Home Business and Labor Camp Edwards, Cape Cod’s World War II City

Camp Edwards, Cape Cod’s World War II City

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One year before Pearl Harbor, many Americans thought the United States would never enter World War II. They might have thought otherwise had they visited Camp Edwards, where workers toiled at a blistering pace to build a city for 36,000 soldiers.

The Army brass, like many others, had been slow to realize war was coming. Or that it would have to shelter and train millions of new soldiers. Only when Hitler’s armies marched into Paris in June of 1940 did the Army put its building program into full gear. It succeeded, in part, because of one man, Brig. Gen. Charles Hartman, and one army camp – Camp Edwards, at the western end of Cape Cod.

Soldiers training at Camp Edwards om 1942.

It had taken three centuries for the Cape to develop into 15 towns with 37,295 people in them. The Army would nearly double its population in 125 days. Contractors would build 1,406 structures, including barracks, mess halls and officers quarters – along with 13 chapels and 217 recreation buildings. Workers at their busiest put up 30 buildings a day.

As one of the first of 159 military installations built for World War II, Camp Edwards was the proving ground for the construction of nearly every other army camp. New construction techniques were developed amid the scrub pine and sand. At Camp Edwards, contractors started using standardized plans, prefabricated units and assembly line construction.

After the war, large developers used the methods adopted at Camp Edwards to build new suburbs. Many G.I.s returning from war would buy a home in a new suburban development built in much the same way their old barracks had been built.

Charles Hartman

In 1941, Sen. Harry Truman led a committee investigating the military’s hasty build-up for the war. He singled out Brig. Gen. Charles Hartman, who had headed the Construction Division of the Quartermaster Corps in the crucial months before the United States entered World War II.

“You seem to have been the only man in the War Department dealing with construction matters that at least contemplated a plan for the future,” Truman said.

Brig. Gen. Charles Hartman

Hartman, a West Point graduate and Harvard MBA, was a colonel in the Quartermaster Corps when he began working on modern designs for military installations. The Army at the time had plans from World War I called the Series 600 cantonment. They included drawings for crude barracks heated with stoves, outbuildings and administrative quarters.

Hartman saw problems. Standard barracks, for example, were designed for 250 men. In a fire, many of them wouldn’t get out. The plans also depended on lengths of lumber no longer available.

Series 700 Cantonment

So he began updating the drawings, called Series 700, in 1934. He had to do it on the side with just a few men.

“But we had no money, and whatever money and men we could devote to the job had to come out of anything we could get — a sideline rather than a fixed job,” he later told Truman’s committee.

In 1938,as Hitler rose to power, money finally became available. So Hartman found a warehouse and filled it with 80 architects and draftsmen. They designed everything an army camp would need, from barracks to bakeries.

Basketball courts at Camp Edwards

They didn’t know why they were doing it. After the senseless carnage of World War I, most Americans wanted to stay out of European wars. Hartman’s boss, Gen. Owen Seaman, wouldn’t approve the plans.

“I don’t think myself or anybody else ever contemplated we would have the army that we have now … Or that we would have a war,” Seaman said in 1941.

The drawings for the 700 series cantonments remained in draft form, unapproved, unused. Hartman then left for California on another assignment.


On Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. President Roosevelt issued an order adding 27,000 men to the army and 100,000 to the National Guard. The War Department didn’t really come up with a plan to put them anywhere, other than in tents on old fairgrounds. Then , the brass figured, they could train in Europe. They didn’t reckon with Hitler.

In April 1940 German troops occupied Denmark and Norway.

In June, France fell. England prepared for an invasion. And America finally began planning for war.

German soldiers march along the Champs Elysees, June 14, 1940

On June 26, 1940, four days after France surrendered, Congress expanded the army again to 375,000 men. In August, it federalized the National Guard. Then in September it created the first peacetime draft by passing the Selective Service Act.

Housing Shortage

Hitler’s occupation of Europe caught the Army flat-footed. Within U.S. borders, the Army only had space for 300,000. Within nine months it would need to shelter and train more than a million soldiers. That number quickly increased – to 2 million — and then, by 1942, 8 million.

Draftees would start showing up in two months, but plans to put them in tents did not fly. The American people had made it clear that their boys needed to be treated well if they were going off to fight a war. Congress had bowed to that public pressure. The Selective Service Act ordered that no soldier could be drafted until the government had provided “such shelter, sanitary facilities, water supplies, heating and lighting arrangements … as may be determined … to be essential to public and personal health.”

A Series 700 barracks at Camp Edwards. 100,000 others were built.

Charles Hartman returned to head the Construction Division in March of 1940 as Seaman’s replacement. He discovered some of the Series 700 plans had been modified and some destroyed. There were no layouts for the hundreds of camps that would soon be built. So he quickly assembled a group of draftsmen to redraw plans for over 300 kinds of buildings.

Meanwhile, he anxiously waited for Congress to appropriate the funds to start building. That didn’t happen until September of 1940.

Alma Mater

In the middle of the war, an Australian newspaper described the “graduates” of Camp Edwards.

“Ack-Ack crews on Guadalcanal, “seahorses” of the Army’s Engineer Amphibian Command in North Africa, submarine-hunting pilots over the North Atlantic and even cooks in Port Ethan Allen, Vt., call Camp Edwards, New England’s largest military establishment, their ‘alma mater’,” the story read.

But in the fall of 1940, Camp Edwards was little more than a rustic National Guard facility called the Massachusetts Military Reservation. It had been chosen because it was flat, well-drained, cheap, near transportation and a population center, and it had a good water supply.

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration had built 63 buildings and two 500-foot grass runways, called Otis Field.

But as Camp Edwards it would need 1,406 structures, including 438 barracks, 184 mess halls, 54 officer quarters, 28 storage buildings and 82 hospital units. They would accommodate 1,674 officers and 30,159 enlisted men, including a medical battalion and a signal battalion.

One feature of Camp Edwards and all the army camps would persist after the war: segregation. The Army built separate accommodations for two quartermaster truck companies of “colored” troops at Camp Edwards.

Building Camp Edwards

On Sept. 12, 1940, three days after federal money became available, construction began. The site hadn’t even been laid out yet, and no one had ever actually used Hartman’s Series 700 designs.

The Army hired the Charles Main architect-engineering firm of Boston and Walsh Construction of New York. Eighty-one field architects worked frantically – laying out corners and staking out footings — to keep one step ahead of the builders.

Series 700 buildings

Another 300 architect-engineers adapted 600 drawings to the site, making as few revisions as possible and then handing them over to Walsh. Then Walsh’s draughtsmen added specifications for things like footings, framing, heating and electrical. Those documents were checked and then sent to Main’s drafting department, which came up with blueprints the construction foremen could use.

The blueprints worked so well that 50 copies were made and sent to the other Army camps under construction.

Concrete Poured

Walsh began pouring concrete on Sept. 18, 1940, six days after signing the contract.

A rail spur was built from Falmouth to bring a staggering amount of building materials: 63 million board feet of lumber, 5 million square feet of fiber board and 26,000 kegs of nails.

The Army’s low wages didn’t attract enough skilled carpenters. By Sept. 28, Walsh had hired 930 carpenters – but needed as many as another 1,500. So the contractor divided up the construction crews into two primary groups. One worked on substructure and one worked on superstructure. Walsh divided those groups into 30 subgroups, each headed by a superintendent. Those subgroups were further divided into 15-man work crews, each with its own motor pool and timekeeper. Every crew did one thing – pouring foundations or framing the deck or framing the walls and so forth. Prefabricated doors and windows arrived by train.

Peacetime Army

On Nov. 15, 1940, a wire service reported more than 12,000 workers were putting Camp Edwards in shape for the new peacetime army. Thousands more would join. To manage that enormous workforce required another innovation: a central office handled payroll. Armored cars drove to the construction sites to distribute paychecks. At peak construction, armored cars delivered 18,593 paychecks.

Nearly a year before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the 68th Coastal Artillery arrived at Camp Edwards. Then on Dec. 19, 1940, the first batch of draftees arrived. In January came the Yankee Division of the Massachusetts National Guard.

Construction continued after the soldiers came. Contractors poured concrete for the runway in 1942 and built facilities for the Army Air Corps.

Amphibious Training

Camp Edwards added an Amphibian Training Center after the military drew up plans to invade North Africa in December 1942. Army contractors then built satellite camps for training amphibious assault units along the Cape’s beaches. In the summer of 1942, soldiers practiced invading Wellfleet, Cotuit, Osterville, Martha’s Vineyard and Washburn Island in Falmouth. They also tested the first seasickness pill.

American troops launching an amphibious assault on North Africa.

With the invasion of Africa came German and Italian prisoners. To house them, the Army built a camp for 2,000 POWs at the southern end of the runway. Soon members of Rommel’s Afrika Korps went to work harvesting cranberries, building Sandwich Road in Bourne and cleaning up trees blown down by the hurricane of 1944.

There was still more building to be done. The Army built a convalescent hospital at Camp Edwards for wounded soldiers. Some 2,500 nurses who had joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps trained there.

To train soldiers for urban combat during the invasion of Europe, the Army built a mock German village within Camp Edwards. Called Deutschedorf, three main streets were lined with Gestapo headquarters, a beer garden, a restaurant, houses and shops. Most had only three sides, with details like flowerboxes and birdhouses to add authenticity.

And still there was more. Camp Edwards built a processing center for soldiers that had gone AWOL. Then it built a processing center for soldiers returning from war. By 1944, Camp Edwards had capacity for 1,945 officers and 34,108 enlisted personnel.

Influence of Camp Edwards

In the late 1980s, the Department of Defense and the National Park Service undertook a history of the U.S. Army’s mobilization effort during World War II.

In a case study of Camp Edwards, author Keith Landreth called it one of the most well-organized and resourceful programs of the mobilization effort.

“Innovative techniques … were all developed at Camp Edwards and all served to enhance and facilitate efficiency and speed in construction,” he wrote.

Authors of the overall study concluded that the Army’s camp structures represented a building technology that would soon sweep the country.

Aerial view of Levittown, Pa., in 1959.

“In the push for speed in the mobilization construction a variety of construction techniques were developed that would soon have mass application,” they wrote.

“From a moribund depression-era construction industry rose a national effort that not only met the demands of the war, but changed forever many design and construction practices and techniques,” the authors wrote. “The effect of the mobilization program can still be seen across American, particularly in the construction of residential developments.”


Camp Edwards was designed to be temporary, and much of it is gone now. The Army deactivated it after World War II. It got busy again when the Korean War broke out.

Collapsed buildings at Camp Edwards

The Air Force then took it over and it evolved into Otis Air Force Base. Closed, then reopened, it is now Joint Base Cape Cod. These days it provides training for the Massachusetts Army and Air National Guard and facilities for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Charles Hartman was hospitalized in December 1940 and soon retired from the Army. He died on Feb. 14, 1962. He belongs to the Quartermaster Hall of Fame.

Images: German troops marching in Paris By Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1994-036-09A / CC-BY-SA, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5483600. Photos of Camp Edwards courtesy Library of Congress. This story updated in 2022.


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