to preserving the memory of the sprawling World War II U.S. Army base that prepared 1.3 million troops for war – including 75 percent of American forces taking part in the D-Day landings at Normandy. Many of those troops shipped out to Europe on boats that docked at the end of the Piermont Pier.
But 70 years after the construction of Camp Shanks, there are few traces of the point of embarkation that came to be known as “Last Stop, USA.” During the war years, the camp housed more than 40,000 troops at a time spread out over more than 2,000 acres where 2,500 buildings were erected. After the war, the camp became “Shanks Village” housing for returning G.I.s and their families who were studying at Columbia University.
A stone monument to Camp Shanks and the troops who shipped out from there is located near the end of the Piermont Pier, with another monument and statue located in Orangeburg. This Fourth of July holiday, however, visitors to the Piermont Pier can see a new monument to Camp Shanks – celebrating the 70th anniversary of the camp’s completion.
“When you think of what they accomplished in such a short amount of time, it’s really incredible,” said Donnellan of the Camp Shanks construction. “In today’s terms, you can’t even get a deck built on your house without it taking forever.”
In September 1942, 130 Orangeburg families learned from the government that their homes and farms would be taken for construction of Camp Shanks and by early 1943 the camp was completed with 1,500 barracks, mess halls, theaters, a hospital and an area that would go on to house German and Italian prisoners of war. At the camp, more than 40,000 soldiers a month were issued their combat gear, underwent final inspections and were then shipped out.
“This was the staging area for D-Day,” said lifelong Blauvelt resident and journalist Arthur Gunther III. “There were a lot of famous people who also came through there, like Helen Hayes (the actress known as the “first lady of the American theater” who lived in Nyack) and Frank Sinatra.”
But Donnellan notes the buildings at Camp Shanks were not meant to last, so there is little trace of the sprawling facility that stretched from Tappan north to Blauvelt, just west of today’s Route 303. In Orangeburg, there remains a patch where the brush has overgrown along the lines of former railroad sidings once used for the camp.
“A lot of people out there don’t know they are walking in the footsteps of a million G.I.s,” Donnellan said as he watched visitors and fishermen enjoying the Piermont Pier on a recent sunny day. “Today, the average age of the World War II vet is 92. So there aren’t that many left who remember what happened right here.”
Donnellan said he thought the 70th anniversary of Camp Shank’s completion was a significant milestone that could be used to bring attention to the impact of the camp and the soldiers who were stationed there. To mark the anniversary, a stone with a bronze plaque has been added to the existing monument park near the end of the Piermont Pier. A ceremony to dedicate the new monument is being planned.
The stone for the monument came from Tilcon New York’s quarry in West Nyack with assistance from Cal Mart Construction and its principal, Carl Wortndyke.
The stone was moved from West Nyack to the Piermont Pier by a crew from the Town of Orangetown Highway Department.
Orangetown’s poet laureate, Rose Marie Raccioppi, wrote a poem that serves as the inscription on the monument’s plaque:
To Honor Those Who Lived a Cause
Flowers and flags in devoted array
A loving tribute in homage this day
To honor those who lived a cause
Hearts and souls in valor known
Battlefields of victory and plight
Through all beheld freedom’s light
Answered they did to liberty’s plea
That freedom be held for a you, a me
Sons and daughters, husbands and wives
Children of purpose have given their lives
The breath of freedom an endowment divine
Bequeathed to life yours, life mine
With valor and sacrifice they gave
And embraced the call yet to be brave
In memorial and reverence gather we
For held be the right that we live free
Memory of each life gone never to fade
Live we life’s blessings for sacrifice made.
Gunther said the camp and its history are important for today’s Rockland County residents and others to know because development of Camp Shanks would set the west-of-Hudson River suburbs on a course that led to large-scale development in the post-war era. However, Gunther notes that because Camps Shanks was hastily developed, it also set in motion decades of problems with overdevelopment, poor drainage and inadequate sewers that persist today.
“I remember playing in Shanks Village when I was a kid,” Gunther said. “Up until 1966 and 1967 you could still see the shacks that were left from Camp Shanks.”
To learn more about Camp Shanks, visit the Camp Shanks World War II Museum on South Greenbush Road in Orangeburg. The museum is open Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m., Memorial Day through Labor Day.